Tiananmen Lite visited Delhi on Sunday night and left a trail of blood at one of India ’s most famous universities amid a growing student protest against moves by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’s Hindu nationalist government’s new citizenship initiatives. Unlike the crackdown in Beijing three decades ago, however, it came without tanks or assault rifles. Instead, the state crackdown on dissenting students in the Indian capital hid itself in the anonymity of masked strangers wielding sticks, rods and sledgehammers. The police did mass in large numbers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, but only to allow the violence to continue for three hours as the 50-odd people with their faces covered went about attacking student activists and vandalising hostels and canteens. Videos doing the rounds on social media show the police escorting the group off the campus, helping them flee undetected. Leftist student leaders and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a Hindu nationalist student organisation affiliated to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blamed each other for the attack. Thirty-four students and teachers were hospitalised. Most of the injured students were from the leftist groups that dominate the university’s student union. Videos showed Aishe Ghosh, president of the university’s student union, profusely bleeding from her head. Teachers and students blamed right-wing groups for orchestrating the violence. Screenshots of WhatsApp messages showing ABVP leaders planning the “operation” have flooded social media. Street lights were turned off to enable them escape, deepening fears of collusion by the local administration. Some of the individual attackers have also been identified as ABVP cadre. Ghosh later told the NDTV channel she had warned police that “unknown people were gathering at the campus” hours before the violence broke out, but they refused to act. Delhi police lawyer Rahul Mehra addressed a tweet to Delhi’s commissioner of police (CP) saying: “I, as Standing Counsel @DelhiPolice, hang my head in shame after witnessing video clips of goons merrily entering JNU campus, creating mayhem & grievously injuring innocent students, damaging public property and then exiting the campus in capital city. Where is our force @CPDelhi?” The vice-chancellor of JNU, Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, appealed to the students to maintain peace. “The top priority of the university is to protect the academic interests of our students,” he said in a statement. But student and teacher groups allege he was part of the conspiracy to attack JNU. Close to the BJP, Jagadesh has had a rocky relationship with the JNU’s faculty and its traditionally left-liberal student community. A united front of leftist student groups won the election for all the top union posts at JNU in September, strengthening leftist activism on the campus. Matters came to a head as students started protesting against a fee increase, with Kumar refusing to back down over the last two months. The ongoing nationwide student protests against the controversial citizenship law have intensified the JNU fee protests. This is one of the most chilling videos you will see. This in a national university in the nation’s capital. https://t.co/ATitmXD8p7 — Vikram Chandra (@vikramchandra) January 5, 2020 In a tweet on the situation, Kumar pinned the blame on the students protesting against the proposed fee increase. “The origin of the present situation in JNU lies in some agitating students turning violent and obstructing the academic activities of a large number of non-protesting students,” he wrote. “The protesting students damaged the communication servers to disrupt the winter semester registration.” The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association wrote an open letter to President Ram Nath Kovind blaming the vice-chancellor for the “orgy of violence” and demanded Kumar’s immediate removal. “It is evident that without the connivance of the administration, the entry into the campus of several of the goons who were not from the campus, and their subsequent exit without being caught, would not have been possible,” the letter read. “The absence of any action for several hours by the security or the police to stop the violence, despite being informed of it, also reveals the complicity of the administration in the violence.” The letter concludes by asking the president: “Can a prestigious university be left in the hands of someone who is capable of descending to the level of a street thug and engineer of this kind of barbarism on the university community?” The Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) called for Kumar’s sacking, saying he “is behaving like a mobster who perpetuates violence in the university he is supposed to administer”. The Federation of Central Universities’ Teachers Associations, too, demanded his removal and condemned “the violence unleashed on the students and teachers of JNU by armed goons, orchestrated by the JNU VC and his henchmen”. Modi’s surgical strike on Muslims puts India at war with itself Political parties traded allegations over the incident. While the opposition parties were unanimous in blaming the BJP, the ruling party blamed them. “We condemn the violence at JNU. This needs to be investigated. The Congress, communists, the Aam Aadmi Party [a local party that governs Delhi but has no control over its police force, which reports to the Modi government] and some elements want to create an environment of violence in universities across the country,” said Prakash Javadekar, a federal minister. “The fascists in control of our nation, are afraid of the voices of our brave students. Today’s violence in JNU is a reflection of that fear,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted. Another party leader Randeep Surjewala called it “state-sponsored terrorism”. The brutal attack on JNU students & teachers by masked thugs, that has left many seriously injured, is shocking. The fascists in control of our nation, are afraid of the voices of our brave students. Today’s violence in JNU is a reflection of that fear. #SOSJNU pic.twitter.com/kruTzbxJFJ — Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) January 5, 2020 Two top BJP ministers, who are former students of the JNU, were less partisan in their immediate comments. While Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar said the violence was “completely against the tradition and culture of the university”, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government, “regardless of what has been said the past few weeks, wants universities to be safe spaces for all students”. This is the second university in Delhi to have witnessed campus violence. Last month, police forced their way into Jamia Millia Islamia university, using batons and tear gas against students protesting against the new citizenship law. India protests: the ‘horrible weapon’ that can break bones and kill The fresh blow to India’s long tradition of democratic dissent comes as Modi struggles to stem the tide of nationwide student protests that have erupted ever since Parliament passed a new citizenship act that privileges non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan in their applications for India citizenship. This is a stark departure from India’s secular constitution that does not discriminate on the basis of religion. The combination of the new law and the government’s plans to start a citizen verification process has triggered anxiety as Muslims who fail to establish their citizenship could be at the risk of being labelled illegal migrants and disenfranchised. A citizen verification process in Assam recently disenfranchised 1.9 million people. Several state governments have said they will not allow the verification process or implement the citizenship law. The ruling party is determined to implement the citizenship law but has been sending mixed messages on citizen verification. Both are among the BJP’s electoral promises mentioned in the party’s manifesto. In a recent rally, Modi said there were no plans for a nationwide verification process but immediately afterwards allocated a huge amount to update a national population register of Indian residents, with new features that effectively make it the first step of the much-feared citizen verification process. Modi also blamed what he called educated Naxals, or Maoist radicals, for fanning the protests. Modi and his party tend to brand liberals as “anti-nationals” and Maoist radicals. A popular tag used by the right-wing for the educated youth who do not subscribe to the BJP’s Hindu-first world view is “urban Naxal”. They are also called the “tukde tukde gang”, or people working to break up India. The idiom used by the party for this group, from Modi downwards, is openly hostile, intimidating and aggressive. The party’s foot soldiers like the ABVP only act on the cue provided by the top leaders. Slogans hurled by BJP workers at JNU students on Sunday included calls for shooting down of the country’s enemies. Modi, who was re-elected last year with a thumping majority, has centralised power to an unprecedented level. Not only does he have complete control over his party and government, the supposedly apolitical bureaucracy and the once-haloed institutions such as the central bank are also seen to be doing the BJP’s bidding. The mainstream media has for most part been emasculated, and even the military and the judiciary have become increasingly compliant. Modi thinks he is Xi Jinping, but protests show India is not China With a weak, fragmented opposition and a government that does not shy away from using the power at its disposal to enforce obedience and eliminate resistance, a climate of fear pervades India today that is more befitting a totalitarian state like China than the world’s biggest democracy. The government has carefully pushed the envelope in fostering this perception of its unbridled power with steps such as the five-month lockdown of Kashmir, unthinkable in a democracy. The citizenship protests by students and rights groups – the kind Modi and his BJP detest as inimical to national interest – are the first organised resistance to mighty Modi, and the BJP has been making menacing noises to crush this resistance, with the usual dog whistles of “anti-nationals” and suchlike. Just last Thursday, Amit Shah, Modi’s protégé and powerful home minister, said in a speech: “It’s time to teach Delhi’s tukde-tukde gang a lesson. People in Delhi should punish them.” How will India’s Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP fare in 2020? It is too early to say if the JNU’s night of shame was planned from the very top or was organised by mid-level ABVP workers looking to score brownie points with the leadership, but it has had the opposite effect. More protests have erupted across the country’s educational institutions in solidarity with the students of the JNU. Protesters started to gather on Sunday night in cities like Kolkata and Mumbai in overnight vigils, spreading to other cities and towns on Monday. Far from intimidating the protesters, it may have galvanised them. But the JNU attack also recharges the BJP’s young base, creating room for more polarisation and clashes in the coming days.