10/01/2020 7:35 AM IST | Updated 17/01/2020 1:35 PM IST

JNU VC Got ‘Ex-Army’ Guards; Students Got Deadly Injuries

The attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University students by a masked mob occurred just four months after the administration hired a new security agency.

JNU security guards from Cyclops at the administrative block on campus, three days after the violence. Vice Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar is second from left on the stairs.

NEW DELHI— Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) security expenditure jumped 82% in just one year, but the number of security guards deployed on campus has seen a drastic cut, according to documents reviewed by HuffPost India

Campus security was overhauled four months ago, in September 2019, when a corps of close to 400 security guards with years of experience in JNU was replaced by just 250 former military troopers. The new employees were provided by a private security agency, Cyclops Security And Allied Services Pvt. Ltd, in a tripartite agreement with the Army Welfare Placement Organisation (AWPO) and the JNU administration. 

Under the agreement, Cyclops would handle day-to-day operations, while the AWPO would be “fully responsible for providing security to JNU through its nominated service provider”.

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The results were visible on January 5, when students and teachers on the 1,000-acre campus were left with fewer than 100 security guards for protection as a masked mob armed with iron rods, wooden batons and rocks went on a rampage. A day prior to the violence, the president of Sabarmati Hostel, Monika Bishnoi, had written to the hostel’s Senior Warden, JNU’s Chief Security Officer (CSO) and the Vice Chancellor, pointing out that the hostel did not have a security guard in place. Her letter led to the guard coming back on duty, said Bishnoi, but she added that the next day, when Sabarmati Hostel bore the brunt of the mob’s violence, the guard didn’t do anything to stop them.

Former military officers, who have subsequently served as JNU’s Chief Security Officers, told HuffPost India that Cyclops Security’s actions in the heat of the crisis reflected a lack of understanding and experience in managing campus security. Vice-Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar’s insistence on hiring an entirely new phalanx of ex-servicemen also robbed the campus of hundreds of experienced older guards who had policed JNU mostly without incident for years.

The letter written by Monika Bishnoi, president of Sabarmati Hostel, to the senior warden a day before the attack.

Once the violence broke out on January 5, several students told HuffPost India that as assailants with rods roamed the campus, Cyclops’s security guards were either quietly watching, missing from their posts or unsure what to do. The inaction of the guards, students said, was particularly galling as JNU’s student union has complained several times about Cyclops guards physically attacking students during protests.

“While students were being beaten up in front of them on Saturday (the day before the mob attack), the security guards were just watching. They are more interested in taking photos of protesters and manhandling them rather than maintaining peace,” said Saket Moon, JNUSU vice-president.

At least some of the assailants on January 5, say news reports, belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student affiliate of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—a claim the ABVP denies.

While many on social media have questioned why Cyclops Security did not stop the masked mob, security experts said the more pertinent question was how a group of about 50 people, believed to be mostly outsiders, managed to smuggle in rods and other weapons, and then saunter out of the campus without being caught.

“How did this large group of outsiders enter and leave campus?” asked Manjeet Cheema, a former CSO of JNU, who left the university in 2008. “And if you knew at least by afternoon that there was tension on the campus, why were the gates not closed?”

ALSO READ: ABVP Was Behind Brutal Well-Planned Attack On Students In JNU, Victims Say

The botched security contract has cast fresh doubts over the ability of Vice Chancellor Kumar to run a campus like JNU. While students and teachers say Kumar is rarely accessible, his eagerness to prove his allegiance to the ruling BJP has only served to vitiate the atmosphere on campus. 

Interviews with former chief security officers and current and former political activists show how the replacement of over 400 experienced guards familiar with the university, its students, and the rhythms of its protests and demonstrations, with 250 former soldiers with no understanding of JNU’s campus dynamics, contributed to the rapid escalation of a campus scuffle into a brutal armed assault by goons allegedly loyal to India’s ruling party.

Dipanjan Chakraborty, a former National Security Guard commando and JNU CSO, said hiring ex-servicemen to guard a campus like JNU was not necessarily a good idea.

Chakraborty, a former military officer himself, said, “Often, many former army personnel find it difficult to adjust to civilian life. They come with a lot of extra baggage and their thoughts and behaviour are difficult to remould, unlike someone younger.”

Naveen Yadav, JNU’s current chief security officer, told HuffPost India he was not authorised to speak to the media. HuffPost India has sent a detailed questionnaire to the university’s vice chancellor, rector and public relations officer, AWPO and Cyclops Security, and will update the story when they respond.

MONEY SHARMA via Getty Images
The vandalised entrance of Sabarmati Hostel, JNU, on 6 January, a day after the violence.

Ex-army agencies only

On 2 January 2019, JNU invited expressions of interest from government agencies or societies for providing services by “ex-servicemen security guards” on the campus. The chosen agency, the notice said, “must be capable of deploying at least 400 ex-servicemen” to look after the campus’s security under the overall supervision of the CSO.

Documents obtained under RTI by former JNUSU president N. Sai Balaji and reviewed by HuffPost India show that two agencies—the defence ministry’s Directorate General Resettlement (DGR) and Army Welfare Placement Organisation (AWPO)—were invited to make presentations. 

AWPO was chosen after it said it would take “total responsibility of any lapse in the day to day operations of the deployed staff under the agency during deployment period”. A tripartite agreement was signed between JNU, facilitator AWPO and service provider Cyclops on 7 August 2019. But while the “expression of interest” called for at least 400 guards, the final agreement was for only 250 ex-servicemen for a period of 2 years. 

JNU registrar Pramod Kumar told TheTimes of India that the requirement had been lowered following an efficiency audit. The efficiency argument sounds specious given that in 2017-18, the latest year that JNU has published accounts, security expenditure jumped by 82% to Rs 17.37 crore from Rs 9.52 crore the previous year. 

JNU is yet to publish its accounts for 2018-2019, and has not divulged how much it is paying Cyclops every year. The minimum wages of contract workers listed in the university’s contract with Cyclops state that JNU will pay it between Rs 34,651.60 per month for a skilled security guard to Rs 47,923.54 per month for a highly skilled fire-fighting supervisor. For 250 employees, this would put JNU’s security salary bill between Rs 86.62 lakh and Rs1.19 crore per month.

And JNU VC Kumar’s insistence on hiring ex-servicemen, ostensibly to please his political masters in the BJP, had another drastic effect.

Previously, security companies at JNU came and went, but the guards mostly remained the same as they were simply put on the payroll of the new security contractor, said Gunjan Singh, a lawyer representing the All India General Kamgar Union. According to a petition filed by the union in the Delhi high court against JNU and G4S, “this was done to camouflage the employer-employee relationship” between the guards and JNU and deny them their benefits. 

When Cyclops took over, JNU dismissed hundreds of guards who had been working in the university for years and had institutional memory of the campus’s security architecture. Their replacements had little idea of JNU’s dynamics. This lack of experience meant Cyclops had no idea how to deal with the events of January 5, and no relationships with the students they were supposed to protect.

Once part of the community

Dipanjan Chakraborty proudly says he may be the only non-JNU student part of the university’s Alumni Association. The former NSG trooper, who joined JNU in 1999 as security adviser to the then Vice Chancellor Asis Datta, was hospitalised with serious injuries that same year after he and his team saved a group of Left activists from being attacked by rivals during a general body meeting. 

“While I recuperated in the hospital, students queued up outside the room to meet me. Even the VC had to stand in line when he came to visit,” he laughed over the phone while recalling his long association with JNU.  

When Chakraborty took over, he was already familiar with what he called the “ethos” of the campus, because he had been a regular visitor for years when his now wife was a JNU student.

Chakraborty’s tenure was not without controversy—the university had taken a decision to replace existing guards, who were permanent university employees, with a professional security agency. Chakraborty brought in guards from G4S (until 2019, G4S and SIS handled JNU’s security at different points over the years), but said he made an effort to reach out to the student body to assuage their concerns. 

Most of his work happened at night—he rarely got back to his home on campus before 3am—and included both patrolling the remotest corners with his team and having chai with political activists.

“I got along with everybody, from SFI to AISA to ABVP. There was intense rivalry but rarely any physical altercations,” Chakraborty said. “Instead, they would compete through the volume and intensity of their slogans.”

One of Chakraborty’s challenges was sensitising guards, often from small towns and villages, to the freedom JNU students, especially women, enjoyed.

Chakraborty takes pride in not having allowed the Delhi Police to enter campus to sort out issues—“Then why was I being paid?” he quipped—a claim backed by one of his former team members, who now works for a multinational security company. 

The police, said this person, who managed operations for Chakraborty, could only enter campus for making rounds after getting permission from the VC and CSO, and guards were asked to keep a close eye on them to ensure they stuck to the route.

One of Chakraborty’s challenges was sensitising guards, often from small towns and villages, to the freedom JNU students, especially women, enjoyed.

“You had to convince the guards that they were also part of the JNU community, which included students, teachers and other employees. There was often a culture shock for them, which had to be handled carefully,” he said.

Chakraborty’s tenure was followed by that of Manjeet Cheema—earlier with the Indian Air Force and then G4S—who took on the mantle of the university’s chief security officer in 2004. 

Dhananjay Tripathi, who was JNUSU president in 2006-07, when Cheema was the CSO, said that he and most other political leaders of the time shared an “excellent relationship” with the CSO and all the guards.

“We knew everyone by name, and they used to be a part of the JNU culture. Of course, during protests, they would necessarily have to make sure students didn’t cross some lines, but there was never any pushing or shoving or hostility. In my 10 years of activism, I cannot remember a single instance of guards being physically violent with students,” Tripathi said.    

Rohit, who was JNUSU president twice from 2002-2004, said that when he was a student, they didn’t even have to show their ID card anywhere on campus.

Now an assistant professor at JNU’s Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, he finds it disorienting that even teachers are asked to produce ID cards at times. 

“The guards now don’t have any interest in getting to know students personally. This is, of course, less their fault and more of the current administration and CSO,” he said.

CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images
A February 2016 photo of G4S security guards standing in front of former student activist Umar Khalid (unseen) as other students hold up sheets to shield him at JNU.

The trust factor

For students who joined JNU more recently, there is much less to feel nostalgic about. While JNU has always been a bugbear for any ruling government, the Modi government’s vindictiveness towards one of India’s best universities has been particularly remarkable. Since 2016, both the government and the JNU administration have worked overtime to brand the university’s students as “anti-national” traitors.

“I joined in August 2015, and since 2016, JNU has been under constant attack. While with most older security guards, it was some kind of comfort having them around, the campus doesn’t feel that secure anymore,” said Gayatri Balusha, a political activist who was formerly president of the SFI JNU unit. “Students have lost trust and more than security, it feels like the guards are a policing and controlling force.” 

She added that the hostility doesn’t really come from the new guards themselves—“they are just trying to keep their jobs”—but from the administration. Unlike earlier, the CSO not only makes no effort to develop a rapport with political activists and other students, he is barely visible on the ground.

The timing and circumstances of their appointment is also a factor. Joining at a time when the trust between the students and the administration is at a nadir, the new team has barely had the time or opportunity to befriend the students.

“I don’t think they feel any pain when students are hurt. And as ex-Army people coming to a university which is the rightwing’s favourite punching bag, they also have their own prejudices,” said Balusha.

This story has been updated to correct the date on which a tripartite agreement was signed between JNU, AWPO and Cyclops.