It has become somewhat fashionable to criticise JNU these days, even though it has won the President of India’s award for being the best university more than once in the last five years.
Surely, something good has been happening at JNU.
A Left ‘bastion’
But there is also room for constructive criticism even as we find many reasons to celebrate Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), like most recently, economist Abhijit Banerjee’s Nobel Prize.
A university must project diversity as its core goal – in faculty, students, courses and politics. JNU has been lacking this to a large extent.
During its formative years, faculty appointments at JNU were seemingly made keeping a candidate’s Left-wing leanings in mind, sometimes at the cost of academic standards. However, today there are enough non-Left-oriented faculty at JNU, which dispels the claim that the university is a ‘bastion of the Left’. I must also add here that in academia, leaning towards Left or Right does not necessarily imply academic inferiority. My point is to only espouse the cause of diversity.
JNU has also admitted students mostly at the postgraduate level since it does not offer too many undergraduate programmes. It foments several shortcomings. For one, to a large extent, students prone to Left-wing political orientation have consistently been admitted over the years. This is not by design. Most humanities and social sciences curriculum in universities across India and the world have a Marxist model of interpretation. The model has its merits but it should not be the only lens through which disciplines should be examined. Of course, a significant number of academics in humanities and social sciences streams are also oriented towards the Left. In the long run, this has not served JNU very well.
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Absence of undergrads
One thing that hampers JNU from achieving its full potential is the university’s decision to not have undergraduate courses in several vital streams. I cannot think of any major university in the world that does not have good and robust undergraduate programmes in most disciplines. This is a necessary condition for a university to flourish in the true sense. Some years ago, a distinguished Left-leaning and a very wise historian at JNU admitted to me in private that it was a mistake to not have had undergraduate students at JNU.
A good learning programme works best when it is aimed at a fresh and open mind. When properly stimulated, undergraduate students come up with spontaneous ideas and tend to think out of the box. They are more open to new ideas as well. It is far more difficult to reorient a mind that has already been exposed over years to a set of ideas and thought processes that may not be of a high standard.
A grave miscalculation
Another issue that used to consistently bother me about JNU was the fact that its founding principle and accent was on taking trans-disciplinary approaches to knowledge And yet JNU failed to have mathematicians on its rolls until just a few years ago.
The reason to deny mathematics its place in JNU was always that the university curriculum was inter-disciplinary in nature. If any discipline unabashedly advertises its trans-disciplinary nature, it is mathematics. What were the founders thinking when they ignored mathematics? Did they not pay heed to their celebrated scholar-icon Noam Chomsky, who used mathematics to study linguistics? Or closer home, did not the celebrated historians of ancient India at JNU know that in the times of yore, Pingal (200 BC) pulled deep and profound mathematics out of Sanskrit poetry?
Coming to the matter of student leaders at JNU, who appear to be attracting all kinds of criticism and have even been accused of being anti-national. JNU has had student leaders like D.P. Tripathi and Sitaram Yechury at a time when Arun Jaitley was heading the Delhi University Students’ Union. The three played an important role in Emergency activism. Despite their diametrically opposing ideologies, will they be deemed anti-national for their activism today?
What has happened at JNU during these past few months cannot be ignored. Perhaps, much of it could possibly have been averted with deft handling by the university administration.
My humble advice to the administration and the Narendra Modi government is to look at the student movements that may have emanated from institutions like JNU with an objective viewpoint. Many students from my own university who have no political leanings or ideological biases have also been to JNU campus and other places for protests because their concerns are valid. We must also remember that even those with an ideological leaning are not necessarily in the wrong.
A very wise man – none other than Morarjibhai Desai – once told me in the context of opposition to his government in 1979 that he was happy with criticism – as long as they did not become personal or violent. He had said that criticisms helped keep him and his government alert and prevented mistakes. Of course, his emphasis was on constructive criticism. I hope that JNU students and the university administration shall heed Morarji’s wisdom, as well as the Rig Veda verse: Let noble thoughts come to us from every direction.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.
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