For the first time, I felt like calling myself a JNU-ite.
It was around midnight Sunday. I was standing outside Jawaharlal Nehru University’s main gate. The masked goons had finished their job and had been honourably escorted out. The hecklers and bouncers, who were giving them cover through the evening, had also dispersed. Mission accomplished, street lights had been switched back on. Just when you would expect everyone to retreat into the safety of their homes and hostels, the JNU community marched in a peaceful procession. Teachers came out to stand with their students. They all shouted slogans and sang songs. They opened the university gate. And so, the JNU community reclaimed the space that was desecrated by goons a few hours ago.
I felt so proud. I felt I belonged here. Like never before.
Jhola-carrying, but not a JNU-ite
For a good 37 years, I have resisted calling myself a JNU-ite. Maybe it’s just my nature. I cannot stand clannishness of any kind – caste, community, club, school, village, nation, party, anything. Institutional snobbery by any name – Stephenian, Oxonian or JNUite – puts me off. Since I associated stereotypical JNUites with some of these traits, I kept away from all formal and informal gatherings of JNUites.
This reluctance was informed by some cultural unease as well. Coming from a small town, I could not relate to JNU’s dominant radical culture. It was too anglicised, too deracinated to appeal to my cultural sensibilities. Reading Raag Darbari and Phanishwarnath Renu was a way of getting back at English-spouting revolutionaries. Not smoking, not drinking, not even chai, was my private rebellion against the dominant ways of rebelling at JNU. I would drink a glass of milk and carry some home-made laddoos or gur to make my point.
My intellectual and ideological distance with JNU’s Left must have compounded it. In the early 1980s, the dominant version of Marxism taught at JNU was rather formulaic, mechanical and polemical. Exposure to sophisticated readings of Karl Marx and Marxism by some teachers there only accentuated my distance from the orthodox Left. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I couldn’t possibly romanticise the Soviet Union or applaud the practice of Indian Communists. The theory and practice of Naxalites, the much-reviled and little understood word these days, left me intellectually and morally cold. The Left academic establishment invited the anti-establishment streak inside me.
All this must have fed into my politics at that time. I joined the Samata Yuvjan Sabha in opposition to the dominant Communist student groups at the time – the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and the All India Students Federation (AISF). It was at JNU that I was inspired by Sunil, a few years my senior, to take up politics. That is where I met Kishen Pattnayak, my political guru, Sachchidanand Sinha, an enduring intellectual influence. For me, JNU was not about discovering Marx or Lenin, but about reading deeper into Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia.
Forgive me for this biographical interlude. But I hope now you understand why I flinched at being seen as a JNU-ite. I have kept a beard and often carried a jhola. But I do not see why that must make me a Marxist or support Communist parties or defend all public sector companies.
A detached observer
Over the years, as the Left declined in its academic power and its pockets of political dominance, my opposition to it also declined. Indeed, it would be silly to retain older battle-lines in this new political context of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hegemony. In hindsight, I have come to see the most valuable contribution of the Left to India’s political life: notwithstanding its disdain for ‘bourgeois democracy’ and culture, the Left helped maintain the democratic character of our democracy, and pro-people orientation of our public culture.
Similarly, for all its faults, the Left-wing student politics of JNU has retained the virtue of connecting the Indian youth, many from privileged background, to the realities of the country they live in. JNU as an institution has provided a space for innumerable students from underprivileged background to build not just a successful career but also lead a meaningful life. No wonder this small institution has contributed disproportionately more leaders to India’s political life. You may not be a Marxist – and I have never been one – but you cannot deny the intellectual contribution of the Marxists to understanding our society. It is hard to imagine social science in India without dialogues within and with the Indian left.
I have also come to recognise how much I owe to the opportunity of studying at JNU with great teachers like Sudipta Kaviraj and Rajeev Bhargava, or listening to some of the leading minds of India in the famous late-night debates in the JNU campus or to the democratic space made available to critics like us by the dominant Left student politics. An opportunity to compare it with other institutions in the country and abroad has also made me appreciate what a national asset JNU is and continues to be. Over the years, JNU has changed too. The campus is more diverse in ideological orientation and political shades. Ideas, academics and political organisations other than the Left also flourish there. It is much less anglicised than before.
Although my assessment changed, I continued to be a detached observer. Not a JNU-ite.
The last four years have changed it all. Desperately in need of internal enemies, the Narendra Modi regime has zeroed in on JNU as its prime intellectual target. We have witnessed a multi-pronged attack by the state. When the regime realised that it lacked the intellectual resources to defeat the JNU in a debate, it resorted to defaming and demonising with the help of a pliant media. This was accompanied by a political onslaught on campus politics, followed by a bureaucratic onslaught. The current Vice-Chancellor, M. Jagadesh Kumar, was thrust upon the university to complete the demolition job, of changing the character of JNU forever. The gunda attack under police protection was the final act – the physical attack – in this long process of institutional destruction.
In the face of this relentless onslaught, JNU symbolises whatever this regime does not want or cannot handle. Now, JNU does not stand for any ideological orthodoxy, it stands as a symbol of democratic dissent. It is not Left vs Right anymore. It is simply right vs wrong now. JNU is being targeted because it thinks, because it asks inconvenient questions, because it refuses to become either a kindergarten or a coaching factory, because it dares to be political. This leaves any conscientious citizen with no dignified option but to stand up to this barbarity. If the Modi regime wishes to turn JNU into any other university, the only fitting response is for every university to become another JNU.
I stand as a proud JNUite. So must you, no matter if you didn’t study there.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.