Enraged students. A defensive vice-chancellor. Policemen on campus. No, this is not a scene from the 2016 ‘tukde tukde’ row in Jawaharlal Nehru University that led to the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid over the supposed use of dangerous words like ‘Azadi’. It is from 2019, and JNU has become Bastille again in Narendra Modi’s India.
New India’s war on Left intellectuals refuses to leave the JNU campus in New Delhi.
It doesn’t matter that its alumni include two of the leading lights of this government, Nirmala Sitharaman and S. Jaishankar, CEO of NITI Aayog Amitabh Kant as well as Nobel Prize winner Abhijit Banerjee. Yet, it seems to be on a daily collision course with the government, and increasingly with the aged students and alumni of WhatsApp university.
Demonised by news channel anchors as the font of the tukde tukde gang and idolised by students who would otherwise not have access to such fine education at such a subsidised cost, JNU has emerged as the unofficial Dissent Central—or the hub of anti-nationals and “urban Naxals” who while away their time on “taxpayers’ money”, if you’d rather believe Arnab Goswami. Through its vital—and controversial—students, such as Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, it was perhaps the first institution that questioned the rising nationalist narrative in post-Narendra Modi India.
With sometimes doctored videos and at other times, haranguing monologues, young students have not only been vilified but also imprisoned. Teachers have been made to stick to the letter and spirit of regulations in the name of adhering to discipline, treated like minor government servants, and denied the freedom necessary for intellectual growth.
Brand JNU, which once proudly stood for diversity and democracy, has been unmade, in polarised prime time debates, in toxic tweets, and in casual water-cooler conversations. So much so, says JNU academic Maitrayee Choudhury, who has taught sociology there for 30 years, that when “our students go for job interviews, they are routinely heckled about JNU”.
What makes JNU such a red rag for the ideological bullies? Is it JNU’s supposedly Left-liberal agenda exemplified by academics such as Romila Thapar who has long been a bugbear for the Sangh Parivar and whose biodata the administration recently asked for despite having it on its own website? Is it JNU students’ propensity to vote for Left-liberal union representatives? Or is it that the dominant narrative inside the university campus remains steadfastly at odds with the one outside? Or is it all three?
The Jawaharlal Nehru University Act 1966, which brought JNU into being, has some key terms: national integration; social justice, secularism, democratic way of life; international understanding; and scientific approach to the problems of society. As Choudhury told ThePrint: “A visit to the campus would tell you the story of national integration. First-generation learners from Kalahandi to Delhi’s top-end colleges, to students from the most distant villages of the northeast and Madhya Pradesh, to an astoundingly articulate, visually challenged young girl. These diverse students, with very different backgrounds and ideas, share their everyday lives… in hostels, in classrooms, in dhabas, in seminars.”
“It is an ongoing experience of ‘social justice, secularism, democratic way of life’. For democracy is not an abstract idea. It is about its everyday enactment. It is about learning and unlearning prejudices and opening ourselves to ‘others’. It is about informed argumentation. Being equal citizens of a nation state is to live together and learn from each other,” says Choudhury.
She pointed out the number of “international” students as well as the number of “globally recognised scholars” who teach in different academic institutions within and outside India including Ivy League institutions— “since this regime likes counting”— and whose first tryst with social sciences was at JNU.
Kamal Mitra Chenoy, who taught in JNU between 1990 and 2018 as an associate and then as professor, says the trouble began in right earnest in January 2016 when the new vice-chancellor, Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, took office. Chenoy told ThePrint: “Before 2016, JNU was insulated by V-Cs and administration, who despite their faults, remained committed by and large to a) academic excellence, b) freedom of thought and creativity, even if it was in opposition to prevailing ideas, c) autonomy of choice for students and faculty, within the broad norms of university functioning, d) democratic functioning, where there was established institutional process for discussion and agreement and even disagreement, e) decentralised approach, f) social policy of affirmative action for SC, ST, women, poor, OBC, g) inclusive and transparent functioning, and h) critique and acceptance of values of social and gender equality.” Chenoy came under fire from the Narendra Modi government for calling the 2002 Gujarat riots a “genocide” and the administration “anti-Muslim”.
JNU was created by diplomat G. Parthasarathy who, as the first vice-chancellor, brought in prominent intellectuals and situated them in various schools of learning in JNU. Among the later VCs, K.R. Narayanan followed this practice, before going on to become the President of India.
It was felt that this is how institutions should be built. However, all these practices, says Chenoy, have been replaced by the new V-C and his team. “He has been supported by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and some sections of the Sangh Parivar. So, decision-making is centralised. No elected representative is engaged in conversation with the V-C or is an actual part of the decision-making process. Decisions are imposed.” There is an atmosphere of manufactured PR that shows JNU as a great university, whereas in practice, all its traditions are undermined every day, he said.
These are traditions that have allowed Kanhaiya Kumar, the son of a Begusarai farmer and an anganwadi worker, and Shehla Rashid, the daughter of Kashmiri Muslims, to become young champions of democracy. They have enabled Abhijit Banerjee, the son of two Kolkata economists, to win a Nobel Prize, and a journalist, P. Sainath, to become the faithful chronicler of India’s forgotten farmers. They have produced finance ministers in a state, Thomas Isaac, and at the Centre, Nirmala Sitharaman, and ensured political parties have enough talent to choose from, whether it be Prakash Karat’s CPI(M) or Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj India. Journalist and author Sanjaya Baru told ThePrint that JNU not only taught him critical thinking but also gave him the confidence to think for himself. “It is a great institution that has opened its doors to several generations of less-privileged students,” Baru said.
What sets JNU apart is that a minister’s daughter and a sweeper’s son eat on the same dining table and sit on the same bench, creating equal opportunity. The government’s supporters are suggesting that only students from ‘poor families’ should be allowed to enter JNU. ”They clearly don’t understand how that would mean closing the doors to social mobility for the poor, by closing off socialisation between the rich and the poor,” former JNU student Shehla Rashid told ThePrint. ”The current debate around the hike in hostel fees is not really a debate about the quantum of fee, but about the right to education and whether the poor and the disadvantaged in this country will continue to have it. Some people have suggested that only students below the poverty line should study at JNU – this is an apartheid model similar to that in government-run schools, which are segregated by class,” she said.
More than that, Rashid pointed out, as a woman, even if you’re not from a poor background, but you want to continue your education, your parents may not support it because of negative attitudes toward women’s education. So, the only hope is a public university. Since university rules do not allow students to work outside, they cannot even support themselves. “So, if you look at it from a gendered perspective, it’s not simply about class. It’s also about resisting family pressure,” she added.
These strengths are what JNU’s critics believe have led to the university’s undoing.
Madhu Kishwar did her postgraduation from JNU in the 1970s and was nominated in 2017 to the Academic Council to represent the School of Arts & Aesthetics as an outside expert for two years. She told ThePrint, “The character of JNU changed dramatically after it introduced a very radical policy of reservations that give special weight not just on caste but also backward region and income. This system (of deprivation points introduced) has brought in students from small towns and even educationally impoverished villages of India. The diverse social composition could have been an asset had these students received a good education at school level or if they could study in their mother tongue. But many of them are poorly educated and have very inadequate linguistic skills to handle the courses at JNU.”
Many of them who get entry into JNU despite very low marks, Kishwar pointed out, need extra coaching just so that they can follow what is being taught. “But since ‘freedom’ has come to be interpreted as the freedom to bunk classes, spend night after night doing addabazi at the famous all-night dhabas, engaging in the most immature kind of politics based on worn-out clichés—many of them are unable to cope with their academic pressures.” Also increasingly, she goes on, many in the social sciences get admitted to JNU so that they can prepare for civil services exams through coaching centres. The highly subsidised living makes it attractive for them to prolong their stay for as long as they can. Consequently, classes are not of much importance.
Even today though, Madhu Kishwar concedes, JNU attracts some of the brightest students. “But those who are truly serious about their studies keep a safe distance from politics. JNU politics is not only infantile but also increasingly destructive. It is well-known that JNU has sleeper cells of all kinds of subversive anti-India political outfits. The student groupings are front organisations for Communist parties, Maoists, Kashmiri separatists, northeast insurgent groups and other Break Up India Forces. Getting addicted to them makes JNU students social misfits.” She says JNU students will soon find themselves to be among the unemployables of India if the university doesn’t change.
The eternal protesters
It is the resistance to change that bothers those on the opposite end of JNU’s political spectrum. Anand Ranganathan, who is a professor at JNU’s Special Centre for Molecular Medicine, says a place of learning where only one kind of view is welcome is not a university but a “conformity”. He points to the vandalising of the soon-to-be-inaugurated statue of Swami Vivekananda and calls it “heart-breaking to say the least”. As he told ThePrint: “Witnessing the unbelievable vandalism and defacing of the walls of prominent JNU buildings is shocking and sad at the same time. This is not the way to handle or solve disagreements, besides it being a violation of the law. A university is a place of learning; it is a place where differing views must be held and respected and deliberated.”
Precisely what JNU was, and should remain. As Choudhury says: “What is happening is destruction of a university that has mentored and produced Indian citizens who could think, reflect and care. The secession of the Indian middle class from the poor and marginalised has not yet taken place here. The connect between what plagues Indian society and the university remains. This regime does not like that.”
And that precisely is its greatest value in the era of anti-intellectualism and pro-Right forces. In the absence of a strong political opposition, JNU remains in splendid isolation as an Eternal Protester.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.