Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is back in the headlines — this time for violent clashes over the food menu of a hostel mess. Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists wouldn’t allow the preparation of chicken on Ram Navami, claimed Left-affiliated students. The latter weren’t allowing pooja, countered the ABVP. Get ready for a fractious debate on JNU in the coming days and weeks. And smoke and mirrors, too. But before coming to my two pennies’ worth, let me start with a few disclaimers.
First, JNU is my alma mater. I struggle to define myself ideologically. I had started as a free thinker and then flirted with many ideologies before returning to where I began.
Second, I voted for a classmate who was contesting a councillor’s post as an ABVP candidate. He was a hardcore non-vegetarian and never organised any pooja either. He won, nonetheless. By the way, I wonder when JNU students started holding havans in hostels.
Third, I am a complete vegetarian when I fast during Navratri. But I have had non-vegetarian food — plenty of it, in fact, during this Navratri. That’s because I wasn’t fasting.
What I am driving at is the fact that JNU alumni must find it hard to identify themselves with the university where Sunday’s incident happened. In our days and before that, dining tables would be littered with pamphlets by groups from the Left, the Right and the centre. We would make fun of their content while members of those organisations responded with equal mirth. Shedding blood over food choices on the JNU campus is hard to digest.
Contradictory arguments on JNU
There are two mutually contradictory arguments that are likely to dominate the public discourse in the coming days. First, JNU is home to anti-national, anti-Hindu, and ‘tukde-tukde’ gangs. Those making these points would invoke the 2016 sedition charges against Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and others. Second, the ABVP is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) whose ideology is divisive and intolerant, be it the right to practice one’s faith, wear one’s dress, or eat one’s food.
Both these arguments are prejudiced and mostly baseless. But the amount of conviction and force their proponents display is amazing. In early 2018, as protests were gathering momentum in the wake of the Bhima-Koregaon violence, I happened to meet an important government functionary for an informal interaction. I asked how he viewed the incident and its aftermath. “Aapko pata hai kaun iske peechhe hai? (Do you know who is behind it?),” he asked. As I shook my head, he said, “Iske peechhe saare JNU waale hain (JNUiites are behind this).” I was too dumbfounded to ask how. The Maharashtra Police had called it a ‘Maoist conspiracy’. But a responsible government functionary bringing “JNU waale” into it!
Trickle-down theory may have many sceptics, but it certainly works in propaganda politics. A few weeks after my said interaction in Delhi, I travelled to Karnataka to cover the assembly election. I was speaking to a retired banker in Udupi. He was a well-informed man with a keen interest in politics. I was enjoying our conversation. Suddenly, he asked me which university I went to. The moment I said JNU, he pulled out my visiting card from his pocket and gave it back to me. “I can’t talk to someone from JNU,” he said before walking away. “But what happened?” He wouldn’t pause to explain. His words still ring in my ears.
What is it in JNU that hurts people? Do JNU-baiters really believe in what they say? Or, is it JNU’s argumentative and questioning attitude towards the academic culture that upsets them? Or is it that Kanhaiya Kumar’s or Umar Khalid’s alleged acts of omission or commission have made the university a convenient tool for dog-whistling?
As per the Narendra Modi government’s ranking, JNU is the second-best university in India. His team is filled with JNUiites, including two in his Cabinet Committee on Security — Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman.
This, in itself, should have silenced JNU-baiters. But it hasn’t.
Non-vegetarianism isn’t an RSS agenda
Let’s now discuss the other argument that is likely to come from the opposition camp. They will link the ABVP’s actions in JNU with its mothership, the RSS, and accuse the latter of trying to impose food habits. This argument, too, is fallacious.
In the 1960s, when Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was in college, an acquaintance of his asked him to join the RSS. Naidu was reluctant because he was under the impression that the Sangh would ask him to stop eating non-vegetarian food. He loved it too much to think of giving it up for any higher goal. His acquaintance then took him to a senior Sangh functionary, who explained to him how the ‘parivaar’ never interfered in food choices.
Decades later, Naidu loves narrating this to his guests in Delhi whenever he hosts them over sumptuous non-veg dishes from Andhra Pradesh. Modi and Amit Shah may be vegetarians, but a large number of union ministers, BJP parliamentarians and leaders are ardent non-vegetarians. Similarly, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and other senior functionaries may be vegetarians, but it’s by choice, not by diktat. Swayamsevaks, or volunteers, are free to dig into chicken or mutton whenever they feel like it.
Know who to blame
So, what explains the violent clash at JNU on Sunday evening? Well, there is no larger design or conspiracy as such. If at all, former JNU vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar, who was recently appointed chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), and the Delhi Police must share the credit. Kumar mistook his vice-chancellorship as a political and ideological assignment, while the Delhi Police showed how it’s okay for outsiders with political backing to enter a university campus with sticks and rods, beat up students, and walk away coolly without fearing arrest.
If these attackers can enjoy such immunity, and Pramod Muthaliks and Bajrang Munis can become household names, why should ABVP activists also not have a place under the sun? The RSS must, however, be mindful of the fact that turning the ABVP into another Bajrang Dal could be counter-productive. Religion can’t be the opium of the 21st-century youth. Unlike previous generations, preceding the digital revolution, they are exposed to the world outside and yearning for opportunities to realise their aspirations. That’s why they look so mesmerised by PM Modi. Any organisation that tries to serve them this opium runs the risk of alienating them sooner rather than later. The JNU unit of the ABVP is a terrible advertisement for the RSS’ students’ wing.
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)