Joining JNU was just crossing the road, literally. But it proved to be so much more, as time would reveal.
The back gate of IIT opens on the Vedanta Desika Mandir Marg, just after Ber Sarai. This same street, after the traffic light, becomes Aruna Asaf Ali Marg. Almost a symbolic transformation from the Right to the Left? That’s where the JNU East or ‘VC’ gate is.
It is easy to drift from one campus to the other. But hardly anyone does. They seem to be two different worlds. I did wander across once, in the company of a friend from the English Department in Chandigarh.
Sitting on a rock by Ganga Dhaba, he said, ‘Makarand, you’d do well here in JNU, instead of teaching uninterested, would-be engineers at IIT. Here you’ll be appreciated. You’ll have a following.’
I wasn’t so sure. I looked at the surroundings—shabby and ill-kept in comparison to the neat and trim IIT campus. Cleanliness is a bourgeois value, a JNU-ite snorted contemptuously.
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I never thought that I would actually make the move from IIT to JNU. I have already narrated how that happened. Then, rather unexpectedly, JNU offered me the much-coveted professorship in English. The Leftists were shocked, dismayed. They had to do something. So, as usual, they protested.
Hiranmay Karlekar, a well-known journalist, then a member of the JNU Court, actually tried to stymie the appointment. The JNU Court is the highest body of the university. In its annual meeting, after I had joined, he asked how I had been appointed over so many other worthy (presumably Leftist) applicants.
Then VC, Asis Datta, shut him up by saying that the Selection Committee had unanimously recommended my appointment. The EC had ratified the selection, along with others. I had already joined. The appointment was both legal and incontrovertible. There was nothing more to be done.
That was my first taste of Leftist ‘intolerance’.
I was in for more surprises. JNU was dominated by a futile and deluded, not to mention negative and destructive, Leftist student politics, shielded and protected by powerful faculty lobbies. The world may have changed, but JNU was caught in a time warp.
Students stayed on for decades, teachers took on more PhD students than they could handle. Some of them had over 20 enrolled under them. The joke was that one of these unfortunates was unable to meet his supervisor for two years, so he began stalking the professor, waiting outside his door or in the corridors.
Finally, one day the professor asked, ‘Yes? What do you want?’ The student, crestfallen, said, ‘Sir… I am one of your PhD students.’ The teacher, taken by surprise, apologized and gave the student the much-desired appointment. Apparently, the teacher had so many research scholars that he didn’t even remember their names, let alone recognize them.
I don’t know what happened to this particular student. Presumably, he was taken care of and graduated. Others, such as Rajini, whom I talk about later, were not so fortunate.
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JNU tuition fee, I was astounded to learn, was then something like 20 a month. The hostel charges even less. Yearly tuition and room rent less than a thousand rupees. Some years ago, a well-known and well-off comrade was known to brag that he got through JNU on less than the cost of a packet of Dunhill’s.
Bang next to us was Vasant Vihar, one of the poshest Delhi colonies. In fact, right opposite, in the haphazard and unauthorized Munirka shanties, a room in one of the precarious, slanting towers was `7,000 per month. Seven times what it cost to live in JNU for a whole year.
But what did the practically zero fees or hostel rents matter? If the students studied and learned to be the best in India, if not the world, it would all be worth it. I would even support free education to all those who made it through our selection process. Yet, instead of a culture of excellence and competence, the prevailing ethic appeared to be partisanship and parasitism.
Our indoctrinated students hated the bourgeois state. They made a virtue of freeloading off it. For them, it was a prelude, if not to revolution, at least to cushy civil service jobs. Exploit the State and use its resources to fight it. Then become a part of it yourself. Or of some other state-supported sector such a customs, excise, banking, teaching and so on.
Everything was political. Or politicized. Anti-government activists thriving at the government’s expense. This was what JNU socialism seemed to boil down to. I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’s words, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.
Everywhere, on every bare wall, a poster war. With slogans frozen in time, reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. Supporting lost causes and failed hopes. Every now and then, there would be a protest march. This meant gathering near the Ganga or Sabarmati hostel lawns and then marching to the ‘Pink Palace,’ shouting slogans. Pink Palace was the derisive appellation for the administration building.
Was this all that revolution boiled down to? Campus marches from hostels to the administration building, shouting anti-this-or-that slogans? Endless hostel socials? Living cheaply, sharing rooms with any number of ‘guests’? And, of course, bunking classes? Attendance being purely optional.
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If the rhetoric needed to be ratcheted up, malcontents would gather at 11.00 a.m. for more action. Most having stayed up nights, anything earlier was anathema. Then they would go about disrupting classes and blockading buildings. If you had a lecture at 9.00 a.m., you might escape this outrage. But at that early hour, you wouldn’t have more than three or four students, often day scholars. The hostel-dwellers couldn’t be bothered.
There was also, I discovered, a season and schedule for such disruptions. It occurred at least twice a year, in the middle of each semester, strategically around Holi or Durga Puja. The Bengalis (Bongs) went home during the latter, the Biharis during the former. Half the semester was invariably wiped out in holidays and demonstrations.
The Biharis and the Bengalis were easily the largest regional groups. Most of the latter were Leftist, a good number of the former, Right-wing. It was all about class. The well-heeled, English-speaking bourgeoisie were usually Left-leaning. The aspiring lower-middle-class, Hindi-speakers formed the support base of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a youth group of the RSS.
Ever since its inception in 1971, Leftist students had totally dominated the JNUSU. Some 22 JNUSU presidents have come from the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), an affiliate of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI[M]). For a while, the JNU SFI broke away from its parent organization, which, in turn, expelled the members of the breakaway unit. That included a former union president whom I had taught.
The All India Students’ Association (AISA) candidates have won the JNUSU presidency 11 times. The AISA is the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation or CPIML. This is the 1973 faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The latter was formed in 1969 by the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR), led by Kanu Sanyal and considered by many to be the forerunners of the Naxalite movement.
Kanhaiya Kumar, JNUSU president in the critical year of 2016, belonged to yet another Leftist group, the All India Students’ Federation (AISF). This is the student wing of the oldest of our Left parties, the Communist Party of India (CPI), founded way back in 1925, during the last decades of the Raj.
Other groups like the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF), an SFI splinter, were even more radical.
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The National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), promoted with the blessings of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1971, was affiliated to the Congress. No NSUI candidate has become a JNUSU president. Its arch-rival, the ABVP, has fared scarcely better. Sandeep Mahapatra, who became president the year after I joined JNU, is the sole exception. He had a clean image, was personable and well-spoken. Not like other cadres who are derisively dismissed by the Leftists as ‘lumpen’. He is a Supreme Court lawyer today, with a low political profile.
What, then, of the romance of Leftist politics? Doesn’t it still haunt our intelligentsia, besides garnering international sympathy and support for JNU Leftists? Captured so tellingly in director Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), wasn’t there indeed something idealistic and attractive about those who wanted to work for social change?
However, in JNU there was little of that romance when I joined. Old timers may boast of the days of D.P. Tripathi, Sitaram Yechury or Jairus Banaji. Of freethinkers like Nirmala Sitharaman or politically engaged toppers like S. Jaishankar and Abhijit Banerjee. All that is now but faded glory. Except for the sly eroticism of ill-dressed comrades at late-night meetings, marches, slogan-shouting and poster-pasting, there is nothing remotely romantic in the JNU Left.
Why this decline? Why the prevalent cynicism and stupidity instead of meaningful and engaged political activism? The reason is simple—a decline in thinking, studying or taking issues seriously.
Many JNU Leftists haven’t even read Marx, let alone Engels, Lenin, Trotsky or Mao. If you mention Bukharin or Plekhanov, they blink as if they have been caught on the wrong foot. As to critics of communism, from Koestler to Solzhenitsyn, Polanyi to Dikötter, these names have never been heard of. In all my years at JNU I never once found a Leftist student read or discuss, let alone bother to engage with a classic exposé such as The Black Book of Communism—Crimes, Terror, Repression.17 There was absolutely no talk of the atrocities and enormities of this ideology. Even on a campus where students were supposed to be actively engaged in reading and studying.
I realized with a shock that no one believed in Marxism. It was mostly posturing, if not pure hogwash. The Left, then, was mostly confusion or careerism masquerading as the politics of demand-making and disruption. Skipping classes, occupying buildings, ‘gheraoing’ officials, sometimes even teachers, bringing the university to a standstill—these were their stock-in-trade. Later, most of the Leftist leaders become lecturers in Delhi University (DU) colleges.
Matters came to a head in 2016, after the rally in support of Afzal Guru. Masked outsiders made their first appearance on campus. ‘Tukde tukde’ and ‘azadi’ slogans were chanted. Mattresses were spread across ‘Freedom Square’, as the administration building came to be rechristened. Students shacked up around the Pink Palace. The intent was plain and simple—to create a nationwide student movement against the Modi sarkar.
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Even in those days, I was clear about one thing. Left, Right or Centre, we all had to come together on one cause. That was academics. No university in the world could allow students to sabotage studies, prevent peers from taking exams or registering for courses. Why should JNU be an exception?
On ‘demands’ as flimsy as new water coolers in the school buildings, washing machines in hostels or cheaper cups of tea, agitationists could bring the university to a standstill. Then boast of their achievements if their demands were met. The culture of confrontation and protest made students claim false credit for what were essentially unearned hand-outs from the government. Students of a fully government-funded university were feigning that it was revolutionary to agitate for even more perks and gratuities.
But JNU was already so well-subsidized.
Both tea and coffee, quite terrible to taste, cost lower than anywhere else. Food was cheap and plentiful. Any number of ‘guests’ could find accommodation on campus. Some even had jobs outside, but lived inexpensively inside JNU. Whatever was not free, ranging from haircuts to ironing clothes, was available at prices half the ordinary. JNU was a world unto itself. Once in, why would anyone want to leave?
Yet, treating the administration as some sort of oppressor, landlord or representative of an illegitimate state, the students’ pretence of being in the same class position as the struggling proletariat or peasantry was nothing short of fantastic or ridiculous.
JNU politics, however, was no laughing matter. It was harming thousands, to the point of ruining their futures. Professional mischief-makers learnt very little except politicking. Most were pretty bad, if not hopeless, in their studies. They had no real skills that could fetch them a decent livelihood.
All their lives, they might feed off others, using ideology as their excuse. Were we creating generations of malcontents and whingers? Or worse, parasites?
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I realized at once that the media had made a huge mistake in glamourizing the JNU brand of politics. However sympathetic we may be to students’ democratic right to express themselves or protest, to turn JNU agitators into heroes was a bad idea. Instead of becoming full-time political activists, students needed to return to their classes. Also, stop preventing others from studying.
It was clear to me that the only way forward during the current stand-off was to keep classes and labs open. The university had to be restored to its primary purpose—which was academics, not politics. But this is not what happened. Instead, JNU was rendered non-functional for months on end. And then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
But going back to my early days in JNU, soon after I became a member of the faculty, I had figured out what was going on in JNU. I have never had reason to change them. On the contrary, my worst fears about the ill effects of student politics and agitations were proven true in the years to come.
This excerpt from ‘JNU: Nationalism and India’s Uncivil War’ by Makarand R. Paranjap has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.