Unique JNU

The JNU difference

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Students of Environmental Science from JNU at a bus stop on the campus during their class preparing sound pressure level data to check with noise measuring instruments, on March 21, 2018. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Students at the all-night-long presidential debate during the campaign for the JNU Students’ Union election in September 2013. Photo: S. Subramanium

Election posters at the JNU campus. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

September 5, 1977: Sitaram Yechury (third from right), then JNUSU president, reading out a petition to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, demanding her resignation as the ex-officio Chancellor of JNU. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Jawaharlal Nehru University’s unique admissions policy ensures that students come from all corners of the country, from all socio-economic backgrounds. The JNU learning experience takes place both inside and outside the classroom, in the debates and discussions that the university is famous for, and in the struggles and agitations that make headlines.

Of the many thousands of students who have passed through the portals of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over the past five decades, few would say that the time they spent in JNU did not transform their lives, world view and social attitudes.

Classroom studies in JNU, mostly at the postgraduate level except for fresh entrants to the foreign languages courses, are themselves quite different from those of most other universities. The course content is framed somewhat differently and is taught and tested by most faculty with considerable rigour in a semester system, and in a manner that challenges rote learning and encourages critical thinking. Self-study of texts from the rather extensive reading lists is a must. If a student goes on to do research, s/he is pushed to even more rigorous self-study, and to an interpretive and critical approach towards both academic works and social reality. Teachers, too, interact with students as adults capable of comprehending subjects on their own without the need to be spoon-fed. Essay-type questions in examinations, term papers and seminar presentations, and a well-stocked library, make the JNU learning experience distinctive in India, certainly in the social sciences, humanities, liberal arts, policy and governance, and the distinctive school of international studies with foundational education in international politics, and later specialisation in different regions of the world, in diplomacy, disarmament and international law.

JNU students and alumni would also aver that, however good the curricular side is, much more learning is achieved outside the classroom at this university. At JNU, the process of seeking to critically understand the world around us takes place to a considerable extent in the almost endless debates and discussions that the university is famous for, and in the struggles and agitations which make the most headlines.

Night meetings

The post-dinner public meetings around the year, especially as part of the students’ union election process, have traditionally been an important part of the learning process at JNU. There are, of course, also several meetings organised during the day, but since lectures by visiting academics from India and abroad as well as classes, seminars or tutorials are also held during these hours, the night meetings held in the messes of the different hostels have always held a special place in JNU campus life. These meetings usually involve JNU student leaders, academics, activists, public intellectuals and political party representatives sharing their views on important national and international issues, followed by intensive discussions. The presentations and discussions are mostly well-informed, bring in diverse viewpoints and ideological perspectives, cover a vast range of subjects and bring in insights and perspectives gleaned from both curricular and extracurricular sources. One has seen many a meeting, including pre-election ones, with over 400 students sitting or standing wall-to-wall, with many dozens sitting on the floor, studiously taking notes. This was probably as important a part of their education, both in an academic sense and which informed their perspectives as enlightened and involved citizens in later life. This is what a good education ought to mean, but is so seldom obtained in India, given either the deprivation or the elitism in so many universities and institutions in the country.

Sociocultural diversity

Adding to this conceptual diversity is the geographic and sociocultural diversity of JNU. There are few institutions of higher learning where students come from all corners of the country in substantial numbers, from all socio-economic, caste and tribal backgrounds. Much of this is due to the unique admissions policy in JNU, albeit considerably diluted now, introduced after considerable struggle by the student body, especially on the Left. You would therefore find in JNU many first-generation university students studying in English medium for the first time and bringing with them diverse experiences from their vastly different backgrounds. These students bring their own distinct perspectives into the campus discourse inside as well as outside the classrooms, and take away with them from JNU a high-quality formal education as well as a critical sociopolitical understanding that is not only specific to contemporary issues but also provides a more generalised perspective which informs their thinking and activities in the future.

It is therefore no surprise at all that JNU has consistently been ranked among the top two universities in India by the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s (MHRD) National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF). JNU alumni can be found excelling in various walks of life besides academics, in India and abroad. In India, they were and are in the foreign service, civil service and other administrative services including the police and intelligence services, journalism, cultural media including cinema, financial institutions, research organisations, think tanks and non-governmental organisations, and political parties across the spectrum, all doing sterling work serving the nation with distinction in diverse fields. One quality most would share, and be recognised by others as sharing, is bringing to their work and to social interactions a well-informed, wide-ranging and critical understanding, mostly empathetic with regard to the needs and concerns of the underprivileged. Whereas the student body has always been deeply political and therefore quite divided along partisan lines, this broad characterisation can safely be drawn across political divides, as is clearly visible in the gatherings of JNU alumni who came together in a rally in defence of JNU after the violent attack by goons on January 5.

It therefore never ceases to amaze one that notwithstanding this exemplary and consistent record, the present ruling dispensation and allied social forces persist in labelling the students, if not the faculty and the institution as a whole, as “anti-national” or as wasting taxpayers’ money by being apparently constantly involved in political activities, and agitations on national and international issues, rather than on their studies.

The academic community in JNU understands that everything in modern life is political. It is mistaken to think of this word as referring only to party politics. The political aspect of most social activity refers to the underlying factors shaping those activities, to understanding these factors and the societal processes that go into making them, and to delve into how these activities are shaped differently under diverse social circumstances, whether we would like them to be shaped differently, and if so, how. As several wise people have said, everything is political. To understand the world around you is to be political; those who claim to be apolitical are also thereby making a political statement. In JNU, students embark on a journey to understand, not just to know bits of information, and it is in this sense that their time spent in JNU is political.

In the mid 1970s and early 1980s when this writer was a student in JNU, the student community was involved in several major struggles. The first and perhaps most important struggle was for the formation of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) immediately before this period, which was to shape the character of the student community, and perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say, the character of the institution itself.

Unique Union

The JNUSU is unique in that it was, and remains, a self-constituted and self-defined student body, not constituted by the university authorities, with rules and norms pre-decided by them and which define its functioning. The JNUSU Constitution was itself drafted out of an extensive participatory process within the student body and adopted by its General Body. The process was as important as the product. This fundamentally democratic method of decision-making in a general body meeting (GBM) was to define the functioning of the JNU student body and decisions to be taken by it, and remains an important part of JNU students’ education and training for citizenship and civic participation. Such GBMs at School and hostel levels, the latter with its own elected student representatives, are also vital elements of the decentralised democratic decision-making process in JNU.

The JNUSU has therefore never been dependent on recognition by the university authorities and therefore has important autonomy. It was only much later that the Lyngdoh Committee [set up by the MHRD in 2006] laid down mandatory norms for all students’ unions in the country, which has given JNU authorities some, albeit limited, power to intervene in student affairs. In the present chronic dispute at JNU, brought about by the autocratic behaviour of the Vice Chancellor with support of an inimical Central government and affiliated students’ and teachers’ organisations, one of the strange incidents has been the refusal of the authorities to “notify” the results of the previous JNUSU elections conducted from the very beginning by an Election Committee entirely comprising independent students and elected for the year by the student body itself. The JNUSU election results have always been declared by this Election Committee and accepted by the authorities as the evident democratically expressed will of the students. It is ironic that despite this refusal to “notify” the elected representatives of the JNUSU, in violation of orders of the Delhi High Court, both the MHRD and various university authorities are dealing with precisely those student representatives elected by the students to constitute the JNUSU.

It was the JNUSU that extensively discussed and adopted the progressive admissions policy, which recognised the socio-economically and regionally iniquitous access to quality education in India and therefore provided for affirmative action for students suffering from different deprivations. In its original form, somewhat diluted since the early years, the policy gave 20 deprivations to be added to previous academic record and performance in admissions tests and interview. These points were assigned for family income, Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe or Other Backward Class status, as well as to compensate for educational backwardness as defined by the government’s characterisation of districts. To ensure fair implementation of the policy, each centre of study (or department, as known in other universities) had a Student Faculty Committee (SFC) which scrutinised relevant documents and compiled the deprivation points. It is mainly due to this policy that students admitted to JNU had the diverse character discussed earlier.

The SFCs as well as student membership of the boards of study of the different Schools were also formed as outcomes of struggles by the student body. Credit must also of course go to an enlightened faculty in the initial years, who agreed with and facilitated these arrangements. Given the expansion of the university, the JNUSU Constitution was amended in the late 1970s after more than 100 hours of discussion in two rounds in each School, with the final revised version, incorporating all amendments approved in the School GBMs, being approved by the University GBM, or UGBM. This writer steered this process as a member of the Students Council of JNUSU and as tasked by it.

Centre of many struggles

The early and major struggles in JNU were during the Emergency and immediately after it. Even though several politically active JNU students, including the then JNUSU president, were arrested and imprisoned during the Emergency, and political activity was proscribed and the JNUSU could not function, many protest activities and discussions were organised by an anonymous group called Resistance. This group brought out many protest pamphlets, surreptitiously cyclostyled and distributed in hostels and slipped under doors in minutes by a battery of volunteer student activists. A few public meetings were also organised in the campus with much trepidation but no untoward incident or police action. JNU was arguably the most politically active university campus during the Emergency.

When the Emergency was lifted, JNU students under JNUSU leadership was active and conducted numerous rallies and protest marches against authoritarianism and to seek defeat of the government that had declared the Emergency and overseen its many excesses. One major march of close to 1,000 students was to the residence of Indira Gandhi to demand her resignation as the ex-officio Chancellor of JNU. A petition was read out by Sitaram Yechury, the JNUSU president outside her house and, to her credit, Indira Gandhi came out and heard it out.

A major linked agitation was against the then Vice Chancellor as the chief architect of the Emergency on campus. At one point the student body declared the campus out of bounds for the Vice Chancellor and from then on, with the university shut down, ran the messes with the help of the karamchari union. Senior students were also assigned the task of teaching students, with “classes” being held on the lawns all over the campus.

Several agitations followed over the next three or four years to revise the university’s rules and norms which had been amended by the Vice Chancellor and the administration during the Emergency in such a manner as to reverse their progressive features introduced under pressure of students’ struggles earlier. One such prolonged agitation finally concluded with a committee of Deans agreeing that the JNUSU’s position was correct and one of them saying: “There are two administrations in JNU, one sits here [in the Administrative Block] and the other in my School [then in the School of International Studies building], and the latter is usually right!”

Other agitations included the one in defence of the interests of citizens of Delhi, protesting a fare rise announced by the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). JNU students blocked a major crossroad in R.K.Puram, faced heavy police action, lathi-charge and tear gas, and was chased back into the campus. JNU students then stopped a few buses and took them inside JNU, and released them only after an understanding was reached between the police, DTC authorities and the JNUSU.

JNU students also conducted many other public campaigns, such as in providing rescue and relief for flood victims in Delhi.

Another famous agitation was against the official visit to Delhi of the Shah of Iran who was notorious for his autocratic rule in that country from where many students studied in JNU and elsewhere in India those days. One JNU student managed to jump on to the roof of one of the cars in the Shah’s cavalcade, was arrested, but managed to jump out of the police van!

All these agitations, struggles and campaigns defended and advanced the interests of the students of JNU and of the citizens of Delhi and India as a whole, and expended the consciousness and understanding not just of JNU students but also arguably, as now, of students throughout India and of the wider population as well.

D. Raghunandan works with the Delhi Science Forum/All-India Peoples Science Network. He studied in JNU during 1975-1982 towards MPhil/PhD in Sociology and obtained his MPhil in 1977. He was president of the JNU Students’ Union in 1979-80.

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