JNU: Republic of ideas

The government’s attempt to crush the JNU spirit, which is reminiscent of the dark days of the Emergency, is in line with the RSS’ antipathy to the university’s ethos of discussion, debate and free exchange of ideas.

Published : Mar 02, 2016 12:30 IST

Outside a polling booth in Jawaharlal Nehru University on November 2, 2007.

Outside a polling booth in Jawaharlal Nehru University on November 2, 2007.

I am one of those students who had lived the JNU experience through three of its most important phases—pre-Emergency, Emergency and post-Emergency. In 1973, ours was the second batch of M.A. (History) that included Neeladri Bhattacharya, Shri Prakash, Gyan Prakash, K.N. Hari Kumar, Sudharshan Seneviratne, Shobita Punja, Indu Agnihotri and Sampad Mahapatra. Neeladri Bhattacharya, Gyan Prakash and Shri Prakash are professors of history in JNU, Princeton and Jamia Millia Islamia respectively, while Sudharshan Seneviratne is one of the top archaeologists in Sri Lanka. Shobita Punja is an eminent art historian while Sampad Mahapatra is one of the best-known journalists in Odisha. K.N. Hari Kumar was the Chief Editor of Deccan Herald for many years. Our seniors in the first batch included Yogesh Sharma, Jayant Prasad, Syed Asif Ibrahim, Rakesh Mehta, Roshen Dalal and Aditya Mukherjee. Of them, Yogesh Sharma and Aditya Mukherjee taught history at JNU, Jayant Prasad became a highly regarded diplomat who served as India’s ambassador in Kabul and Kathmandu, Roshen Dalal wrote books on history, while Syed Asif Ibrahim retired as Director, Intelligence Bureau.

At that time, only the east wing of Kaveri hostel and the mess had been built on the new campus, besides one block of the faculty residential flats. Godavari hostel was under construction, as was Periyar hostel. All classes were held in the old campus, which also had hostels, the canteen as well as a common mess. The Institute of International Studies had been converted into the School of International Studies but continued to function from 35 Ferozeshah Road. There was a hostel attached to the Sapru House Library and the library was yet to be bifurcated. Senior students like Prakash Karat and Ramesh Dixit stayed in this hostel. Veteran diplomat G. Parthasarathy was the Vice Chancellor and Moonis Raza the Dean of Students’ Welfare. It was their Nehruvian vision that was shaping the university and its democratic ethos.

Space for depressed classes Soon after the session began, elections to the Student-Faculty Committee (SFC) took place and K.N. Hari Kumar won. That’s when I came to know that such a committee existed at every centre [department] and nearly all decisions concerning the centre were democratically arrived at in its meetings.

The SFC also supervised the admission process and screened the applications, besides assisting the faculty members in other ways. It also ensured that the progressive admission policy was scrupulously adhered to by giving additional points to those who hailed from backward districts and depressed classes and other disadvantaged sections of society. A substantial number of students could enter the university because of the humane admission policy. The SFCs and JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) played a singularly important role in getting this policy formulated and implemented. The Academic Council (AC) too had student participation and if my memory serves me right, Syed Asif Ibrahim became an elected AC member in 1973 from the School of Social Sciences.

JNUSU elections took place in October. Though the Left dominated the campus’ political culture, it was a fractured Left. The All India Students’ Federation (AISF) was aligned to the pro-Congress Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) to the anti-Congress Communist Party of India (Marxist) respectively. Anand Sahay (Charlie), Gyan Prakash and Kamal Mitra Chenoy were the AISF leaders while the SFI was led by Prakash Karat, Ramesh Dixit and Neelakantan.

NCP general secretary and Rajya Sabha member Devi Prasad Tripathi, who joined the Centre for Political Studies in 1973, too became a well-known SFI face soon. Jairus Banaji was the leader of the Trotskyites while Anand Kumar, a national-level Lohiaite leader of the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha, cobbled together an umbrella organisation called the Free Thinkers just before the 1973 JNUSU elections. All those who were either apolitical or critical of the traditional Left joined this formation. There were a few supporters of naxalites like Trinetra Joshi and Pankaj Singh. In short, JNU had a vibrant political culture that did not exclude any stream.

Students as managers It was also a unique feature of JNU that the students themselves managed the affairs of the union without any interference from the university administration. General body meetings (GBMs) were the order of the day and all important issues were discussed, debated and decided there. The GBMs were regularly held at every level—centre, hostel, school or union. Students would often initiate a signature campaign to requisition them. JNU was akin to a Greek city-state. Students elected their election commission headed by a chief election commissioner themselves to conduct and supervise union elections. No printed pamphlets or posters were allowed. Students would write pamphlets and make posters, cartoons and other campaign material themselves. National as well as international politics was freely discussed. If there was a dispute, recounting of votes was demanded, but never was a decision of the election commission questioned. Fierce debates took place all the time but personal relationships remained intact. Violence was unheard of. So was eve-teasing or stalking.

Common mess was also a unique feature of JNU. Girls were allowed into boys’ hostel rooms without any restriction. Boys could go only up to the girls’ hostel mess, not into their rooms. However, for many years, one wing of a hostel was occupied by boys and the other by girls, and both ate their meals in the common dining room. To an outsider, this would have seemed like a permissive atmosphere, but it was this atmosphere that helped create a healthy ethos wherein boys and girls could freely meet, discuss, debate, make friends and also occasionally, fall in love. As they were constantly interacting with one another, there was very little chance of objectionable or undesirable behaviour.

Teacher-student dialogue

Teachers encouraged free exchange of ideas and a spirit of critical inquiry. Classes were an informal affair where there was no one-way lecture from the teacher but a kind of dialogue that helped students understand the lecture much more easily and comprehensively. In most cases, politics and academic excellence did not come in each other’s way. Whether it was Prakash Karat or Anand Kumar, Gyan Prakash or Devi Prasad Tripathi, Yogesh Sharma or Anand Sahay, Sitaram Yechury or Nalini Ranjan Mohanty, all of them excelled equally in politics and academics.

While JNUSU often agitated for students’ demands, the relationship between students and the university administration was one of mutual faith and confidence. In the central library, needy students were given part-time jobs and they functioned like any other library staff. When the university was closed down on account of a month-long strike, students took over the central library and ran it themselves without any opposition from the authorities. Not one book was lost or damaged under their watch. Similarly, they also ran the hostel messes. In most cases, JNUSU enjoyed an excellent working relationship and understanding with the JNU Teachers’ Association and the JNU Employees Union.

The imposition of the Emergency on June 26, 1975, ended this era. Many students were arrested, many others had to leave the university and yet many others became inactive. The university administration started flexing its muscle and professors like Moonis Raza became ineffective. Students’ participation became a thing of the past and strict rules were framed and imposed.

Admissions had to be approved by the Vice-Chancellor’s office and many names were removed at the recommendation of the police and intelligence agencies. Regimentation and bureaucratisation of the university’s life started.

After the Emergency was lifted in March 1977, much of JNU’s past glory was restored but quite a bit was irretrievably lost. The violent agitation that shook JNU in 1983 had its roots in the change that had occurred in the university’s overall character. For the first time, the hubris of political power and money power was witnessed when elections were held after the formation of the Janata Party government at the Centre. Like the Free Thinkers, it was a motley group of Congressmen, Socialists and Jana Sanghis. Later, these political tendencies came out of the Free Thinkers and set up their own organisations. The fact that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), is also one of them affirms JNU’s all-embracing, catholic ethos.

The way the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and its coercive state machinery are handling the current JNU row is reminiscent of the dark days of the Emergency. The RSS has always nursed a strong antipathy towards the JNU ethos of discussion, debate and free exchange of ideas as it believes in intellectual regimentation in accordance with its view of Indian history and society. JNU is an eyesore for it. Little wonder that the government headed by a former RSS pracharak is leaving no stone unturned in its attempt to crush the JNU spirit.

With the help of a pliant police force and a few subservient television channels, an orchestrated effort is being made to malign and defame the entire university as a “den of anti-nationals” and “traitors”, and a “Shut Down JNU” campaign has been launched. Some BJP leaders and editors are vociferously lending their support to it. However, nobody in his or her senses can believe that an institution that has produced excellent scholars, Members of Parliament, political leaders and Ministers can be a hotbed of anti-national activities. It seems that in the eyes of the present government, being anti-establishment amounts to being anti-national.

The fact remains that JNU represents the inclusive character of our freedom movement, upholds the constitutional values of secularism and democracy, and truly symbolises the Indian republic. As an institution, it has not strayed from its Nehruvian path despite many vicissitudes in its five-decade-long existence. Sometimes a few young students might overstep the boundaries or overstate their ideological-political positions, but this does not in any way impact its overall character.

JNU offers a democratic space to all its students and has become a veritable republic of ideas. It is a place where all ideologies, schools of thought and political tendencies interact with one another and peacefully contend for supremacy. A university must have a universal character and JNU meets this criterion in full measure.

Will the anti-JNU campaign succeed? In view of the institution’s past history, its present ethos and the united will of the entire university community, the answer is a clear no.

Kuldeep Kumar is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on culture and politics.

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