It was the autumn of 1994. The campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on the southern fringes of New Delhi was abuzz with just one thing: The plague scare that had created quite a panic in the western and northern parts of India. JNU wasn’t immune to the perceived threat of a looming epidemic and the university authorities declared a week’s holiday.
In the midst of all the chaos over whether one should leave the campus or stay put, one batchmate of mine at the School of Languages had a very innocuous query for one of the senior students in the School for Social Sciences: “How serious is the plague threat?” Pat came the reply — “I can only talk about the political angle of plague” — leaving the questioner befuddled.
My first brush with campus agitation was barely within a few days after I joined the university, when I saw a bunch of students skipping lunch to attend a demonstration outside the vice-chancellor’s office, demanding sufficient hostel rooms.
Later that day, as dinner was served at the mess in Narmada Hostel, where I was a resident, cyclostyled pamphlets being distributed among students caught my attention. A closer look revealed a ‘charter of demands’ from a Left-leaning students’ outfit, asking the World Bank and United States to refrain from their pro-corporate and anti-proletarian policies towards the Third World.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined students and faculty being chased around by masked iron rod- and hockey stick-wielding goons. Never ever could I have imagined blood-soaked faces of members of rival student groups spewing venom at each other on social media
In a nutshell, that has always been the JNU story. Scarcely will one come across an educational institution in India that is politically so active, aware and sensitive. And the best part of this hyper-sensitive political culture, so to speak, was the fact that every single voice, every single shred of opinion was allowed unfettered space and attention without fear or favour.
A JNU Students’ Union election was the best example of this inclusive atmosphere where two students — JNUSU presidential candidates for two different students’ outfits — propounding two opposing views in a fiercely fought ‘presidential debate’, would finally be seen having a good laugh at each other over steaming cups of tea and plates of bread-pakoda (a light snack) at the ‘iconic’ Ganga Dhaba in the middle of the night.
And on the night the ballots were counted in multiple rooms on the first floor of the Administrative Block, or ‘Ad Block’ in popular JNU parlance, groups of students from rival outfits would sit together in huddles in the courtyard and share their anxiety over cups of tea or coffee as the late-autumn night would progress.
There was political rivalry in JNU; there was a point-counterpoint contour to academics in JNU that went far beyond pedagogy; there was a clash of ideologies among a section of students in JNU … the list is long. But there was never an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ brand of nihilism among a section of JNUites as I presume exists today.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined students and faculty being chased around by masked iron rod- and hockey stick-wielding goons. Never ever could I have imagined blood-soaked faces of members of rival student groups spewing venom at each other on social media.
One major reason why JNU managed to maintain a sense of decorum and sanity amid its super-charged political milieu is the fact that Left-leaning ideology always held sway over campus life in general and its political climate in particular. The rival factions would most often be aligned to Leftist thought, thereby acting as a foil to one another.
‘Battleground JNU’ was primarily dominated by either All India Students’ Association (Aisa) or Students’ Federation of India (SFI) — the former affiliated with the ultra-Left Communist Party of India Liberation and the latter being the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist. Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarathi Parishad, which owes its allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and National Students’ Union of India, the students’ wing of the Congress, were largely bit-players in this amphitheatre.
And SFI, in particular, with its moderate and more nuanced approach to socio-political issues, served as a perfect antidote to the Aisa brand of gung-ho scepticism, whereby, even the slightest hint of nihilism or anarchy would be nipped in the bud — not through stick-wielding outsiders or ‘militant’ insiders, but through a healthy practice of debate, discussion and a majority-endorsement of views and issues.
Us vs Them
With Aisa and SFI acting as a foil to one another, there was no ‘us-vs-them’ dialectics on campus. Moreover, neither did the Central Government of the day really feel any serious need to get involved with campus politics, nor did the student outfits on campus ever allow any serious disruption of the academic pursuit in order to promote their agenda.
Since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, two worrying trends have coalesced. Firstly, there has undoubtedly been an attempt to saffronise campus politics by forces outside JNU. Secondly, student politics within the campus has turned increasingly disruptive — even to the extent of holding academics to ransom.
If masked goons wreaking havoc in JNU is a poor commentary on the political establishment trying to co-opt intellectual space and free speech, then students trying to disrupt the registration process for new admissions, in order to press with their demand for a rollback of higher fees, is no less worrying a sign of decadence.
Time has come for political forces within and outside the campus to answer this simple question: Do they really want the name ‘JNU’ to be revered and sought-after; or do they want it to be just a relic of its past glory? That shouldn’t be too hard a choice to make.
— The writer is a former student of the Centre for Linguistics and English at JNU. Twitter:@moumiayush