In light of the glorious vigilantism being witnessed today, in which the lumpen lawyers at Patiala House are joining hands with Guardian of the Nation Horn-nob Go-Swamy on primetime TV A few years ago, finding myself in a heated but very enjoyable argument on why women change their surnames after marriage, somebody yelled from across the room, “What has JNU done to you?!”
I wasn’t surprised, only annoyed. Reducing my entire biography and political beliefs to an institution I attended once upon a time is a favourite pastime in India, when that institution happens to be JNU. I could have explained to the genius who shouted this that if I do have political opinions, neither were they surgically implanted in me at JNU nor will they wither away like the bourgeois state in Marxism if JNU ceases to exist. I should have been grateful that the JNU-phobia was posed through the formal courtesy of a query. Usually, it takes the form of a statement, “You JNU folk are all lunatics!”
In family settings, JNU-bashing is the preferred insult to shut down an argument, “It’s the JNU in you speaking!” At seminars, a question or a paper can be made illegitimate with the simple investigative exercise of determining if you’re from ‘a particular institution with a particular ideology’. Of course, the person asking the question has miraculously escaped institutions and ideology, remaining gloriously neutral in this fractured world.
It matters to nobody who slaps you with the JNU taint that university is only one of the many institutions that will shape a long life. The police, bureaucracy, judiciary and media are also Institutions with Ideology, but nobody seems to be in the mood to accept that. What about family and immediate surroundings? You are born in a particular place, ‘belong’ to a particular caste or religion, attend a particular school or as in my case, a number of schools, enroll in an undergraduate degree somewhere in the country, and only then go to JNU, and probably only for one of your higher degrees.
At JNU you may study at any of ten major Schools, of which only one, social sciences may be charged with teaching Marx’s thought, because it happens to be teaching political thought. Most JNU graduates, statistically, will never even open a book by Marx or Lenin, because they will be studying molecular biology, physical sciences, international relations or linguistics. For most students, JNU is a place to get a decent higher education at an affordable cost, gain a foothold in this cut-throat metropolis and start the serious business of looking for a job and starting a family.
In other words, JNU is still doing what many universities in the country have stopped being able to do – provide a quality education for children of all classes. As Khaliq Parkar has written on Scroll.in. it is in fact, seen through the eyes of a hard core leftie, a depressingly normal, centrist, liberal institution – churning out skilled graduates for the job market. Of course, JNU has traditionally been a place that enjoys furious political debate. It is also far from perfect – rife with bitter struggles between student groups, students and administration, faculty and administration; steeped in a patriarchal, misogynistic ethos regarding sexuality and sexual harassment; and having hosted ham-handed police action with administrative complicity in the past, most famously during the Emergency.
But the important point is, for the most part, the imperfections have been visible and of a nature that can be accommodated within any sensible democratic administrative arrangement. This is more than you can say about most public and private sector institutions which are masters in covering up their institutional rot. The shutting down of this institution means one less affordable university for an already crumbling higher education sector and one less place of open and non-violent political battle for students and teachers.
If the left was all that existed in JNU, why does the ABVP routinely win elections there, and why is the JNU ABVP unit and its large body of supporters now triumphantly swarming all over the besieged campus? Why are you as likely to stumble upon an ABVP meeting celebrating Savarkar who admired and recommended Hitler’s fascist solution to the problem of minorities in India as an AISA meeting saying a nation that doesn’t protect its minorities is no nation at all?
But it’s much easier to imagine the worst about JNU – that like a demonic Hotel California, anybody who enters its gates cannot leave without becoming a dangerous leftist and anti-national. That instead of awarding degrees and asking students to move on, JNU sucks on their healthy nationalist bodies, weakening their spirit and turning them into bloodsucking anti-national vampires. So the news anchors and their viewers cheer and thump our chests when this properly nationalist constellation of forces – the police, the ruling party and the courts – arrests the clueless president of JNU students union, Kanhaiya Kumar for sedition!
The irony of Kumar being held culpable for an event in a campus full of sectarian political divisions within the Left, should leave somebody breathless with laughter. If he hadn’t been arrested, Kumar would probably have been found locked in mortal political battle with the organisers of the ill-advised event on Afzal Guru. The most danger he would have posed if to his own bank balance and health, drinking fifty cups of tea while embroiled in another intra-left discussion between AISF, AISA and DSU over fine points of party line and philosophy.
Yes, these are philosophical disagreements, and you need to produce more than evidence of philosophical extremism to arrest a student and take away his physical freedom. Expressing disagreement with the current Prime Minister is not sedition, unless the current Prime Minister is the Nation. Even shouting slogans against the Nation by ten students in one part of the country cannot justify this embarrassing excess of police action, where students’ rooms are being searched without warrants. Open democratic dissent within universities doesn’t produce terrorists; simmering disaffection within the nation at large does. Blaming JNU for anti-India feeling is exactly like you blaming your child’s ‘bad company’ for his argumentative nature – you can’t handle the truth that all families/nations contain (in both senses of the word ‘contain’) dissenting voices and groups.
The motivations of the current ruling dispensation are cynically obvious – proud inheritors of a long history of jingoistic mobilization, they have a cadre that is bewildered at the mere existence of academic debate on things like nationalism and love for country. A cadre that doesn’t understand the pleasure of sitting in a library for five hours and unlearning treasured beliefs. They often find themselves all dressed up and nowhere to party – tilaks on their foreheads and no Leftist or inter-religious couple to bash up.
Political parties are bound to their constituents, and always looking for a galvanizing enemy. What makes them so confident about JNU is the hope that they can count on the long tradition of JNU-bashing in this country. The cream of this country, whose sights are set not on poor JNU or Delhi University but on Harvard, Cambridge and Wharton, would not blink if the University shut down permanently; they will heave a sigh of relief and say good riddance to bad leftist rubbish. Others with more modest ambitions congratulate themselves on being good, hardworking citizens unlike the decadent, hedonistic, wildly radical JNU professors and students. Nobody really understands the miracle of a functioning, inclusive public institution in a country as divided as India.
We have to decide very quickly if we need this pumped-up nationalist response to an institution of higher learning. We may personally believe universities must limit themselves to simply reproducing the existing social and political order and not ‘fomenting dissent’. But make no mistake – if we refuse to vocally support the right of JNU to exist without the draconian action of the state not to mention violent party cadre right now, we make ourselves indistinguishable from the lynch mob collecting around JNU, planning for something far worse than the drama unfolding currently.
The idea of India can handle some students shouting anti-India slogans in a university campus; and no, it does not mean the disintegration of the nation. Not for the nearly fifty years of JNU’s existence and not now.
A version of this piece has appeared on Scroll.in