The Meaning of JNU’s Presence : Ankit Kawade

This is a guest post by ANKIT KAWADE

 How does the presence of public universities in general, and JNU in particular, affect the course of Indian politics? What is the sociology of such institutions, since therein cohabit people from diverse and unequal communities and regions? As a sociological phenomenon, what are the potentialities of the interactions which take place in such institutions across class-caste-gender-region categories?

The idea of a public institution is an egalitarian one, and their mandates in modern nation-states is towards universalising access. Institutions might terribly fail in this project, nevertheless its mandates cannot espouse, as a matter of speaking if not functioning, agendas of exclusions and discrimination. The public university goes one step ahead in this regard, because unlike other public institutions it is less bureaucratic in regulating the interactions between its residents, most importantly students, say in canteens, classrooms, hostels, open spaces within the campus, etc. Campus politics and learning processes inside and outside the classroom bear the imprint of the potentialities of such interactions among divergent social sections.

In such receptive exchanges lie the radicalism of the public university; this ideational radicalism represented in perhaps near pristine form in JNU. Radicalism has to be understood not in its narrow sense of a political ideology but also in terms of the scope and extent of receptive interactions and exchanges that a public space offers its cohabitants. This radicalism has a threatening and subversive content, and its survival depends to an extent, in the self-sufficiency of the confines of the public university. This is what it means when ‘autonomy’ is demanded, in that the vicissitudes of outside world should not adversely impact the radicalism inside the public university. This in some ways also acknowledges the inability of that radicalism to survive outside the confines of the university, for its subversive content has dismantling consequences for the structures of domination that enjoy more acceptability outside. This is clear when idealistic students are told that ‘the outside world is very different’ or ‘keep your ideology off the door of the home’, and so on. This leads to a claim that, the radicalism of the public university can thrive only insofar as it remains confined within it, that it is made and expected to create as little ripples in the outside world as possible, and attempts of imitation outside the campus shall carry counter-claims of superficiality, inauthenticity and even betrayal from those within the campus.

JNU thus acts as a safe haven for housing radical tendencies. It has a double implication- this home acts both as comfort and confine for this radicalism. While the social freedoms that are enjoyed here are a source of comfort, their enjoyment carries a chilling awareness of it being confined within the physical space of the university. One is confronted with this confinement when one observes that the area surrounding the campus, say Munirka, is comparatively unsafe during the night, or in the Delhi University where there are restrictions of entry and exit in hostels, harsher so for women.

Wherever such radical tendencies have thrived, as it does in JNU, what has been the response of the ruling governments to it? A possible answer to this shall reveal management tactics of the governments while they confront radical resistance against itself and structures of domination in the civil society. This question has to be seen specifically in the context of the aftermath of the 9th February incident.

Patronage and Indulgence

The kind of student mobilisation after the 9th February incident that the ruling BJP government had to face is comparable only to the anti-emergency agitation and the Nirbhaya gangrape protests. Nonetheless the student mobilisation during this time was unique because it was responding to state crackdown against something that had happened within the university. Not to mention JNU students saw this state crackdown in the larger pattern of such attacks before on Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M), Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Hyderabad Central University (HCU), not to mention the killings of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, M M Kalburgi and Mohammad Akhlaq of Dadri.

Again, the incident which provoked the state crackdown in JNU pertained to the demand for self-determination in Kashmir, and not just the critique of the current government (as happened in IIT-M) or protesting against capital punishment or communal riots (as happened in HCU). The public sphere of mainland India not habitual to hearing the kind of sloganeering that allegedly took place on the 9th of February reacted in a violent fit against not only those who seemed to be directly involved but the entire university as such. The sloganeering represented the overall ethos of JNU, according to most corporate owned media houses, the moral corruption breeding inside a university which offers all too uninhibited freedom to the students and the faculty, contributes nothing productive to the economy, and acts as a burden on the public exchequer.

However, support for self-determination movements is not new to JNU. The language and tone of the alleged slogans can be routinely heard in Kashmir. It was the fact that such sloganeering could take place in a university situated in the national capital, that too a university that enjoys much resentment in corporate, Hindutva and bureaucratic circles, that made the state crackdown even more pronounced. One wonders if this can also be attributed to what is called the ‘mediatisation’ of our times, where an electronically recorded event is shared quickly on the internet generated popular attention as well as media discussions, thus giving it more traction than it would have otherwise garnered (something observed in the Una movement too).

Why has the ruling BJP-RSS combine not been able to cap or manage student resistance against itself? Why did the previous Congress governments not invite as much wrath of the students if they too presided over a neoliberal regime similarly geared towards privatisation? The opposition of the students to Congress government is usually on their adverse policies, and not their ideology. The place that the BJP-RSS combine occupies in the epistemology and vocabulary of resistance among students is hugely disproportionate, and it spills over even when one is criticising the Congress, for instance when they are called the votaries of ‘soft’ Hindutva.

Why is it that BJP-RSS has not been able to shed its nagging scepticism amongst the students? Narendra Modi in an interview to The Indian Express lamented that his biggest challenge was to “win over [the] sceptics, and persuade them of our sincerity and good intentions” (Mathew 2016). What explains the trust deficit between this ruling government vis-a-vis the Congress and the students?

Both governments have faced student resistance against itself, but the Congress has fared better than BJP in managing it. I argue that it is in their respective responses to resistance wherein one will find the answers to the question of disproportionate mistrust. The response of the Congress may be called ‘indulgence’ and that of the BJP ‘patronage’. Let us consider Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ to understand this. The magnificence of the King’s (Government’s) clothes (policies) is hidden and invisible to everybody who is stupid and incompetent (students). Yet it takes one innocent (or mischievous) child to call out the King’s bluff and point out the non-existence of any magnificence, indeed of any clothes. How does the King respond to this?:

‘The emperor shuddered, for he knew that they were right, but he thought, “The procession must go on!” He carried himself ever more proudly, and the chamberlains walked along behind carrying the train that wasn’t there.’ (Andersen 2010)

This precisely connotes indulging in the opinions of dissenters, something that the Congress adopts while dealing with resistance. Had the Emperor had that child beaten up or lynched by the surrounding mob for speaking the truth, one might have seen parallels with the tactics BJP adopts while dealing with resistance.

Indulgence in the truth of the resistant claims gives a bad moral conscience to the ruling government, but it doesn’t threaten its position. Indulgence should also be differentiated with indifference, as the emperor does shudder at hearing the truth and doubts his wisdom from the very beginning in not potentially perceiving the clothes. He is not indifferent, nor to his own doubts of incompetence neither to the claims of the swindler weavers. An indifferent attitude of the emperor would have indicated a non-reception of the truth itself, which was not the case. By slightly indulging in the truth he may have momentarily mocked his own Kingly position and made himself the butt of his subjects’ jokes (One is reminded of Manmohan Singh1), but this is what enabled the procession to go forward. It is always better not to provoke and invite unnecessary harm from one’s subjects that one may not be able to then manage.

Let us come to the BJP. One of the reasons cited for the student resistance against itself is the BJP’s lack of belief in the idea of a public university as a public good. Let us examine this claim. The BJP does not seem to be against the existence of public universities, in the sense that it would like to see them all privatised. It shows a selective attitude towards universities depending upon the radicalism levels of both ideology and unregulated interactions in the campus. This selective attitude is manifest in the government providing active patronage to universities like Banaras Hindu University (BHU) but withdrawing it from campuses like JNU. BJP’s patronage, or the lack thereof, is characterised by an affinity towards the social visions generated through both the dominant ideologies and pattern and extent of unregulated interactions inside a campus. Where the brand of politics as championed by ABVP is not dominant, the government’s strategy is not to privatise such campus spaces but induct ideological affinity through having ‘their own’ people in key positions in the university, decry the existing curriculum as being retrograde and irrelevant, punish such deviant students and faculty by having the administrative machinery biased, institute such Centres that are likely to cater to its natural constituency (like the Centre for Yoga and Ayurveda, Sanskrit), etc.

Left-leaning critiques of Modi government’s misadventures with higher education institutes in the country often miss the point that the Hindutva impulse in the government is stronger than the development impulse, and it would happily restrain its privatising cravings if Hindutva is sufficiently entrenched in certain institutions like the BHU. This is marked by the fact that the ABVP too joins left-leaning student groups when attempts at privatisation has adversely hurt the students, for instance when the non-NET fellowship was withdrawn by the government (Sebastian 2015).

While an indulgent attitude still functions in the framework of enlightenment rationality and assumes for every individual reason and equal access to truth (whether to act upon it is a very different matter), the attitude of patronage works under feudal notions of patron-client relationships. This attitude infantilises its subjects, paints them as always keen to misuse their freedoms, and tries to save them from the vulnerability of their own “improper” actions by having caveats and conditionalities for every freedom granted. This patronising attitude may be said to be the single biggest reason why the BJP-RSS combine is depressingly unpopular among students, especially JNU students. Sample a description of the reasons of students’ protest against the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, between whom and Modi Amitav Ghosh has been very perceptive to see striking parallels (2014):

Everybody wanted PM Erdoğan (emphasis original) to resign. Because, [as] many activists explained both during and after the Resistance, he was constantly meddling with their lifestyles, telling women to have at least three children, telling them not to have C-sections, not to have abortions, telling people not to drink, not to smoke, not to hold hands in public, to be obedient and religious. He was constantly telling them what was best for them… He had become ‘Daddy Knows Best’ in all avenues of life, and tried to do this in a clumsy patronising disguise, which was quickly discarded during Gezi events to reveal the profoundly authoritarian character behind the image. (Somay quoted in Zizek 2014: 30)

Zizek points out that the Gezi park protests were neither directed against neoliberal capitalism nor Islamism, “but the personality of Erdogan”, led by mostly “secular educated protesters as well as… anti-capitalist Muslim youth” (Zizek 2014: 29). It is hard not to see parallels in India where the government and its cautiously backed agencies like Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad makes choices for citizens ranging from food (beef-ban) to marriage partners (love jihad) to choice of occupation (Gau-raksha), etc.

What the Congress and the BJP represent therefore are two differing models on managing student resistance itself, and the Congress represents a much more insidious tactic which is hard to identify and locate and thus resist. It is no wonder that the BJP bears the disproportionate brunt of student resistance for the very simple reason that its patronising attitude renders visible the concrete forms of domination it seeks to exercise, making it easier to locate and thus resist against.

Towards a Resonant Politics

Gopal Guru in a session discussing Ambedkar’s visions of a University made a remark wondering whether the purpose of most universities “and JNU not being an exception, is to really create socially necessary illusions” (YouTube 2014).This remark was made in the context of the kind of courses that a university offers its students, whether such courses orients students towards “social struggle” and “critical solidarities” or towards the market or being an “enlightened consumer” (YouTube 2014), etc. We shall not engage with the substance of this argument here yet the statement reveals aspects of certain feelings that a university provides its students, whose implications warrant some discussion.

One should wonder whether the feeling of freedom is indeed an illusion at JNU. In JNU, the state and the dominating social structures of caste and patriarchy certainly have a Frankenstein on their hands. Let us return to the distinction of comfort and confine made in the context of underscoring the limits of radicalism of the public university. One sees a method in the state’s madness of granting the kind of freedoms that exist in JNU, because it takes the state very little time to call upon its repressive apparatus to descend onto a public university when situations go south, something that was observed when students in HCU were lathicharged by the police, and supplies of basic needs like food, water, internet were cut off. How an oasis of freedom and calm turns into a site of state sanctioned violence should make one question the (un)certainties of the kind of freedoms that one enjoys in a social space, not to mention the omnipresence of the state. In simpler words, we enjoy those freedoms because the state lets us. It is not a contradiction that there is such disequilibrium in the level of safety and security that women feel in adjacent physical spaces like the JNU campus and Munirka. This disequilibrium is very much by design.

How does the politics of JNU respond to this awareness of comfort and confine? It is by engaging in incessantly frequent political protests, as if participating in routinised everyday rituals, that it is able to maintain an appearance of freedom and its comfort without a simultaneous awareness of its confinement. A ritual may be described as a symbolic performance of submission to a higher power. This description would seem the most outlandish to characterise the politics of JNU wherein an anti-state rhetoric is perhaps the strongest anywhere in India. Yet there is no running away from the fact that JNU is also one of the most financially well endowed universities in the country, and this fact is not coincidental when considering the overall freedoms afforded by the cohabitants of this social space. The anti-state rhetoric of JNU carries a terrible simultaneous acknowledgement of the state’s power. The radical political protests carry a symbolic solidarity with struggles happening elsewhere, and that should be reason enough for their existence, but questions arise as to the relative comfort in which all this resistant activity can take place, and by whose indulgence. The BJP’s attitude towards public universities, in its inability to indulge, in turn reveals the place universities have always occupied in the imagination of ruling governments. BJP’s callousness in expressing it has only made it easier to resist against.

More importantly, there has evolved a distinct language and vocabulary of JNU and its descriptions which further the cause of maintaining this appearance. It is in this language that the “rot” inside the university, “the enemy within” (Pathak 2016), is masked as well as spoken about. The most succinct expression of this language is the slogan given after 9th February- “Save JNU”. The vocabulary of the politics of saving JNU includes bestowing elaborate praises upon the institution’s history and legacy, and essentialising it into a necessarily “progressive” one (a more partisan version of this slogan, much heard after the JNUSU elections is “JNU laal hai, laal rahega”- meaning ‘JNU is and will remain red’, that is the bearer of socialist and communist ideologies). An unfriendly government is no excuse for sidestepping the critiques of political practices within the university, present and past. This self-congratulatory language does not capture the realities of  the lack of access faced by marginalised communities for whom the gates of this university have been thrown open with more sincerity only relatively recently. Another place which is comparable to JNU in waxing eloquent about freedom as an article of faith is the United States of America, and we know how hollow these claims often sound like.

To state clearly the confining aspects of a comfortable environment is to avoid the ritualised politics that give one a half awareness of freedom.February 9th was precisely a chilling reminder of this awareness, “an axe for the frozen sea inside us” as Kafka had put it. A shift from the self-congratulatory language of platitudes about JNU, to one which affirms the failures of this university, both of its professed ideologies to create any meaningful impact in the outside world as well as of its history of elitism and inaccess, should be a starting point towards aresonant politics- a politics insisting on recreating and redeeming JNU instead of trying to save it.


1 In 2011, Manmohan Singh responded to Sushma Swaraj in the form of a Urdu couplet in the Indian Parliament- ‘Maana ki teri deed ke kaabil nahi hu main, tu mera shauk dekh, mera intezaar dekh’, roughly meaning “I agree I am not worth your looking at me; but see my keenness, my anticipation” (Sharma 2011). This was a ruler who was not only aware, but also admitted to the criticism of incompetence, seeking the indulgence of his critics.


Andersen, Hans Christian (2010): “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, retrieved from

Ghosh, Amitav (2014): “Erdogan and Modi: Parallel Journeys”, The Times of India, November 30.

Mathew, Liz (2016): “Narendra Modi Interview”, The Indian Express, July 5.

Pathak, Avijit (2016): “JNU’s enemy without, within”, The Indian Express, November 4.

Sebastian, Kritika Sharma (2015): “Students protest against UGC decision”, The Hindu, October 23, 2015.

Sharma, Amol (2011): “In Parliament’s War of Urdu Couplets, Who Won?”, retrieved from

[Ankit Kawade is pursuing his M.A. in Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.]

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