Finding the malaise that ails JNU

An insider’s take on how the political developments in 2016 shook one of the finest universities in the country

Published: 01st May 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st May 2022 10:13 AM   |  A+A-

Students part of the JNUSU protests near the main gate of the university on Tuesday. ( Photo | Shekhar Yadav, EPS)

Students part of the JNUSU protests near the main gate of the university (Photo | Shekhar Yadav, EPS)

Express News Service

In February 2016, a series of events took place that drew a kind of attention on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that was quite unpleasant and brought it some disrepute. Many of its students were accused of raising anti-India slogans, and were swiftly charged with sedition.

In the years that followed, a kind of a vilification campaign against the university persisted in public media, before dropping off the public radar. While the pot was boiling, a section of the media vilified and demonised the leftist-dominated student body of the university, while another section tried to valorise them as a force of resistance against the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Those who saw the ugliness unfold on their TV screens generally took their positions depending on which version they were following. Objectivity was, as usual, at a discount. The title under review is one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the various developments that shook JNU from 2016 till the Covid pandemic brought about a temporary closure to it. The author, Makarand Paranjape, is today one of the most senior professors in the School of Languages of JNU, a scholar of considerable accomplishments and the author or editor of more than 50 books. His erudition is beyond dispute, as is his dedication to JNU as an institution, which he has served for more than two decades. 

In the series of events that Paranjape has documented, his was one of the few voices from within the JNU community that was critical of the anti-governmental stance of the bulk of the left-wing dominated students’ and teachers’ unions. For this he was subjected to a lot of subtle and a lot more unsubtle pressure from his own colleague and students, which he has documented at some length in this book.

Paranjape’s central argument is unexceptionable––that the Indian academic landscape is very heavily politicised, both at the level of faculty members and the students, and this severely compromises the quality of higher education available in Indian colleges and universities. The sections on the state of higher education in India, the need for structural and institutional reform in the last chapter, and Paranjape’s reflections on these issues strewn all across the book are extremely insightful––viz. why should students fully funded by public money have to be “compelled” to attend classes by means of attendance requirements? Are they not in the university to attend classes in the first place? Why should classes have to suffer because of differences between a handful of representatives of the student body and university authorities, which seldom pertain to academic issues? 

Paranjape fears that the considerable investments made in higher education by the Indian state in its first seven decades risk becoming far less efficacious if people of any political persuasion––left or right––are allowed to establish a stranglehold on the academic landscape. With particular reference to JNU, while completely certain of the intrinsic worth of the university as India’s premier destination for higher education, Paranjape finds a ‘Left-Lib’ stranglehold on the faculty body, which provides oxygen to the ‘Left-Lib’ domination of the student body as well. 

Over the years of his association with the university, he has found the academic worth of the institution diminish, largely owing to the rise of an entitlement culture which he seems to attribute to politisation of the academic space by the virtually ubiquitous ‘Left-Lib’ cabal.

When under the new political dispensation of PM Modi, this entitlement culture began to feel threatened in many ways, the author seems to argue, the ‘Left-Lib’ cabal mounted a strident opposition against the government, and aligned even with anti-national subversive forces, such as the Naxalites and Kashmiri separatists–– which led to the unacceptable slogan of ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ and the coinage of ‘tukde tukde gang’ to refer to the political opposition.

There are numerous oddities, though, in Paranjape’s account of the political turmoil in JNU for some three years beginning February 2016, of which I will mention only two. It remains to be proven in a court of law that Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, whatever their political views might be, were guilty of sedition that fateful night when the ‘tukde tukde’ slogan rang out, because there is not even any testimony (let alone any documentary proof) claiming that the two of them actually shouted that slogan. Paranjape though seems to consider allegation being as good as evidence. 

Even more curious is the case of Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU student who was last seen leaving the university premises on board an auto-rickshaw in 2016 after an altercation with ABVP students which left him badly bruised––never to return home or to anyone who knew him. A concerned Paranjape speculates about why the boy may have disappeared––he may have left in fear, or as a part of a conspiracy to bring disrepute to JNU/ABVP and a number of unnamed others, or as a kind of publicity gimmick on the eve of UP elections. Najeeb disappeared six years back––it seems Paranjape would want to wait the last legally mandated year before assuming he might be dead, maybe even killed. If you are looking for an objective account of the developments in JNU 2016, I am afraid you will have to wait some more.

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