Jawaharlal Nehru University is already a little more than an elite institution of higher education. It has morphed itself into a metaphor, the reason it evokes nationwide resonance. It is a metaphor of the widening gulf between pretenses and practices, between propaganda and prospects. It is also an implicit warning as to where we have reached, and where we are headed.
Further, it denotes a struggle between the past and the future, in the theatre of the present where, as Matthew Arnold says, “ignorant armies clash by night”. India, wrote Nehru, is a “myth, a riddle”. It is riddle, especially today, of a land inhabited by a swelling populace of hyper-patriots who lacerate a land saare jahaan se acchha (more beautiful than any other in the world). Where the most bewitching political slogan is progress but the means to its attainment is a regression to the distant past. It is a land proud, on its lips, of its demographic dividend, but is fearful, in its heart, of what it entails.
As Oommen Chandy, the former Kerala CM once said, the state committed the terrible mistake of educating all and sundry without even a distant dream of being able to provide employment except to a tiny fraction of its educated youth. We are also a nation in which the letter of democracy today wages a war of conquest over its spirit.
At the core of the JNU issue is a time-old issue: Is it prudent to open the portals of higher education to those from the lower classes? This question is of respectable pedigree. It raged in Prussia when European civilisation, of which it was then the foremost flagbearer, was at its peak. Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740-1786), hailed as the ideal king even by Immanuel Kant, initiated a national debate on this issue, the outcome of which remained inconclusive even after a decade of intense national debate. So, this is not merely a Hindutva angst, though it is true that its ascendancy has sharpened the edges of this anxiety. Knowledge is power. To educate is, hence, to empower.
Power, if broad-based, holds the potential, given the dynamics of democracy, to disturb and dismantle entrenched interests and entitlements. The politics of education involves, has always involved, the deep structure of entitlements. Education— its provision and denial—touches the nucleus of class struggles. There is, clearly, a class angle to the JNU turmoil. About 45% of its students, meritorious and aspirational, are drawn from the lacklustre segments of our social spectrum. This explains why this student body is susceptible to the socalled ‘left’ ideological appeal. There is truth in the allegation that JNU is a ‘breeding ground’ for left leanings.
The students who enter it from all parts of India do not reach there ideologically well-defined. They become so. You may attribute it to the birth of a new awareness via liberal education. Or, you may damn it as the infection inherent in an institution that needs to be eradicated like infectious diseases. Ironically, JNU has become the testing ground of the proposed New Education Policy with its liberal, democratic and progressive frills and fanfare. JNU is, in blueprint, what the NEP envisages higher education to be. The core issue is this: Is it possible to promote excellence in higher education without also letting our colleges to be progressive, liberal and democratic in their institutional culture? Amartya Sen has established that democracy averts famines. Colonialism bred them.
The famine of the mind is as bad as the famine of the body. It’s so even for our economics. Consider the wealth that flows out of India due to our poor standards of higher education. Annually tens and thousands of academically motivated students go to overseas universities, incurring exorbitant tuition fees and related expenses. The loss to the country on this count runs into billions of dollars. India has the potential to be a hub for quality higher education which is globally in demand. Instead of addressing this exciting prospect, we wax eloquent about having been a world leader in higher education centuries ago. And we go about undoing what little we today have by way of educational assets. Clearly, there is a disconcerting dissonance between the drumroll of development and the emerging negativity to liberal education in our country. Education is the main driver of development.
We want to develop. But we will choke education, not just ideologically but also financially. And that, even when over a lakh crore rupees are lying fallow with the Ministry of Human Resource Development accumulated via education cess. It is this that makes the controversial fee hike in JNU suspect. It is not explained by resource crunch. Fee hike, as it is played out, seems more like assaulting the ramparts of an institution, indeed of a vision for education. If the outlay for a stretch of bullet train connecting two states can far exceed the annual education outlay for a population of 1.37 billion people, it tells us a lot about our attitude to education and development. JNU signals a worrisome pathology.
Violence as the medium of argument is unacceptable anywhere. It is doubly so in educational institutions. Often the seed of violence is systemic, with mediocrity as its muscle power. The appointment of mediocre VCs is seminal, brooding violence. Violence is contextual. The violence in a simmering husband-wife feud may be silence. The violence in the imposition of mediocrity on universities mandated to pursue excellence is like shifting the gear of a vehicle in forward motion abruptly to the reverse gear. A mediocre VC can do greater harm to a university than a thousand masked goons. The riddle of hitching mediocrity to the chariot of national development is spluttering in full public view. It might take a while longer for its true pedigree to be duly recognised.
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi