Earlier this year, the name of a metro station just outside one of India’s top institutes of higher education — Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi — was named after a coaching institute known for coaching of students for the engineering entrance exams. Except for a feeble complaint by the institute’s director, who first wrote a letter to the Centre and then filed a case in Delhi High Court (which was later dismissed), there was not even a whimper of protest by 8,000-odd students of the institute.
“Can you imagine such a situation on this campus?” asks a PhD student in the Schools of Arts and Aesthetics in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which has come to be synonymous with the Left ideology in India. “If standing up for issues that are important and voicing what each one of us feels about them is wrong, let us be anti-nationals,” the student asserts.
Students and faculties in the university owing allegiance from the far-Right to the far-Left of the political viewpoint insist that JNU is different not only because of its penchant for radicalism and anti-establishment sentiments, but also because it represents a diverse yet inclusive campus, gives space to radical voices not only from the Left movement but across the political spectrum, and promotes a tradition of dissent.
But was JNU, established in 1969 when earlier institutes and universities of eminence were collapsing, always like this?
The first lot of faculty, who largely came from Presidency College in Calcutta (now Kolkata), set the tone. Many insist that they were Marxist in their writings but did not really follow the Left politics of India — a trend that has continued — and that distinction needs to be made in the popular perception.
“The central place that the JNU has come to enjoy today in the national imagination — in the minds of both those for or against it — is not primarily JNU’s own doing, but also due to the change that has happened in last five years, due to it being projected as an ideological opponent institute by the ruling dispensation which has its own ideology,” says Rakesh Batabyal of Centre for Media Studies and author of the highly acclaimed book JNU: The Making of a University, written four years ago.
He stresses that the JNU came into being right after anti-English and anti-Hindi agitations, Hindu communal mobilisation around Benaras, Muslim communal mobilisation around Aligarh, riots in many parts and in such milieu, was conceived to bring national integration. “But sadly, it is attacked exactly on the opposite grounds today,” he says.
In March, Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khaliq Parkar, wrote in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly of India: “In the last four decades (1974-2008 and 2012-17), in annual elections of the students’ union, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) — the student branch of the Communist Party of India-Marxist or CPI(M) — has won the post of president 22 times.”
Martelli, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Research at Sciences Po Paris and Parkar from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune, are both JNU alumni.
They also analysed that the All India Students’ Association, the student wing of CPI-ML, follows with 11 mandates, while candidates from independent socialist platforms have won eight times.
The duo wrote that candidates representing parties that dominate the government at the Centre have always lost the post of president, except in the 1991 and 2000 elections, when ABVP, the student wing of the RSS, won.
But Aditya Mukherjee, who teaches at Centre for Historical Studies, insists that while Left domination of student politics is an established fact, among the faculty, it’s a wide range of ideologies — from far- Right to those who are slightly Left of centre to only liberalism. “But because of some of those who followed Left ideologies were nationally renowned it became part of the national consciousness that students and teachers in JNU are proponents of Leftism,” he says.
Vagish Jha, a pre-doctoral student in the University says that it is the inherent tolerance and respect for irreverence towards tradition, social and political customs and established norms that sets it apart from any other institute of higher education in India. “The university has allowed students to debate, dissent and ask questions, even uncomfortable ones. If that changes, it (JNU) won’t survive,” Jha says.
For Divyani Motla, doing her predoctoral studies on Khalistani movement, February 2016 — when some students were charged with sedition on the allegations of indulging in anti-national activities — changed may things in many ways. “My family had started insisting that I leave JNU and come back. But for me, that was not even a consideration because had I done that, I would have failed everything I learnt here,” she says.
A senior bureaucrat in the Modi government and a JNU alumni, who asked not to be named, while holding firm that some “cultural reform in the campus is required”, conceded that the slander campaign going on against the institute is wrong.“Suddenly, an enemy out of an institution has been created because of its perceived ideological position, image. But is that required?” he asked. “I would say no and yes, both. No, because whatever the point of defamation — that it’s a place where sexual orgies take place, people are drunk before going to classes — the soul of JNU will die if the freedom granted to students is curbed,” the IAS officer said.