Why JNU is misunderstood and much maligned: An insider’s account

JNU misunderstood
Students who enter JNU are like other students in any university — an eclectic mix that jostle in a mini-India, brought into a level playing field | Illustration - Prathap Ravishankar

Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU, has been in turmoil and hence in the news for almost six years now, climaxing in the attack on the campus earlier this month.

For those who have not been students at JNU, or have not visited the breathtaking campus, it is difficult to figure out what is happening at the premier university. This has given rise to misinformation, myths, misunderstanding and a litany of sheer nonsense that beat all imagination.

Many are righteously declaring that JNU is an example why students anywhere should not be allowed to get involved in politics. They must study. Period.

Some have actively peddled the idea that the university is  a “den” (note the usage of this word) of Leftists. Students have been labelled as “anti-nationals”, “tukde-tukde” gang, immoral (with the infamously alleged discovery of thousands of used condoms etc. in the hostels) , spoilt, and what have you.

The latest issue of fee hike has ignited a debate demanding to know why the government must subsidise the students, turning them into “parasites” when the rest of the country is paying for everything through its nose.

For someone like this writer, who is a JNU alumnus, it is painful, baffling and incomprehensible that the university is being trashed in sections of the social media by a holier-than-thou middle-class as if the university is the crucible of all ills that Indian society is today faced with.

Reality lost in the din

What makes these negative opinions so difficult to fathom is the fact that JNU, since its establishment in 1969, has been a unique experiment in the country’s educational history.  In all surveys and assessments the university comes out on top. Its students today occupy the most privileged positions in academics, administration and politics in the country.

So, there must be something that has probably gone right with the university? The very same students who are today part of the various agitations like the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act, fee hike etc. will tomorrow occupy key positions in the police force, intelligence setup, politics and administration, similar to their forbears.

Kanhaiya Kumar, for example, is already a top leader in the Communist Party of India (CPI) within a couple of years of exiting the university. In the past, there were Sitaram Yechury, Prakash and Brinda Karat, D Raja, all of whom have gone on to don leadership roles in the Left front; Nirmala Sitharaman and S Jaishankar both of whom are ministers in the BJP government; Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee and some of the top academics like Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and Urmila Phadnis who are hugely respected around the world for their scholarship and expertise in their fields.

The irony is that JNU is hyped both positively and negatively while reality in between struggles to make itself heard and, more often than not, gets lost in the din.

An eclectic mini-India

First things first — it is not easy to get admission into the university. It is the social sciences equivalent of the IITs or the IIMs. The speciality is the social connect that links the admission process to the social and economic backwardness and attempts to bring about a level-playing field. The result is that students from backward areas of the country from poor families get a great opportunity to study in the institution. Once in the university, no one wears their background on their sleeves. The expenses are minimal and therefore there is not much of a stress on paying the various fees.

And students who enter the university are like other students in any university — an eclectic mix that jostle in a mini-India. Many, in fact, join JNU to crack the civil services exam. The university has over the years informally developed a body of knowledge that comes in handy during the exams. Tricks of the trade including the method of preparing for the exams, the kind of questions that will be asked etc. are all passed unselfconsciously from the seniors to the juniors. Many eventually join the civil services — from the foreign service to the administrative service, police, revenue, etc. Those who get left out are even invited by the intelligence services to join them, and many do.

For students interested in academics, the faculty is among the best in the country. Not all, though. There are the average and below average faculty too. Fortunately for them, they get overshadowed by their more talented peers and generally don’t get exposed, except for those students who have the misfortune of being taught by them.

Laboratory for politics

So where do the politics come in? Unlike say, technology universities or colleges, JNU focuses on social sciences which means politics, economics, sociology, etc. One of the aims of the university was to create an atmosphere where students could form unions, affiliate with political parties and test democratic practices in situ.

For example, student union elections are conducted in the most ideal manner. The students themselves form the equivalent of an Election Commission and conduct elections. Costs are kept down and anyone can contest. Canvassing is strictly informal with minimal pamphleteering and advertising. Election meetings are conducted in the various hostels, culminating in a grand speech on a single platform shared by all the presidential candidates on the eve of elections.

Also read | Unexpected violence creates atmosphere of apprehension in JNU

Voting is free and fair and students pick candidates of their choice without any pressure. Most students joining the university are not affiliated to any political party or even ideology. Animated discussions are common near the various dhabas, in hostel rooms and all the various open spaces — rarely do any of these turn ugly. If the Left has been elected since long, that is because the students wanted it that way. Obviously, this has been a matter of great frustration for the Congress and BJP as, unlike the Delhi university, neither has ever been able to dominate the JNU students’ union.

There is no great conspiracy in this. The low-cost model of electioneering and the absence of  big money have historically been attributed by students within the campus to have worked to the Left’s advantage. The power of ideas and the oratory of students have determined their victory. So don’t be surprised that Kanhaiya Kumar won the elections — his oratorial  skills are now widely acknowledged even by his opponents. In the past, students like DP Tripathi (who was with the Nationalist Congress Party), Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat (both CPM) made their mark similarly.

For the unexplored

Incidentally, the JNU campus is itself a site to behold. Part of the Aravalli range of mountains,  the over 1,000-acre of campus is so vast that a newcomer can easily get lost in it. It is difficult to walk from one part of the campus to another — there is a bus service within the campus that caters to students and faculty. There are wild animals like the Nilgai and the black scorpion within the JNU forest area. It is common for students to come across a variety of rare birds,  snakes and forest-dwelling animals.

For students who manage to get into the university, the experience therefore is diverse and exposure to politics, among other things, is revealing. The academic structure too is innovative and allows for experimentation to the extent that sometimes topics chosen for study and research can seem arcane.

Many on the outside, with little exposure to JNU, question the time taken for students to complete their research. That is the nature of the social sciences the world over where students age, get married and live in married scholars’ hostels continuing their study. To question the utility of such education is myopic as the benefits are not always immediately tangible.

Debates and dhabas

So much of importance is given to debates, discussions, arguments, etc. that even the most diffident students feel encouraged to question anything and everything. It makes them seem anti-establishment and occasionally they attract the attention of outsiders, like the meeting in 2016 to discuss the merit involving the hanging of Afzal Guru for his involvement in the 2001 Parliament attack.

This was not the first time that the students were involved in something controversial. If the Afzal Guru meeting had not been noticed by the outside world, it would have just passed off as another heated event to be quickly forgotten until another issue came up. The arrival in power at the Centre of the right-wing BJP government and the fact that the union was Left-controlled was reason enough for the issue to be blown up. Since then, the university has lurched from one controversy to another — almost all of them under a better-disposed and wiser administration could have been handled more maturely.

The students, as a body, have over the years taken on all kinds of governments including the Congress during the Emergency and even the CPM in 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China. So, for anyone who assumes that only the BJP, RSS or its affiliate, the ABVP, is a target, think again.

Lest we forget, JNU students were at the forefront helping victims and families of those targeted during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 and during the protests that helped draw the country’s attention to the 2012 Delhi gang rape incident.

Within the University, the various administrations have been hauled over the coals several times in the past including the well known strike in 1983 when many students were sent to prison, only to make a dramatic escape (but that is different story). So the current Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar is not the only one to face the brunt of student anger.

The ultimate paradox

The ultimate paradox is that the students who, within the university are anti-establishment, end up mostly joining the very system they had a problem with, including the civil services, banks and mainstream political parties. There have been a few who did venture out to work with the poor and marginalised after their stint in JNU, like Chandrashekhar Prasad who was gunned down in Bihar in the late ’90s.

If anyone wonders why the influential JNU alumni has generally been quiet and not been more vocal in support of the students, that is because very few are in a position to protest. Probably, the only ones with still some space to express their anger and disapproval are those in the academics within and outside the university besides a few in the media, the arts and in politics.

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