Jawaharlal Nehru University

It was home for the last two years, as I pursued my second Masters- in Politics with specialization in International Relations. And what a place! Before you write me off as a JNU sympathizer, I wish to bring to your attention a fact neatly summarized by a friend: I am too mainstream to be in JNU. To be honest, I don’t always believe in what happens inside the campus. But before I come to my reasons or my journey at this remarkable place, there are some common claims against the University that I wish to give my opinion on.

Why are you guys so political/ Why do JNU students indulge in Politics?

While JNU now has an MBA school and an engineering school (!), for anyone asking these rhetorical questions a look at what is taught at JNU may be a good starting point for the long and winding road to enlightenment. Firstly, it is a university devoted predominantly to Social Sciences.  Political Science, Sociology, Economics, International Relations are just some of the celebrated courses on campus. I understand that for a nation where engineers become bankers it is difficult to understand the absurd logic of someone studying Political Science to indulge in Politics, but such things happen! Secondly, it was during a train journey when my JNU credentials led to popular curiosities about the University that I realized people’s idea of Political Science can remain restricted to “something like Civics.” Unfortunately, while Civics was reduced to mugging up whatever was thrown at us, Post Graduation would and should involve more than what was taught in school, right? If it isn’t then we are indeed wasting tax payers money. Thirdly, the deal with a place like JNU is that there are quite a few people who are there because of a deliberate decision they made, not while going with the flow or their parents’ deciding their fate. Strongly opinionated and an unwavering belief in your cause is natural when decisions are taken by you for yourself. Lastly, and most importantly, instead of taking pride in being nonpolitical or apolitical, often using it as a veil to hide their ignorance about what is going on in the country, people should be ashamed that they aren’t political enough. That a country with the third highest number of billionaires in the world ranks 103 on the Global Hunger Index, ranking below neighboring China (25th spot), Nepal (72), Myanmar (68), Sri Lanka (67) and Bangladesh (86), does not debate its hunger crisis or its raging water crisis but a University’s national credentials is ridiculous. What are we doing to address this as a nation? To answer these questions for one’s own conscience, one needs to be political. 

To think that one can be apolitical when by the very fact of being a citizen of a political entity called a Nation one is a subject in politics, the folly of the thought is laid bare when one thinks that we do not read a news article as : a man carrying a pound of flesh was surrounded by an angry mob and lynched for carrying that flesh, breaking the myth of the prevalence of any Rule of Law in India. What we read instead is a Muslim man carrying beef was surrounded by some Hindu vigilantes…Rule of Law becomes a first world concept, lets talk roti, kapra, makaan, the makaan aspect, incidentally, relying on protection of private property which depends on the Rule of Law. You cannot escape politics, if you think you can, then I can escape gravity! Living in a bubble is fine but then do not tell a Social Science university to stop being political.

About wasting the tax payers money on JNU, I’d like to quote Pheroseshah Mehta’s comments in his capacity as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council on a British proposal to transfer public funds from higher to primary education more than a century ago. He had this to say,

The amiable and well-meaning father of a somewhat numerous family,  addicted unfortunately to slipping off a little too often of an evening to the house over the way, who, when the mother appealed to him to do something for the education of the grown-up boys, begged of her with tears in his eyes to consider if her request was not unreasonable, when there was not even enough food and clothes for the younger children. The poor woman could not gainsay the fact, with the hungry eyes staring before her; but she could not help bitterly reflecting that the children could have food and clothes, and education to boot, if the kindly father could be induced to be good enough to spend a little less on drink and cards. Similarly, gentlemen, when we are reminded of the crying wants of the poor masses for sanitation and pure water and medical relief and primary education, might we not respectfully venture to submit that there would be funds, and to spare, for all these things, and higher education too, if the enormous and growing resources of the country were not ruthlessly squandered on a variety of whims and luxuries, on costly residences and sumptuous furniture, on summer trips to the hills, on little holiday excursions to the frontiers, but above and beyond all, on the lavish and insatiable humors of an irresponsible military policy, enforced by the very men whose view and opinions of its necessity cannot but accommodate themselves to their own interests and ambitions.

What is wrong with JNU?

Usually this rhetorical question is posed with a lot of contempt and hate. These questions are rhetorical because people have arrived at their judgement based on whatever information that they had access to and they aren’t having this discussion to gain some insight that might help them change their opinion. In trying to find out what is wrong with JNU for myself, I arrived at the following explanation:

If we were to go back in time, when there existed no separation between the Church and the State, basically before Secularism became en vogue, the ruling elites had a fraught relation with the practitioners of Science. The Galileo affair or Giordano Bruno‘s brutal end as a martyr for science point out that questioning established norms has never been popular. In this case, the people in question were tried and found guilty of heresy for their theories of heliocentrism and cosmic pluralism respectively. Till the Monarch was the representative of God on Earth, Science would invariably come into conflict with God and hence the Monarch. Then Isaac Newton happened to Science and the French Revolution happened to Society. With the separation of the Church and the State, two things seem to have happened. Science was allowed to operate in a secular space because  it had transcended religion with Newton’s universal laws. The legitimacy of rulers no longer came from Religion, they were no longer God’s representatives on Earth. With this link severed, Sciences no longer came into conflict with Governments, at least in terms of questioning their theories, policies, legitimacy or basis of power, it was now the job of the Philosophers of the Social Sciences to do just that, what continues till date. Viewed from this perspective, it comes as no surprise that a Government should not be particularly fond of Social Science universities like JNU. Social Sciences deal with society, question, understand and critique established norms and customs, thereby enriching  human culture – our view of the world and our understanding of it. The problem with JNU is that if you invoke Vivekananda in the name of religion, we will promptly respond with Vivekananda’s opinion that ‘it is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion.’

Why is JNU so anti-national?

I must confess that I never followed the entire ‘JNU episode’ after which, overnight, every Indian who had the luxury to have an opinion, had one on JNU. I understand that there exist some opinions on campus which are deeply problematic and I do not agree with quite a few but these opinions exist within the confines of the University and there are sufficient number of those within campus to provide a fair and square answer, without getting people who have mountains of opinions and zilch information, getting involved.

As far as being anti-national goes, first define what you mean by national, and then explain to me why is nationalism a criteria for judging or defining a University. An entire generation of IIT-ians voted with their feet on India. Was that national? As far as JNU or any other institution’s nationality goes, I don’t think bringing it into question in the society is the way forward. University’s exist not for proving their patriotism but for the purpose of disseminating knowledge and creating it through research. What goes on in a University is more than slogans going off here and there. A better way of questioning JNU’s credential, thereby improving it, would be by analyzing the quality of research being produced here; it would be more productive than writing off India’s best university as anti-national, the act in itself being anti-national. If being national is to take pride in Made in India then JNU is India’s best university, as Made in India as it gets; by writing it off as trash you are being anti-national. Additionally, there are two aspects that I find ironic. JNU scholars and alumni vehemently refuse to give up on what they consider to be their people: Indian politics, the policies debated in Parliament, farmer suicides, caste based violence, gender discrimination; scholars at JNU work on India, they work in India. Secondly, on account of some work I was browsing through the website of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a think-tank funded by the Indian Ministry of Defence. The stated mission of the Institute is ‘objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security’. Ironically, the most anti-national University is where most of the researchers from academia get recruited from!

The point is not to paint a patriotic picture of JNU, far from it. The point is to problematize a simplistic opinion of JNU, it simply cannot be done. Invoking Alexander Wendt, JNU is what you make of it. For me JNU was Liberating, Good, Bad and Ugly.

The Ugly

The horrible administrative machinery. Just tell me that there is some administrative work that I had to do and I would either play ostrich or wail in agony. There is no two ways about it: it is a horrible, inefficient, hostile and absurd administrative system, at times downright inhuman. To give an example, the exit formalities involved getting 7-9 autographs, I call them autographs because calling it signature would do it injustice. They were supposed to be clearances of vibrant kinds that required me to go to different corners of a 1000 plus acre campus, the entire exercise serving no purpose because there were no cross checks. I went, they procrastinated, then signed, we conquered. The bureaucratic red tape in JNU always, without fail, got to my nerves. You’re having a bad day and wish to vent out your frustration by shouting at someone: ask a Delhi autowallah to go by the meter or reach JNU’s admin or centre offices and you shall have your chance!

The other issue I often found myself up against was a lack of understanding of the other, which in this case was Capitalism. If you’re in JNU you are supposed to hate Capitalism and Markets. Why exactly? A very cliched, simplistic, reductionist statement like “because its unequal” would probably come your way. By all means oppose Capitalism, but first make an attempt to understand your enemy. The library is full of material dealing with all shades of Leftist thought, to find Henry Kissinger’s work is a task. If a vibrant culture of discussion and debate is what a University is known for then lets get more information on all the narratives. There is a poster on the library building with the bust of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. That you feel that Stalin should be venerated after everything he did is deeply problematic, as is the attempt to defend Chinese involvement in Tibet on grounds of modernization while decrying Israel’s occupation of Palestine or India’s treatment of Kashmir. But as I have said earlier, a Social Science University exists to study these issues and it should be allowed to do just that without imposing the constraint of conformism.  For every poster of the kind cited above, there would be others to offset them, my favorite being on the School of International Studies with Rosa Luxemburg’s famous quote: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”

The Bad

There are so many battles to fight in this country that we all have to make a choice. Mine is for the environment, a cause that isn’t particularly popular on campus, campus politics reflective of national politics, may be. JNU taps are always leaking, water tanks overflowing, there is no waste segregation for the name of it, it is not a plastic free zone on the ground, people smoking and walking on the footpath are human toy trains chugging along, blissfully unaware of the smoke emanating. The old, obsolete leaking taps, rusting pipelines, and human carelessness causes an immense amount of water wastage on a daily basis, I do not have data on it, I wish I had, but I doubt anyone has. And that in a campus where getting 24*7 water in a hostel is one of the features of a five-star hostel on campus.

For all the Swachh Bharat brouhaha, there is absolutely no waste segregation on campus. In 1000 acres, we could have had our own composting pit, had we segregated our organic waste. But we don’t. From sanitary napkins to food waste, everything goes in the same bin. And plastic. A particular shop in the shopping complex inside the campus will not fail to give you a plastic carry bag, or even some dhabas for that matter. Single use plastic like straws and spoons litter the entire forest floor. If you hike through any of the forest trails and if you emerge without having seen some trash then you’re definitely not in JNU. I met the Vice Chancellor regarding this and in some time saw that Partha Sarthi Rocks had been cleaned, but soon enough, there were plastic bottles and straws and plastic spoons around the area. For the rest of the country people invoke illiteracy to explain the habit of littering. This is a god damn research university!

Finally, living on campus is quite a survival battle. I had four semesters in JNU. In the first I was living outside and realized that I need to be inside a University campus, the outside and I just don’t get along. I moved into the campus in the second semester, by then I did not have a room, just a bed in a dormitory that looked like a general ward of a government hospital. For an entire semester all I had in terms of infrastructure or living quarter was a wooden cot, a study table with a drawer and that is it. I kept all my luggage at a friend’s place, living off bare essentials. For the entire winter I slept in my sleeping bag because the door was broken and my bed in the dormitory was facing the broken door. My parents could not believe the life I was living, and to be honest, when I look back, I find it surreal that I lived like that for close to five months. There’s a feeling of ‘Wow! I am a survivor’ and respect for good company: I had a gala time in the company of three other girls around my bed in the dorm, all of us making the most of the cards we had been dealt with. Even when I got a room of my own, I was lucky to find a room where my roommate used to not live on campus, so had the luxury of a single room. But there was no escaping the washroom woes: there would be no water from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. through the night. When there was water all the taps and flushes would leak and then there would be no water! Honestly, had my immunologist and my parents not put their foot down about my leaving Delhi, I would myself have left. No amount of love for any cause can make me deal with such basic issues on a daily basis, let alone doing research for five years living in these conditions. Life was a daily struggle on really basic issues that I thought I had left behind.

The Good

And despite all this, JNU is the place I am in love with. There are few places in India which deliver on their promise or live up to expectations. JNU has a reputation of producing critically engaged human beings and it did exactly that as far as I am concerned. That every human being has agency, that giving up without even putting up a fight is a waste of the agency we are born with, that sometimes it is really difficult to take a stand because issues aren’t a simple binary, are just a few of the lessons I learnt within the first semester on campus. In The Journey of a Decade I spoke about ridding myself of decades of internalized norms, expectations and criticisms of society. This could not have been possible without JNU making me aware of those norms in the first place.

I loved the whole spectrum of ideas which prevailed on campus. I understand that there are some deeply problematic ideas but that’s the whole deal, society progresses not through the perpetuation of old systems but by implementing ideas which were labeled as ‘disruptive’ when they were first floated: Universal Adult Franchise, Human Rights, Child Labor, LGBT rights, Women’s equality, none of these ideas were embraced with open arms. A great University thrives on ideas, providing a safer haven than Society at large for iconoclasts. Newton working in the confines of Cambridge University provided an alternative to God: for everything that happens God and his will need not be invoked, he enlarged the space available to humans to shape their own destiny, independent of God’s will. Newton was a ‘dissenter’, one of the reasons behind the speculations about his religious beliefs. Suppression of views antagonistic to the powers that be is a natural reaction, vilifying and demonizing Universities for setting cultural forest fires did not begin with JNU nor will it end here. Universities need to remain a safe place for floating ideas, even if those ideas are about a borderless world, where nation states are redundant concepts. As long as the slogans do not cross the University walls to infiltrate societal harmony, I think the people can leave it to the University in how it deals with what goes on in its confines.

And the campus: say whatever you want about JNU but there is no denying that it is the only area of 1000 acres in Delhi where I did not ever feel unsafe. I used to go for a run at 11 p.m. to the stadium. The porcupines, Indian jackals and nilgais popping out of the forest apart and a wild rabbit which used to emerge from the surrounding forests on the jogging track around 1 a.m., I never felt there was something about my being a woman that I should be scared about. It was when a visitor would question if its safe to go here or there in the campus that the reality of India in general and Delhi in particular would strike. I would go for long walks at 3 a.m. tired of working on unending term papers and submissions, and not even once did the thought that it’s unsafe to venture out because I might get raped pop up in my head. Yes it is possible to achieve a Society where a woman is allowed to live on her own terms without having to fear its men, and for me this was the best aspect of JNU, my azadi. (I had experienced the same at Indian Statistical Institute but its a much smaller campus with a really small cohort that lives on campus).

Universities have always been agents of scientific advancement, cultural, social and political changes. The involvement of students in political change is not a myth, there was a reason why on the first day of Operation Searchlight, Dhaka University was the sight of West Pakistan’s atrocities in what was then East Pakistan. Historically, universities have played a vital role in forming national consciousness and national identity, that JNU gets singled out in this process is a comment on the state of affairs in other Universities in this country. Are they not critical enough? Is everything sorted in our country? Does questioning with the intent of making things better for the nation anti-national? That JNU has long been the seat of the strongest opposition to government’s policies within student politics should be celebrated, at least someone is doing the dirty work of keeping a tab on what is happening in Parliament and then reacting to it. What we at JNU need is a PR team, if Salman Khan can be Being Human, we can definitely pull off nationalism!

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