JNU, a premier university fighting for survival
Twenty years back, JNU was seen as a marker of intellectual worth in the very city where it has been branded “anti-national” and parasitic in recent times.
In 1997, when I secured admission in JNU with the last position in the merit list, I had to stay in nearby Munirka village for a few months as I did not get into a hostel immediately.
Here, I got requests from my landlord and his relatives to teach children of their families. For them, the name of JNU was in itself a marker of intellectual worth, and they wished to make the best of the opportunity of having a JNU student as a tenant.
There were other privileges, too, that came with JNU. One was a Rs-7 movie ticket at the Priya Cinema in Vasant Vihar, considered the most happening place of Delhi in those days. This facility, for the night shows, was exclusively available on the JNU identity card.
And that identity card also attracted leniency from the police if one were to be caught riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
The image of JNU in its vicinity was clear: it was a place of non-conformist, studious, non-violent, students with a poor fashion sense who often went on to occupy high positions in society.
All these were what got us through our hectic masters’ courses. These provided some incentive for the effort.
For those who may not know it, in my centre, the Centre for Historical Studies, a student had to submit at least eight 2000-word write-ups – called tutorials, or simply tutes – in one semester. The reading list for each of these would be anywhere between three and six books. And there would be no way to bluff one’s way through, for there would be tutorial discussions, entailing a presentation after which the professor, as well as other students, would be free to ask questions, after each submission. Among these professors would be people of global and national renown.
In other words, the bare minimum one had to do to stay afloat was to read 12 to 24 books in three months and write assignments on them for grading, apart from attending packed classes, even if there was no attendance requirement. I have even seen a Delhi University teacher attending classes, taking special permission from the late professor. These classes were not to be missed, in other words.
When we would miss submission deadlines, which was quite often, there could be grade-cuts. Some professors would nonchalantly say that reading a hundred pages a day – and these books were generally terse readings – should not be a problem.
This was JNU, in many ways a university that stood apart from the rest.
If in other universities, the rare student who cleared the IAS – or even the state civil services – exam, was considered brilliant and a political activist was considered a “goon”, JNU was the opposite.
The intellectually sound student activist here would have a wider reading than the dozens who cleared the civil services, and would look down upon them as people who attended “coaching classes” and read “textbooks and guides”. The latter would reply that studying for the civil services was “verifiable knowledge” and not just about theoretical flights.
The truly good JNU student would indeed get focused on a narrow area of a discipline to understand it in depth. This student would often fail the UGC-NET, the eligibility for lectureship, while her humbler classmates would sweep the UGC-JRF, getting a comfortable scholarship for the next five years.
JNU wasn’t in the news for being “anti-national” in those days. Rather, it would be in the news for its Ganga Dhaba discussions on issues ranging from Indian politics and society to the global role of the United States of America.
Friends would discuss national and global issues even in their free time. It hardly ever struck us that there was anything like personal conversations independent of the social and the political.
The university was a training ground for the researcher, the activist, the bureaucrat and the journalist. It taught one – in the lecture halls and outside – how to understand the crux of an argument and how to contest it.
JNU was always political, but as an exemplar of how politics should be performed. There was hardly any violence on campus, apart from a few incidents. Students conducted study circles, wrote pamphlets and leaflets on issues, and debated in GBMs and the well-known Presidential debate.
The politics of money and muscle was unknown to JNU. If you were too moneyed or too aggressive, you would almost certainly lose an election.
JNU today is much talked about but little known in any meaningful sense. When I – who had to study the likes of Romesh Chandra Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji as a first-semester student – have to explain to people that JNUites aren’t anti-national, I sense irony die a thousand deaths. We studied the Indian national movement as 22-year-olds. And read what theorists like Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Gellner, Tom Nairn or Anthony D Smith had to say on nationalism as a phenomenon in our 20s.
Reading primary writings was also something undertaken at a young age. JNUites would read Bhagat Singh’s Why I Am An Atheist or Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj as students.
How does it feel to have your nationalism questioned by people who may not be able to even define what it means? That is the irony of our times. Of course, one should be aware that being a nationalist is as different from knowing nationalism as being religious from knowing religion.
Once a badge of honour – yes, it did make some students claim institutional superiority, much like students of St Stephen’s College, the IITs or IIMs also sometimes claim – JNU has suddenly become a stigma.
One has to convince people by giving them “facts”. One has to point out that India’s latest Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee is a JNU alumnus, or that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, a career diplomat, studied there. One has to share a news story that 18 out of the 32 across India who cleared the UPSC’s Indian Economic Service examination – including the all-India topper – are JNU students or alumni. One has to point to the fact that JNU has been known for the highest NAAC scores, a marker of educational quality in India; that many of its departments figure in the top 500 in QS World Rankings – the one I went to is in the 51-100 bracket – and that it is India’s second-best university as per the Modi government’s NIRF rankings, where, overall, it ranks above all IIMs.
To be a JNU alumnus is to feel socially alienated these days. To defend the institution, one mentions its good aspects to those who may or may not know it well, only to have the conversation ended with the tukde-tukde-gang slur.
Three years back, I was at a childhood friend’s Christmas party in Jaipur when his daughter – just about to pass out from school and deciding where to go for higher education – said JNU was an option. I noticed that most of those her father’s age immediately dissuaded her from this.
I again listed the university’s achievements – now one has a ready list of them, thanks to the relentless invective against JNU – despite knowing I was fighting a losing battle. The gathering seemed unimpressed, as all they knew about JNU was the term tukde-tukde gang, a shallow and simplistic expression of hatred, bitterness and ignorance.
Born in 1969, JNU lived a healthy life until its late-40s. But it suddenly came under a serious attack -- which deeply wounded it -- in 2016. It is still fighting for survival and isn’t out of danger yet.