JNU’s cri de coeur
The attack on JNU is an attack on the idea of a public university, an idea forged in the early years of independence when Nehru spoke about the temples of modern India. He had the lofty vision of giving India her new institutions including universities that would serve as centres of knowledge production, where the pursuit of reason would, as he hoped, help the ushering in of “scientific temper” which would become the bedrock of a new national culture. Most pertinently, the making of this new national culture was to be the preserve of all, not just the elite.
The onslaught on JNU is reminiscent of a sanguinary medieval siege, one that is brutal and bloody. No quarter is given, and no mercy shown, in tearing down the ramparts of a stubborn old fortress which is like an eyesore to the enemy in the face of easy conquests. JNU is, one might argue, the last bastion of its kind which has persevered doggedly when everything else around it has crumbled one by one. This humble university, of no more than eight thousand students and teachers, bearing the name of Jawaharlal Nehru, in the heart of the national capital, has had the temerity to say ‘no’ to those in the corridors of power, something that many mighty institutions cannot boast of in these trying times. It is as though the spirit of Nehru has found for itself a deep recess to inhabit—in the sylvan surroundings of this figurative castle that stands on a hillock—and from here it braces to fight its own extinction, even as it is being exorcised from the flesh and bone of India, with unseemly vengeance, by the generals of the present regime.
A view of an anti-administration slogan painted by the protesting students who are demanding the roll back of the hostel fee hike, at Jawaharlal Nehru University on November 19, 2019 in New Delhi, India. JNU students, who have been agitating for three weeks against a hike in hostel fees and a draft hostel manual which imposes dress codes and curfew timings, on Monday took out a protest march towards the Parliament to capture the attention of Union government on the issue. (Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The recent move by the university administration to hike the hostel fee more than threefold militates against the idea of inclusivity. Isn’t a testimony to the plebeian nature of JNU that more than 40% of students enrolled here come from humble economic backgrounds? JNU—more than any other university—in today’s skewed economic scenario rife with increasing income inequalities—is a model of equal access. One wonders why any government would want to destroy it? What better use can the taxpayer’s money have than creating an India with equal opportunities, an India where all can dare to dream? JNU is a jewel of modern India; but sadly, the government has no eye to see this, blinded as it is by the glint of lucre—it sees education as a business.
Students shout slogans and hold posters during a demonstration in support of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students for their ongoing protest against proposed accommodation fee hike, in New Delhi on 21 November 2019. (Photo by Indraneel Chowdhury/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The battle of JNU, if I might call it so, is not merely about affordable education, although this issue has taken the heart of the present crisis. The current malaise runs deeper and has a somewhat old history. The sordid saga of attrition began in February 2016—in the cauldron of contestations that go on uninterrupted on its campus—when a new, and as many would say dangerous, the slogan was brewed. The chants of “Azaadi” so lustily raised by headstrong students against the perversities of a fascistic regime had rent asunder the fragile egos of the newly-minted nationalists of the Sangh Parivar who were now in the seat of power. “Azaadi”—which is truly JNU’s cri de cœur—quickly caught the imaginations of many and became a metaphor for struggle against all injustice. It has since reverberated all over the country as the voice of the voiceless and the rally of the oppressed. This act of recalcitrant dissent was unforgivable, mostly because it was infectious. It had to be punished, and JNU was to be made an example of.
Security personnel detain a student during a demonstration in support of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students for their ongoing protest against accommodation fee hike, in New Delhi on November 21, 2019. (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)
JNU has been painted, quite successfully I might add, in the public imagination as a rotten nest of evil – a veritable cesspool of trouble. As recent events testify, popular opinion is actively hostile to JNU; the middle class, especially, sees it as a drain on taxpayers’ money. It ain’t easy being a JNU student in the larger society—one is liable to be stared at if nothing else. In this context, one is reminded of an apt observation by Thucydides—the great historian of the Peloponnesian war—who said that truth is the first casualty in times of conflict. Virtues are mischievously turned into vices and vices into virtue, by a persistent naming of them so, to bolster the propagandist goals of the victorious. The media blitzkrieg against JNU since the events of February 9, 2016, is an apt case in point. It illustrates how JNU has become a victim of this diabolical act of paradiastole which is systematically fed to the general public by establishment journalists as a crafty Goebbelsian lie salaciously intended to wreck the credibility of India’s premier public university.
(Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)
To anyone watching the news, appearances will trump reality in the fog of misinformation deliberately so created. JNU’s celebration of dissent becomes sedition; concern for equity is portrayed as nurturing Naxalism; fight against patriarchy is branded as a proclivity for promiscuity; sensitivity to human rights is turned into sympathy for secession; commitment to rationality is understood as atheism; challenge to Brahminical hegemony is named blasphemy; a plea for subsidies for affordable education is spun as an argument for free-loading. It is appalling to watch the visuals that have been raining on TV, and also the avalanche of canards that now flood the social media. A university is being callously dismantled, brick by brick, in full public view by the government, while the society and media are both in cahoots in this unspeakable tragedy. What a sad day it is when a people turn their backs on institutions of learning—perhaps a sign of the impending doom that awaits us all. One shudders to think of such moments in history when centres of knowledge were obliterated by marauding armies. The burning of the famous library of Alexandria, some 2000 years ago, allegedly by Julius Caesar still evokes supreme disgust; imagine the monstrosity of that—in one fell swoop an entire memory erased, whole histories lost, finest specimens of human intellect extinguished, and what an irreparable loss to civilisation. What is being done to JNU is perhaps similar if not equal in significance—it is a monumental crime, let me say that even at the risk of inviting the charge of exaggeration.
(Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)
I had the rare privilege of studying in JNU and having once walked on its hallowed ground, I can say with no hesitation that JNU is the exemplar of what a public university ought to be. The attack on JNU is an attack on the idea of a public university, an idea forged in the early years of independence when Nehru spoke about the temples of modern India. He had the lofty vision of giving India her new institutions including universities that would serve as centres of knowledge production, where the pursuit of reason would, as he hoped, help the ushering in of “scientific temper” which would become the bedrock of a new national culture. Most pertinently, the making of this new national culture was to be the preserve of all, not just the elite. A fully funded system of higher education was put in place to achieve not just a democratisation of knowledge but also to serve as a vehicle for the transformation of the destinies of thousands who had a less fortunate childhood. That is why these temples of modern India could cut across the caste-class barrier and hope to be a harbinger of a just and equitable society—goals enshrined in the constitution of India.
NEW DELHI, INDIA NOVEMBER 21: Police personnel detain protesters during a protest march to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) by Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students from the ABVP wing in solidarity with the JNU anti-administration protests against a hike in the hostel fee, at Parliament Street, on November 21, 2019 in New Delhi, India. Later, they were stopped and detained by Delhi Police at Parliament Street. (Photo by Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
The present regime, unfortunately, is invested more in temples of the old kind, it is inclined to the revivalism of ancient glories rooted in “faith and belief”. JNU and institutions like it have no place in the new India that is being fashioned with alacrity every day by the foot soldiers of Hindutva. In a manner of speaking, the siege on JNU is actually a siege on “reason” itself. It is a battle to finally finish off the vestigial remains of a Nehruvian India based on scientific temper, secularism and a modern equitable society. JNU is a powerful symbol of that once-mighty old order which is now crumbling to dust. It is an institution that possesses a “will”; a will forged in the fires of a rational dialogue on campus, a will that is a result of criticality and reflexivity. Such values, however, are subversive to the highly regimented order—one thriving on conformity and the smothering of all dissent—which the rulers and their ideological kingpins are busy creating. JNU stands for epistemological plurality, scepticism, and accommodation. JNU argues—like its namesake Jawaharlal Nehru did—that “Bharat Mata” is not a deity to be revered, but she is the countless people who inhabit this land. The clash with JNU, therefore, is emblematic of the conflict between these two competing visions of India. That is why JNU will never acquiesce; it will always be a thorn sunk deep in the flesh of those who wish to disfigure India.