A small, personal history of JNU
JNU has been an undisguised blessing in my life. When an unreserved blessing in my life is suddenly abused in the public as a mass manufacturer of malcontents, I consider it an obligation to share a few words about the positives that it contributed to my personality, outlook, and professional career.
I work as an academic today for a liberal arts college attached to a private university. Earlier, I was in JNU for nine years between 2005 and 2014. I went for a Masters degree and left with a Doctorate in history. I did not expect to last that long. I had been a school teacher for quite some time before that. Still earlier, I sold bank accounts and courier services to small-time individuals and businesses. The teaching job had given me some stability, but higher studies beckoned. The following is a story of what JNU taught me in those nine years. It is a small, personal history of JNU. That is the only authority I claim. The responsibility is mine alone, and I am willing to face trial, if required, as an individual. But it has to be written, particularly now, since far too many negative stories about JNU are circulating in the public domain today. It has to be written also because, as I hope to show, JNU has been an undisguised blessing in my life. When an unreserved blessing in my life is suddenly abused in the public as a mass manufacturer of malcontents, I consider it an obligation to share a few words about the positives that it contributed to my personality, outlook, and professional career. It is necessary to write also because JNU students have for the first time in its history decided to boycott their end of semester tests. We need to understand that it is not a measure of their obstinacy, but their desperation. They have been pushed to the wall, and in this struggle left and right-wing student formations have all joined hands in solidarity.
Why me? I am not a celebrity, nor have I accomplished anything outstanding in any domain. I was not a topper at JNU, or otherwise particularly distinguished. I did well enough in my courses of study to be promoted to the next level, and I have since been working as an academic and occasional columnist. In that sense, I have been an average product of JNU. That is precisely why I should write about my experiences in JNU. It is an account of an unremarkable and average individual product of JNU. But being average also means being a majority. Those who are very good or very bad are a minority, like the rich or the poor. While their points of view or life stories are important, they are exceptional. Mine is not. My point of view is likely to make more sense to the majority outside JNU, possibly because it also consists of unremarkable individuals and groups.
I got in purely by chance. I went to a government-aided school in an unremarkable small town where the medium of instruction was the vernacular. By the time I was sixteen, it was clear that my brain was not bright enough to take me to the IITs or any medical or engineering colleges. I say not bright enough because this is how the average majority thinks, that only inherently bright students study medicine or engineering. Frankly, no one is born inherently bright or exceptionally talented, and JNU has taught me that everyone can be good at pretty much every subject. All one has to have are great teachers and peers who push you to exceed yourself. But let me not jump the gun.
My family was not rich enough to buy me a seat, for medicine or engineering, I mean, the way it is often done these days. We were solvent, and I was bought books and comics, but there was never much to spare. We never went on any vacations, for instance, since books and basic necessities would comfortably exhaust our means. Besides, average professionals were not paid fancy salaries in those days. The only bread earner in my family was not an above average professional. She also suffered from an incurable delusion that asking for help or picking up an argument necessarily meant bad manners. My academic performance was only marginally above average, meaning it was not enough to secure admission in any top-flight college. Yet, a famous government college in the capital city of my province admitted me, since it ran an admission test. I managed to write a long review of an English novel on the partition of India. The question asked for an essay-length review of a book with a historical theme. I had finished reading that novel on partition two or three days before the entrance test. I held the view that the ordinary people themselves were as responsible for partition and consequent violence as their political leaders. It goes against the immortal popular common sense that clever political leaders from above manipulate and divide people, who are otherwise quite innocent and childlike in their lack of understanding. Someone among the teachers there must have found it intriguing and let me in.
I entered JNU by means of another entrance test. I had left academics for six long years and tried to make money. There were some terrible failures early on, but by the third or fourth year, money had agreed to look me up. It was modest, and never going to be enough, since I taught in a private school. But it felt good to talk to young boys and girls. I was organizing quizzes and cricket commentary competitions, apart from teaching history and some politics. Meanwhile, I wrote and cleared a test for a teaching position in government-aided schools. But something inside me pushed for higher education, and I decided to write the entrance test for JNU. Let me repeat. I did not take the JNU entrance test immediately after my undergraduate studies. It had a formidable reputation and I thought it would be a waste of time and money to even try. Ironically enough, when I did finally take the test, six years and several jobs later, I cleared it without much effort. All I had to do was write a long movie review. Once again, there was an essay length question on a movie or a book with history as the central theme. I had seen a movie on the Naxalite movement only three days ago. I wrote this time that the Naxalite radicals from the city simply did not know their history and sociology and caused incalculable damage to their rural and poorer comrades. It was not wholly true, or even valid, because movements such as those cannot really be assessed summarily. There were, and are, far too many variables that architects of utopian revolutions, even those with the greatest or purest intent, cannot control. Besides, many of those were ruthlessly hunted down by a vindictive administration, and yet others devoted their lives to various forms of activism since then. Be that as it may, my half baked review must have appeared just about passable to a kind soul among the examiners. For the next nine years, I was an ‘overage’ student at JNU, the kind that everyone these days loves to abuse as a sucker of state subsidies.
Incidentally, I had no funds for the first two years. There was no question of asking for money from my family, for they could not afford it anymore. So, it had to be private tuition. I taught English to school students, spoken English to professionals, and edited papers and books. Delhi citizens subsidized my studies, to tell you the truth, and I made some very kind friends. They remain friends to this day. The photocopy shop owner at our building, for instance, once gave me credit for Rs. 3000. There were exams ahead and I could not work for that month. I have been trying to pay him back for the last ten years, and every time he refuses to take it. He had come to JNU as a jobless young man, he says, and students and teachers there taught him how to save from his odd jobs and eventually set up his photocopy stall. He said he was doing the same to me. I have formally thanked him in my PhD acknowledgement. He remains the elder brother I never had. Trust me I am not alone. He has done the same for hundreds of students.
The courses were backbreaking, the teachers insanely demanding, and the library well-stocked. The professors did not take too many classes; at most four classes a week. But they were two-hour-long classes, and they opened new worlds of thinking and response. One could easily bunk since attendance was not formally marked. Wonder of wonders, you could call them by their first names. But for those who wanted to work hard, the sky was the limit. Teachers did not appear to care, but when you went to them, they gave you all they had. And they made you write and present your thoughts; no excuses would be entertained.
The campus buzzed with posters and meetings and marches. Yet, there is an entire building next to the main library affectionately called the Dholpur House, for UPSC aspirants lived and studied there 24/7. Every hostel regularly produced UPSC officers by the half dozen. JNU alumni serve the nation in more capacities than can be listed here. Our External Affairs minister is a JNU alumnus, as is our Finance Minister.
Every political shade was available for students, although the left was in a majority. Yet, in nine years, no one forced me to choose any of these formations, and I made friends across the divides. Among the pamphlets, which were issued by half a dozen a day, my favourite remains one published by a sexual minority collective. It demolished the American war on terror as a complex manipulation by a globalized patriarchy manifest as a military, finance and extraction industry conglomerate. It was intelligent, combative and passionate. It forced you to think for yourself. Looking back, I do not fully agree with it, but I remember it more than hundreds of others that I must have seen or read over the years. It was that rare thing, an original. An equally strong memory is the no holds barred Holi celebration in the campus. It would be followed in the evening by a Mushaira where robust and earthy humour in the vernacular often went beyond the boundary of the commonly heard.
Students often challenged one another’s capacity. The vernacular students initially began with a disadvantage, but in a few months gave the anglicized an inferiority complex. They read and argued with dedication. The canteen and the mess people knew us by name, and the cashier often enough forgave our delayed payments. JNU made us all grow. Don’t believe me. Test for yourself.
What about an exposure to the JNU programme? What about a week-long or a fortnightly long visit to JNU? What about talking to students and seeing for yourselves where they come from and how hard they study? What about talking to women students there and asking how safe they feel inside the campus? What about setting up an appointment with a professor and asking him or her why they are protesting against an unfair hike in various charges? What about writing your own account after the visit? Are you game?