THIS IS THE book that I almost did not write. And after it was written in the most unexpected fashion, I was almost prevented from publishing it. I won’t say much more about that unfortunate part of its birth story. But do I believe that a concerted attempt was made to cancel this book. It was done by asking for over 180 edits, omissions, and rewrites, which I refused to carry out. Instead of succumbing to censorship, I took back my rights.
What happened to me was not only unusual, but unexpected. The world of Indian publishing is very small. We all know and work with each other. In the course of my career as a writer spanning over four decades and 50 books, I must have published with most major Indian publishers, either doing an independent book for them or contributing a chapter in an edited volume.
By and large, my experience has been good. Even in this case, the people involved were most apologetic. I might even say that we parted company on amicable terms. I promised not to name names when I brought our agreement to an end. I intend to keep my word. Because that is the honourable thing to do. But I am happy that my book has finally come out, thanks to my current publisher, Rupa Publications.
This is a wholly indigenous publishing venture, without any foreign tie-ups, currently led by Kapish Mehra. I have known Kapish since he was a boy, and his father, RK Mehra, for over 30 years. Mehra Senior published my first volume of poetry, The Serene Flame, way back in 1991, in the Rupa new poetry line curated by the late great Nissim Ezekiel. Many a notable contemporary Indian English poet emerged from the darkness of obscurity in that series. Subsequently, Rupa also published my second volume of poems, two of my novels, in addition to two edited volumes, one on Sarojini Naidu and another on new Indian English poets.
But to return to my book, it would not be an exaggeration to say that its contents were unprecedented. I had never planned to join JNU, let alone write a book on its tumult and transformation. How both came to pass is recounted in these pages. The book, however, is not merely a collection of anecdotes or personal experiences. Nor is it an exercise in institutional historiography or hagiography.
My colleague, Rakesh Batabyal’s JNU: The Making of a University (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2015) comes close to such an endeavour. On the other hand, JNU Stories: The First 50 Years, edited by Neeladri Bhattacharya, Kunal Chakrabarti, S Gunasekaran, Janaki Nair and Joy LK Pachuau (New Delhi: Aleph, 2021) is a collection of reminiscences of those who were a part of JNU from the earliest times.
My book is quite different. It is an informed insider’s account of the cataclysmic changes in one of India’s premier institutions of higher education during a five-year period, 2016-21. But more than that, I would like to believe that this book is also a history of our times, of India’s ongoing transformation. It is the story of the changing self-apprehension of a people, of the multiple meanings of nationalism. It is about being Indian itself.
JNU, as I show, is at the centre of discussions and debates on topics of national importance. It always has been.
So that is not what makes these times special. What is different now is that the university, which went through an unprecedented crisis, was the location and theatre of this larger change.
As this book hits the stands, JNU’s future as a coveted destination for students from all over India, as also from abroad, is in question. The image of the university has taken a severe beating in the last five years. Given so much negative publicity, many parents do not wish to send their children to study here. What, then, will happen to this once-prized, premier university? Will it weather this crisis? Will it actually emerge stronger and more stable? Will it be downgraded into just another failed institution of higher learning, such as dot the intellectual landscape of our country?
The battle for JNU’s heart and soul is not yet over. As the university limps back to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic, the campus remains riven between opposing student camps, the administration quite dysfunctional, and the finances in the doldrums
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In its larger context, this book tries to find answers to such questions. It also provides a corrective to the excessive condemnation and denigration of JNU. It is a plea to save the university, to safeguard its culture of democracy and dissent, as also to restore academics, rather than politics, to the pole position. As such, the book critiques the dominant, mostly leftist student and faculty politics at the university.
But while it deplores the ideological hegemony and intolerance of the left in JNU, arguing that it has brought the university to such a sorry pass, this book also makes a case for not simply substituting the dogmatic left with the doctrinaire right. Or using the sledgehammer approach to crush and pulverise all opposition to the current regime, which the present JNU administration is supposed to represent.
The book pleads for the restoration of civil disagreement in place of bitter opposition, dialogue rather than irreconcilable conflict. It proposes remedial strategies of dealing with differences, along with intermedial hermeneutics to negotiate extreme positions and bipolar oppositions. Intermedial hermeneutics demands a humane, non-reductive way of understanding texts and traditions, individuals and society, as well as the conflicts such as in JNU. More specifically, when applied to JNU, it shows the way to create a new JNU in which academics rather than politics constitute the primary purpose of the university.
As to the specific circumstances of this book’s genesis, much of it emerged out of my continuous public engagement with the happenings in JNU since February 2016. Not so much written from scratch or from some vantage point in the present, it is, rather, a record of my own ongoing involvement in my university. My point of view is not that of an administrator or activist, but as a concerned member of the faculty and tax-paying citizen. Also, as a social, political and intellectual stakeholder and influencer in what is now a much larger argument about our changing republic.
An attempt was made to turn the university into a platform against the Narendra Modi-led BJP government, which was voted to power in 2014. The university was shut down, classes suspended, the administration building occupied, and the campus became a pitched battleground between two ideologies, political orientations, and ideas of India.
Rather than being a silent spectator, I was drawn into the vortex of this conflict. That is because I took a stand against the kind of “azadi” or freedom that a section of the students was championing. This cry for freedom, far from being the idealistic or innocent passion of the youth, was tantamount to a cry of secession from the Indian state, at least as it was articulated by a small section of the student body that openly supported Kashmiri separatists. Many of the other students who stood with them did not, I believe, fully understand the implications of this agitation.
Today, watching Vivek Agnihotri’s trending and deeply stirring film, The Kashmir Files, I am taken back to those times in 2016 when student protests were engineered not only on JNU but across the nation’s leading universities, including University of Hyderabad, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and Jadavpur University. An insurrection of the youth across the country against the Modi sarkar was the real aim of the movement.
Looking back, one might say that the battle for India has been won. At least for now. Not once, but twice, after Modi returned to power with an even more popular mandate in 2019. If the recent Uttar Pradesh election results are anything to go by, this trend of popularity and power now extends to Yogi Adityanath, too.
But the battle for JNU’s heart and soul is not yet over. As the university limps back to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic, the campus remains riven between opposing student camps, the administration quite dysfunctional, and the finances in the doldrums. But we have a new vice-chancellor, Professor Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, herself a JNU alum, and the first woman to head our university.
I hope she can apply the healing touch and that we shall see better days ahead after these tumultuous five or six years past. In my book, I provide a blueprint of how excellence can be foregrounded and JNU can become great again.