The university, ravaged by a politics of extremes, will have to find itself a new equilibrium
Sudeep Paul | 29 Nov, 2019
Students protesting outside the administration building, Jawaharlal Nehru University, November 22
ON THE MORNING of August 15th, 1989, the boys in all-white with their striped navy-blue ties had assembled on the grounds of St Xavier’s Collegiate School at 30 Park Street, Calcutta, their parents on the periphery, for the annual hoisting of the flag. Father Camille Bouche SJ (1922-2002), Headmaster, stepped up to the rostrum and told the boys, and their parents, a story. About how, when he was still in school in Luxembourg, the Wehrmacht marched into his tiny country and the Nazis stopped the people from singing their national anthem and honouring their flag. What Fr Bouche didn’t say on that occasion was that the Nazis had shot some 20-odd classmates of his. He had gone into hiding to evade conscription. Post-war, he came to India in the aftermath of Independence and gained a new country, flag and anthem. What this revered old Jesuit, who wrote in Bengali under the pseudonym Kamal Basu, was imparting was a lesson in responsibilities and rights, and in dignity. His wards had to understand the significance of their flag and the song they were about to sing.
What we are taught in school is partly unlearnt in college and, more completely, in university. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The eruption in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in February 2016 is perceived as a rupture in the relationship between the university and society, between its students and the state. In fact, calling the incidents—or the consequences—of February 2016 a ‘rupture’, or an inflection point, is itself seen as a mark of which side of the political divide one stands. However, the ongoing protests by JNU students, while generating abundant news coverage and debate, have—so far—not produced the outright condemnation from sections of the public as it had happened almost four years ago. The reason seems to be the perception, again, that this time round, students are agitating within the bounds of constitutional tolerance (not screaming ‘tukde, tukde’), displaying some semblance of a balancing of rights and responsibilities. The protests against, primarily, the fee hike appear to involve all unions, even if the Left bloc and the Right haven’t set aside their ideological quarrels. But this difference is important for it may yet provide an answer, if not to how JNU transmogrified from India’s premier university into a veritable battlefield, to where it goes from here. The university, however, is unlikely to come out of the shadow of February 2016.
JNU was founded on a distinct ideology and worldview. While many trace the university’s longstanding identity as a bastion of the Left back to that founding worldview, it has been largely forgotten that, at the time of its conception, the political Left was opposed to it. Rakesh Batabyal’s history of the institution, JNU: The Making of a University (2014), summed up the prevailing positions of the 1960s: ‘It was apparent the nationalists were all for the setting up of the new university, while the socialists, some members of the Communist Party, and N.G. Ranga and Dahyabhai Patel of the Swatantra Party were opposed to the purpose, location, ideology and intended name of the new university.’ It has also been forgotten that MC Chagla—jurist, diplomat, education and foreign minister—the brain behind the university, had wanted ‘a high-quality university that would give India an edge in science and technology’. The debates over the JNU Bill and developments till the university’s inception in 1969, by which time Chagla had been relegated to the backroom of public memory, trace the path by which JNU not only emerged as a special, post-graduate university—jettisoning the plan to mitigate the increasing number of students under the University of Delhi—but also how JNU came to be defined by a de facto leftism quite different from the de jure ‘Nehruvian socialism’ that was to be its guiding light, although the CPI’s Bhupesh Gupta, whose interventions were particularly notable, had himself advocated the incorporation of Nehru’s ‘socialistic’ views per se.
Those associated with the Left during their time in JNU see a clear connection between what is happening today and the university’s political tradition. Academic and former journalist V Krishna Ananth, currently Associate Professor of History at Sikkim University, tells Open: ‘What is happening in JNU is a stage in the discourse that was building since the 1970s. Politics in JNU in the 1970s was predominantly about the various shades of the Left; and even while the SFI seemed dominant, it was challenged continuously by the Trotskyite Left that foregrounded the centrality of political democracy in the socialist idea as against the Leninist-Stalinist party structure. What I see now is the culmination of that process where you find the emergence of the JNU students as a category in politics. In this sense, I see a qualitative transformation in the political discourse in JNU and in some ways I see this as having similarities with the movements of the 1960s across the world.’ Three points of note here: continuity with the past; the emergence of something new; JNU was always a Left bastion. Data also bears the last point out: from 1974 to 2017, with the exception of the 2008-2012 period when elections were not held, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and the All India Students’ Association (AISA), student wings of the CPI-M and CPI-ML, respectively, have won the post of student union president 33 times between them, while eight mandates were won by independent socialist candidates (Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khaliq Parkar, ‘Diversity, Democracy, and Dissent: A Study on Student Politics in JNU’). Martelli and Parkar’s research, reportedly an unprecedented data-based study about JNU’s student politics published first in the Economic and Political Weekly (March 2018), also says: ‘Based on textual analysis of a corpus of 70,000 pamphlets issued by political organisations throughout JNU’s history, Martelli (2016) pointed to the prevalence of a lexical field that employed a ‘radical vocabulary’ in the written narratives produced in the JNU campus.’
“The bayonets seem to be drawn across the trenches. The situation seems intractable, with students indulging in vandalism, desecration of JNU property, and enforced lockout of schools and centres,” says Anand Ranganathan, professor, JNU
But for all the rhetoric today pertaining to ‘progressive values’ and ‘defence of democracy’, JNU’s history of championing ‘progressive’ causes seems to tell a different story. In 1990, students of JNU had come out in protest overwhelmingly against the VP Singh Government’s attempt to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. Again, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6th, 1992, the ‘outrage’ was meagre and muted. On the other hand, student leaders on the Left in the not-so-distant past, made capital of the protests, say, against the Delhi Milk Scheme (DMS) price hike, as recalled by former students who were not on the Left or who left the fold after JNU. What about empowering women and their participation in politics? The current JNUSU president is a woman, but Martelli and Parkar found that 50.9 per cent of women did not participate in political activities as against 24.8 per cent among men. They conclude: ‘Overall, women are far less likely to participate in political events on campus. This is an important finding, because JNU is often perceived as a leading institution in terms of gender equality and inclusiveness.’
What about social empowerment? While ‘[in] JNU, Scheduled Caste (SC) groups like the UDSF, BAPSA, and BAMCEF constantly accused communist-led organisations of having an outrageously upper caste-led national leadership,’ in the ethnographic evidence from their fieldwork, Martelli and Parkar also found that ‘sections of the North Indian Muslim population also accuse Marxist organisations of creating ‘Muslim posts’ (for instance, the seat of Joint Secretary of the union was occupied by a Muslim student in 2012, 2013, and 2014) in order to secure their vote’. None of this, of course, takes away from the fact that JNU is perhaps India’s most diverse campus and its cross-community representation is exceptional, a conclusion drawn by the study too.
MC CHAGLA MAY HAVE preferred a university that gave India an edge in science and technology. But JNU emerged as a university with the humanities as its USP. That held true for the troubles too, with the humanities, particularly the School of Social Sciences, consistently making news. While some people hold that students not only have a right to protest against what they deem unfair and that active involvement in student politics creates the politicians of tomorrow, does the atmosphere of extreme politics and constant picketing deflect attention from academic endeavours, especially the first-rate research in the science departments? Anand Ranganathan, Professor, Special Centre for Molecular Medicine at JNU, tells Open: ‘Indeed. And it’s a pity. JNU has consistently been recognised as the top Indian university by Government organisations like the UGC, and across disciplines. This is especially true for the science schools that seldom see disturbances and protests, or political or ideological wars.’ Does it adversely impact the science departments? Ranganathan replies: ‘The humanities departments at JNU are supercharged with ideological positions, not to mention the fact that most, if not all, politicians who have come out of JNU have been from the humanities. Only 25 per cent of all JNU faculty is from the sciences. This cannot be healthy for the smooth functioning of any university.’ Humanities’ students, meanwhile, counter that science students lack a ‘critical faculty’ in thought.
Both the divisions and the absences, in terms of gender, caste and community, as well as disciplines, despite the diversity, has implications for a university that Makarand Paranjape, Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, called ‘the site of the debate over the idea of India itself’ in a recent article in Open (‘The Rot in JNU’, November 11). But if Paranjape, ‘at odds with the dominant Left-dominated culture of JNU’ for years and a test case of the Left’s ostracising of those outside its fold, as seen in February 2016, says in the context of the proposed new hostel regulations that ‘this time to be fair, the students probably had some, if not sufficient, cause, to come out and display their displeasure against the university administration’, does that imply a unanimity and unity among student unions in the ongoing agitations?
“What is perhaps significant about the current agitation is that it has found a resonance across the country at a time when we may be on the verge of an aggressive push towards privatisation,” says Surajit Mazumdar, professor and JNU Teachers’ Association secretary
When Open visited JNU, even as the protesters were marching elsewhere in the capital, it found both business-as-usual and routines disrupted. For one, the graffiti on the walls of the administration building—which had disappeared only to return—stood in stark contrast, somewhat forlorn, to the near-curfew-like absence of people in a general atmosphere of lockdown. Some classes were going on, though not in classrooms, and students were trekking up and down the snaking roads and curving paths. Some sat in sit-ins here and there, some sipped tea at their favourite canteens. The vandalised statue of Swami Vivekananda stood wrapped up. Campus dogs made use of the quietude to sleep undisturbed wherever they chose. But news television crews were already converging on the ‘Sabarmati T-point’ where the ABVP sat under a saffron awning. Manish Jangid, general secretary of the ABVP at JNU, told Open: “From about Rs 2,500 per month, students will now have to pay Rs 7,000 or more overall. About 40 per cent of students here study on a merit scholarship based on their family income. Will such people manage to take admission next semester?” So is the ABVP on the same page as the Left bloc? “We had said that all students should fight together against the fee hike. But the ideological differences are too big. We set our ideology aside for this fight. But the Left continues to abuse us, at the same time indulging in vandalism such as with the Vivekananda statue [the matter of the vandalised statue was raised in Parliament by the BJP] and gheraoing hostel wardens and teachers. A provost was held at gunpoint and asked to reject the new hostel manual or resign. Actually, the Left is not really interested in a rollback; they just want to build their cadres.” At the other end of the spectrum, a member of AISA, who didn’t want to be named, claimed that the ABVP, as the representative of the party in power at the Centre, cannot really be a sincere participant in the agitations: “Its dharna is just a sham. What they really want is to sabotage the struggle.” (Open had contacted JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh for this article but did not get a response.)
Outside the administration building, an employee in the finance department and union activist, says on condition of anonymity that what has been happening in JNU is not good for the university’s future: “Students should sit together and have a dialogue across the divide to resolve this. The fee hike is too steep. The poor, rural and SC/ST students won’t be able to pay.” What about a differentiated approach whereby those who can afford to pay do so instead of the universalised subsidy? “Jhagdaa lag jaega [They’ll end up quarrelling]. It’s not a solution. A gradual hike, implemented over several years, might have worked. You can’t stand at the bottom of the stairs and jump to the top. You must climb one step at a time.” He doesn’t have an answer as to when that first step may be climbed.
Notwithstanding the apparently shallower interest of the world outside this time, for many teachers and students now is as big a moment as February 2016. Surajit Mazumdar, JNU Teachers’ Association Secretary and Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, tells Open: ‘The JNUTA has articulated a clear view that we join the students in demanding that the exorbitant increase in hostel charges and the transition to a self-financing model of running hostels be withdrawn. This move is one through which the university is abandoning its responsibilities to both the students who have to reside in hostels as well as the staff who are employed in them. By significantly raising the cost of an education in JNU, this move would do immense damage to the university’s mandate to attract the best talent from across the country and from diverse sections of society, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ (Senior JNU administration office bearers contacted by Open did not respond by the time of going to press.)
“What is happening in JNU is a stage in the discourse that was building since the 1970s. It is the culmination of a process where you find the emergence of JNU students as a category in politics,” says V Krishna Ananth, academic and JNU alumnus
In a recent article, Dinesh Singh, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Delhi, argued that a fee hike is always a volatile matter and recalled how students of St Stephen’s, an institution that doesn’t allow party-affiliated unions, had called a strike over hiked mess fess in the 1970s. Singh also recalled how the Delhi Transport Corporation ‘could not muster the resolve to raise the monthly fees from a measly Rs 12 for providing unlimited rides to students of Delhi University on their buses’. Whether it is because of the predominance of leftist ideology or otherwise, a few JNU students questioned by Open at random seemed opaque to the logic of cross-subsidisation. One of them complained, “They’re going to offer MBA here, at Rs 12 lakh. How can poor students who want to do an MBA afford that?” What about the children of the affluent who can do so paying that fees and subsidising the poor? What about funding the humanities that way? Couldn’t that be a win-all? There were no takers for that argument.
Instead, the agitations have an equal focus on another bogey. G Arunima, Professor, Centre for Women’s Studies, tells Open: ‘This moment is about what privatisation and the new education policy will do to the marginalised, poor and underprivileged in this country.’
Khaliq Parkar, JNU alumnus and currently Professor of Political Science, the Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts, Mumbai, elaborates on the casus belli for Open: “Another factor fuelling the protests is that the Government is setting up the ground for privatisation (domestic privatisation and international collaboration, such as the case of University of Chicago setting up a centre). Tied to this is the new system of ranking—the NIRF—by which institutions barely a few years old are often ranked above much older and established universities. This changes the framework and implies that these universities are better than government universities which have decades, if not centuries, of good scholarship and academic standing.” Mazumdar, for his part, says: ‘What is perhaps significant about the current agitation is that it has found a resonance across the country at a time when we may be on the verge of an aggressive push towards privatisation through the implementation of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2019.’
THE QUESTION OF CONTINUITY and disjuncture is pertinent to either side of the divide, although distinctions with or without difference are made by academics and students, past and present. Nobody denies that February 2016 made a difference, but they differ on its import and legacy. Batabyal tells Open that February 2016 was indeed a turning point: ‘No institution has been targeted with such sustained animosity—by the state organs, the media and the public which was galvanised into hating everything that it was directed to.’ But where Krishna Ananth sees ‘the culmination of a process that began with JNU’s inception to integrate democracy in the political sense with democracy in the social and economic sense’, Batabyal feels that ‘the word ‘politicised’ has generally been used for university campuses in India with a disparaging tenor.’ Batabyal does regard JNU as a battlefield but ‘with a caveat’: ‘JNU’s teachers and students have been pursuing their academic work under tremendous stress and with almost no support from both inside and outside. In the name of fighting the Left, what is being finished off is a good university.’
Part of the reason JNU has always been considered a stronghold of the Left is because its dominance extended from student politics to the faculty and that coloured not just recruitment. While the OECD’s 2017 report Education at a Glance found that the typical age for completing a PhD or equivalent research programme touched or crossed 30 in most countries, such data does not throw light on the persistence of research scholars on a campus like JNU, often for most of their adult life. Unless there’s a system of privilege involved, a promise of a green pasture ad infinitum. Critics of the JNU’s Left say that it is this system of privilege that is under threat. That’s why the administration and Government are supposedly attacked at each step, to the extent of being in denial about the dangers to JNU from within as exposed by the incidents of February 2016 while keeping the focus on the attack on JNU from without. “If the Left today accuses, not without justification, the current administration of handing out posts to people of one political hue, they have to only look in the mirror and see whom it was learnt from,” says an ‘unaffiliated’ doctoral candidate on condition of anonymity, looking askance at presumably his friends seated barely 10 feet away on the steps adjacent to the administration building.
Thus, if some see JNU’s politics since its inception as a progression to this inevitable moment, others see February 2016 as a breach unlikely to heal. Ranganathan says: ‘In the public consciousness, February 2016 was indeed the inflection point. What is happening today is a desire to reclaim the protest culture post the May 2019 election outcome. Clearly, this is a war that no one seems to be eager to prevent or stall. The university is the ultimate loser.’ Asked about the response to the hostel regulations and fee hike, he adds: ‘The bayonets certainly seem to be drawn across the trenches. The situation seems intractable, what with the students indulging in largescale vandalism, desecration of JNU property, and enforced lockout of multiple schools and centres.’
If ‘[to] kill God and to build a Church are the constant and contradictory purpose of rebellion’, as Albert Camus had captured the paradox, neither communism nor its fall ended history. But that never stopped those with an aim to ‘kill god’ from persisting, in the process generating what Christopher Hitchens would perhaps have called a long-running ‘cliché in action’. Support has poured in from other parts of the country. A cursory glance at the posters on the protest bulletin board outside the administration building shows a linear stream of thought and its expression, if not punctuation and letter case: ‘Punjabi University, Patiala in solidarity with JNU’, ‘Panjab University , Chandigarh In solidarity with JNU’, ‘BHU STANDS with JNU’, ‘SFI JAMIA MILLIA ISLAMIA UNIVERSITY IN SOLIDARITY WITH STUDENTS COMMUNITY OF JNU’, etcetera. JNU, undoubtedly, pulls and pushes across campuses. But where does it go from here?
Ranganathan has a prescription unlikely to be wholly or even partly popular on either side of the political divide: ‘What can make JNU move on is banning youth wings of all political parties in the student elections [86 per cent of students surveyed in the Lyngdoh Committee report, who voted either way, said an emphatic ‘No’ to political-party interference in student-body elections]; and tighter security on the campus.’ Just as JNU’s inception was fraught and the debate threw up multiple prescriptions for the new university, the above, acceptable or not, is part of the debate today, offered as a possible solution to find a new equilibrium.
Rights without responsibilities are a recipe for anarchy. Responsibilities cannot be met without rights. Fr Bouche had seen the blood of his young companions and escaped the ultimate battlefield of a continent burnt to the ground. JNU will have to find its own way out of hell.