Nalini R Mohanty recalls a time when every 24 hours seemed to send the pulse of JNU racing to a revolutionary precipice
When the editor of Open asked me to write a piece on the ‘Romance of the Left in JNU’ (he said I was the right person as I had had a ringside view of JNU politics in its early years), he had a specific suggestion for me to reflect on—has the charm of Che Guevera in the 1970s degraded into a mawkish ode to Afzal Guru, half a century down the line?
I had two issues: first, I am not sure if either Che Guevera ever was or Afzal Guru is now central to the Left deliberations in JNU politics. Second, having been a president of the JNU Students’ Union elected in 1982 on a platform that defeated the traditional Left on the campus, my account would certainly be biased. I am sure that I would not be able to expunge my ideological baggage with a certain air of detachment even after all these years.
I will try and make an assessment of the Left Movement in JNU as seen by someone who believed in the tenets of democratic socialism and who tried to make a small beginning of it in the university but who was roundly defeated by the inability to distinguish between what could be accomplished and what could not.
My journey in JNU began in the tumultuous days of the post-Emergency era. Sitaram Yechury was president of the Students’ Union and excesses committed on the campus by university officials during the Emergency period were being hotly debated. I had come from Berhampur, a small town in southern Orissa where the Left’s student organisations (AISF and SFI) were the strongest. But many of those so-called leftist student activists were hardened criminals.
In JNU, I found a completely different environment. Here the same student organisations were spearheading a democratic student movement based on debate and discussion. I was witness to general body meetings (GBMs) that went on till 3 am to deliberate on issues raised by the Students’ Council.
In my initial days, I came to realise that there was nothing peculiar about the students who joined these Left groups: they came from all regions and all class backgrounds; they had all sorts of motives for becoming members (a majority of the smartest girls on campus were members of the SFI); they differed greatly in their commitment to the cause that their organisation stood for.
Like most freshers, I too was assiduously wooed by the redoubtable Dilip Upadhyay, then the most popular SFI leader in the School of Social Sciences. He set up several meetings with Yechury, the top leader on the campus. But given my bitter experience with Left groups back home, I chose to bide time.
When the Students’ Union elections came, I was witness to the full flow of JNU democracy. Election commissioners were elected from among the students, with absolutely no role of any teacher or administrator in the process. Post-dinner election meetings were the biggest draw. Yechury was the presidential candidate again, but the star attraction was DP Tripathi, who was president of the JNUSU during the Emergency and who had spent 19 months in jail. Yechury was rather sedate, matter-of-fact and logical in his speeches; But DPT (as Tripathi was popularly known) kept the audience spellbound with his rhetoric for endless hours (I remember returning to my room from one such meeting at 5 am after being glued to a three- hour-long harangue by him). Decidedly, DPT was the most powerful defender of Stalinism on a JNU platform.
There was no comparable figure in the Free Thinkers, a campus-based organisation, which was the voice of liberal scepticism. Anand Kumar, who was president of the BHU Students’ union on a Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha ticket, was instrumental in the formation of the Free Thinkers in JNU in 1972 to take on the might of the established Left. He was defeated by the formidable Prakash Karat of the SFI in the 1973 election, but he had his revenge next year when both contested election again and Kumar trounced Karat. But midway in his tenure as president of the JNUSU, Kumar went abroad for higher studies on a fellowship; that left Free Thinkers in a disarray for quite some time and the established Left groups bounced back.
The situation changed dramatically in 1980 when Jairus Banaji, who had registered for an MPhil in History with Bipan Chandra as his guide, appeared on the political scene. He, a Trotskyite, and a handful of like-minded students formed Students for Revolutionary Socialism and launched a virulent attack on the Stalinist Left. His forceful thesis and acidic comments made SFI and DPT run for cover. He once decided to beard the lion in his den; he went to an SFI meeting, armed with loads of books, and recited a litany of damning details on Stalinist crimes. DPT tried to bravely respond saying that in any revolutionary movement ‘mistakes’ were bound to happen; the next night, we were treated to Jairus holding forth on a two-hour electrifying diatribe against ‘the “‘Mistake’ Theorists of Stalinist History”.
Every 24 hours then seemed to send the pulse of the campus racing to a revolutionary precipice. One had to live through that phase in JNU history to understand its hold on a young mind. But that era soon passed, with Jairus leaving the campus. The SFI was back calling the shots in political debates.
There was no denying that I and some of my close friends were greatly impressed by the SFI and AISF as political and cultural organisations; aspects of feminism, ethnic nationalism and aesthetics flavoured their activism. Their revolutionary songs stirred us; the cultural power of the Left movement was immense.
There was no doubt in our mind that socialism had to be the call of the day. But we had a problem with the socialism of the SFI. We were not convinced about their quixotic mission of effecting an Indian revolution through Bolshevik means. We increasingly came to realise that they did not represent Indian radicalism; they had become an Indian appendage of a Russian revolutionary power. Che Guevera was not as big a revolutionary icon for them as Ho Chi Minh because Che had the gumption to make a strident critique of both Leninist and Stalinist policies. Submission to the USSR was an affront to the honest dreams of communists everywhere, he had said.
We came to the conclusion that what we wanted was democratic socialism: socialism through democratic means. We formed Students for Democratic Socialism (SDS). Socialism through non-violence became our watchword. We followed the lead of some European Left activists who had twisted the famous quip of Tolstoy: ‘God is the name of my desire.’ We toed the line: ‘Socialism is the name of our desire.’ And our desire was to create a more democratic world here and now, and not in a distant future.
We carried the logic of the autonomy of the student movement a little further. We did not want students to take their lead and their lines from any agency external to the campus. For us, national political parties fostered vested interests that crippled the unity of the student movement. The established Left was obviously our target, as the NSUI and ABVP were then fledgling student groups. We did have a natural alliance with the Free Thinkers (FT), which was also a campus-based organisation; the major difference between us was that we set out a millenarian view but FT’s leaders had hitherto eschewed grand chiliastic flourishes in their electoral campaign.
The FT+SDS alliance put up a full panel for the Students’ Union election in 1982 and I became the presidential candidate. During the customary presidential debate, a prominent leader of the SFI asked me: If you are opposed to power politics, why are you contesting elections? My reply was: “For SFI, the Students’ Union may be a seat of power, for us it is an instrument of struggle.” We carried the day.
The Big Left groups campaigned hard to tell the students that if elected, we would usher in ‘reactionary’ politics. Our appeal to the students was: ‘If you want freedom, vote for FT+SDS. If you want slavery, vote for SFI+AISF’. Progressive Students’ Organisation, the most radical student group in JNU back then, openly extended its support to us. For the first time in JNUSU history since 1971, the Big Left was virtually routed in the election of 1982. We won a comfortable majority in the Students’ Council.
But our victory was short-lived. In the School of Computer Sciences, a Scheduled Caste student (an SFI member) who had been doing badly in examinations for several semesters suddenly felt that a particular professor was discriminating against him because of his caste. The SFI was quick to demand that the Students’ Union take up the case and the professor (who was not a communist) be dismissed. (In the long years that the SFI was in office, it had never demanded the sacking of a professor.) We said that we must examine the veracity of the accusation before making any such demand. On our suggestion, the vice-chancellor set up an enquiry committee with possibly the most credible names as its members: Professor S Gopal and Professor Romila Thapar, eminent historians, Professor Tapas Mazumdar (whom Amartya Sen had described as his intellectual mentor since college days), and, if I remember correctly, Professor Amit Bhaduri, a celebrated economist. I was a member as the student representative. The committee held its meeting on six different occasions, but the student with the grievance did not appear before even one of them. Instead, the SFI went round the campus branding the Students’ Union as a body that had ditched student interests and sold its soul to the administration. Clearly, there was no truth in the student’s accusation. Unsettling us was their sole motive.
We had taken a democratic position that any punitive action must follow a credible enquiry. The administration and teachers were fine with this even as we were made to appear betraying the student’s cause.
In mid-1983, when a student was expelled from a hostel after a supposed altercation with a warden, we insisted that no punitive action could be taken without a fair enquiry. But this time the vice-chancellor and communist teachers took the position that no enquiry was necessary, that the warden’s report was self-explanatory. We said that such a position was against the democratic principle that we had put into practice in the sensitive Computer Science school case involving an SC student. It was the turn of the vice-chancellor and academic staff to reciprocate. But our appeal fell on deaf ears.
We then used our majority in the Students’ Council for a decision to break open the lock of the hostel room and reinstate the student in defence of the democratic principle. I must note that AISF broke ranks with the SFI to join us in the action. Along with me, Sajal Mitra (general secretary who belonged to AISF) and the hostel inmate were served expulsion notices. A thousand students gheraoed the vice-chancellor, demanding a revocation of the expulsion order. But he was unyielding. The Teachers’ Association (dominated by communists) extended support to the vice-chancellor. It was instrumental in calling in the police to break the back of the student movement.
When a 500-strong armed constabulary marched in, aided by the mounted police, to arrest the JNUSU leadership, more than a thousand students courted arrest in solidarity with the leaders. Uniform charges—attempt to rape and murder, plus arson and looting—were slapped against all students. Prominent lawyers of Delhi who defended us pro bono explained the absurdity of the charges in court (‘attempt to rape’ had also been levelled against 300 girls who had courted arrest). We spent 21 days in Tihar Jail before we were unconditionally released. But the university declared a zero year, expelled many more students and ordered the campus out of bounds for us.
Looking back, was it worth it? I think it was. The established Left had a cosy relationship with the Establishment. They would attack the tyranny of Shah of Iran and Indira Gandhi, but when it came to the campus issues, they were capable of acting as an opportunistic student group; they had no problem subordinating principle to practice, copping out of a fight with the university Establishment as they themselves had become a virtual part of it.
We were too purist for the pragmatic give-and-take of campus politics. And we had to pay the price for it. Our failure was perhaps inevitable. We were wrong; campus- based politics had its limitations. That became self-evident: FT and SDS were consigned to history while SFI and AISF continue to be major student organisations in JNU.
The vacuum created by our absence over the years saw the emergence of another coalition of the independent Left with Amit Sengupta in the lead. It was the year of Tiananmen Square in China, and Sengupta, with his brilliant expose of communist doublespeak, romped home as president of the Students’ Union. The radical Left alternative to the established Left came to be crystallised in the mid-1990s with the emergence of All India Student Association (AISA), possibly a reincarnation of the PSO of our times. AISA has pushed SFI+AISF off its pedestal in successive years.
Has the AISA’s emergence nurtured left adventurism? I do not think so. The separatist slogans that we heard in JNU were the handiwork of some fringe elements who did a disservice to the cause of the Left. In an environment already inhospitable to radical ideas, such utterances would push leftists to constantly prove their patriotic bona fides. Its possible fallout could be the descent of the Left from its position of campus dominance.
I would not like that to happen. I had had my ideological differences with the established Left groups, but that does not prevent me from acknowledging that they had laid a foundation for student activism in JNU that I was proud of and drew inspiration from.
For me, if JNU ever sheds its romance with the Left and becomes a mainstream institution, may be it will come out of its intellectual ghetto, but, in the process, it is bound to lose its soul.