“Chappal ghisna padega,” says V Lenin Kumar, sitting on the kerb leading to the administrative block of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the nerve centre of the protest against the arrest of JNU Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar. Lenin, a former JNUSU president, is talking about what it takes to “succeed in JNU”. “I am the son of a retired factory worker in Chennai. I still can’t speak English and Hindi properly. Would I have been sitting here and talking to you if it wasn’t for JNU? Look at all the others — Kanhaiya’s mother is an anganwadi worker, our former general secretary (Chintu Kumari) is a Mahadalit from Bihar. Where else would this have happened?” he says, turning around to look as a throaty chant of “JNU, JNU, long live JNU” pierces the afternoon lull in the protests. “And they call us anti-nationals? For them, we are a bigger threat than everything else — poverty, unemployment, economic meltdown… We?”
Us and they, we and them. In JNU, these battlelines have long defined every discussion, every dhaba debate, every speech, every minute in its academic, political and social life. Now, with Kanhaiya’s arrest over what the government calls “anti-national” and “seditious” slogans raised on the campus, those lines divide more than they ever did.
“This is the first time since D P Tripathi that a JNUSU president has been arrested. That was during the Emergency,” says Lenin before heading back to the protest site.
Four decades hence, Tripathi, then SFI president who later made peace with the Congress and even joined the party before he switched to the NCP, says, “But even then, though I was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and the Defence of India Rules, I was never charged with sedition and treason for anything I said. And I did say a lot of things then.”
These days on campus, the parallel with the Emergency is easily drawn. It’s a throwback to the past, when both students and professors lent their voice to every big cause. JNU to them was a world stage on which they stood and spoke, often without a mike — on Emergency, Vietnam, the Non-Aligned Movement, Khalistan, women’s rights, Assam movement. Nothing was too small or too distant a crusade, not even nationalism.
In fact, “fostering national integration” was one of the founding principles of the university when it was conceived by M C Chagla, Jawaharlal Nehru’s minister of education and later minister of external affairs in the Indira Gandhi Cabinet. Those were the days of communal and linguistic troubles in many parts of the country and this new university for post-graduation and research was to have students with a truly ‘national representation’. So it was on April 22, 1969, that the university was set up under the JNU Act of 1966 and a decade later, in 1976, moved to its present campus at the tail end of the Aravallis. Under G Parthasarathi, JNU’s first vice-chancellor, the university attracted some of the finest names in the world of social sciences and pure sciences such as Sivatosh Mukherjee, Krishna Bharadwaj, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra, Yogendra Singh and others.
“You must remember that when JNU came up in 1969, it was Indira Gandhi’s socialist era. So there was a great influence of Left-liberal and socialist thinkers and they shaped the university,” says Tripathi.
It was natural, therefore, that JNU, with its brick-red buildings and scruffy Aravalli vegetation, would became a place for critical ideas, where the dominant ideologies of caste, class and gender would be challenged.
Sitting in his room in JNU, 83-year-old CP Bhambri, social scientist and Professor Emeritus at the School of Social Sciences, says that if JNU could challenge orthodoxy, it was because for the last 40 years, the university was run on the philosophy that it must “reflect the diversity of India”. That’s changing, he says, with the present government. “Even the Congress appointed V-Cs who were shoe-shiners of those in powers, but they never interfered with what I was teaching. This is a contest of two philosophies — of plurality and homogeneity. India is not a monolith; there is plurality within religions. But no, they want universities to be regimented to create a Hindu as defined by them. It’s clear why JNU is being pushed into a corner… Anyone who deviates from their philosophy is declared anti-national. They seek uniformity, and universities and schools are the first places where they can establish that.”
Bhambri says it’s precisely this conformism that JNU has always questioned. “We don’t prescribe textbooks for our students. We give them readings. We tell them to go to the library, ask questions,” he says.
Many of these questions, say old-timers, were raised, discussed and debated at the university’s many dhabas.
In his book, JNU, The Making of a University, Rakesh Batabyal, historian and now professor at the Centre for Media Studies in JNU, says how the JNU community and radical Left’s “aversion to hygiene and aesthetics” ensured that swish restaurants had no place on the campus. So it was at Gopalan canteen in the old library building and the many other dhabas on campus —Ganga, Sabarmati — that much of the social and intellectual debates happened, over plates of tea, fish and curry and rajma-rice.
“It was the old, happy and absent-minded Gopalan from Thrissur… who filled a vacuum in the culinary landscape in the campus. He also subsidised many theses by freely providing chicken curry and rice to struggling students,” says Batabyal over utappam and tea at Gopalan’s canteen that has since moved out of the library building. “The joke used to be that it was the only canteen with a library attached to it,” he laughs.
Maneesha Taneja, assistant professor of Spanish at Delhi University’s Department of Germanic and Romance Studies, who came to JNU as a 17-year-old undergraduate “with no world view”, says the dhabas offered her the first exposure to the idea of ‘nation-state’. “You could come out of theatre practice at 1 am, walk down to the nearest dhaba, have a cup of tea and watch ideas flow. It was one of the safest and open campuses I have known. The actual classes happened in these dhabas,” says Taneja, who met her husband-to-be Ashutosh (now AAP leader) here.
Students of Mridula Mukherjee, who joined JNU as an MPhil student and a year later as faculty at the university’s Centre for Historical Studies at its School of Social Sciences, joke that her classes were an extension of the dhabas where conversations —“not classes” — happened over coffee and swirls of cigarette smoke. “What we did at JNU was quiet nation-building. Not shouting Bharat Mata slogans. Today, JNU is the steel frame that holds the Indian civil services. So many of our alumni have gone on to become bureaucrats — Ajit Seth (former cabinet secretary), Lalit Mansingh (ex-foreign secretary). So many are in this government too — S Jaishankar (Foreign Secretary), Amitabh Kant (NITI Aayog CEO)… I could go on and on. Are they are all anti-nationals?” asks Mukherjee, who went on to become director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
Mukherjee says her students were told to never stop asking questions. “The first thing I would tell my students when I entered the class was that they should stop me anytime they wanted and ask questions, not wait for the end of the class. There would be so many classes where I would hardly cover the topic for the day and the students would take over,” says Mukherjee, who says her first year at JNU saw Prakash Karat becoming JNUSU president. “(Sitaram) Yechury came much later.”
On its deeply political and open campus, JNU students are known to set their terms. Student union polls are fiercely independent, conducted by students themselves through an elected Election Committee. In 2008, JNUSU elections were stopped for four years because the students had refused to toe the line set by the Lyngdoh Committee. In December 2011, the Supreme Court relaxed the Lyngdoh rules and JNU students voted again.
With the rise of the SFI (the CPM’s student body) and AISF (the CPI’s) in the 1970s, and later the AISA (the CPI-ML’s) and ABVP (the RSS’s student body), students on campus made strident pitches for social issues and causes of the downtrodden.
It was to this campus that Ashish Agnihotri, a public school student from Sherwood College in Nainital and “a polished man who had been trained with the elite”, came as a 17-year-old. “When I came as an undergraduate student of French to the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, I thought the only way to succeed was by the sweat of the brow, little knowing how acquired privileges play a big part in your success. Then, Mandal happened and that turned things around for me. I became aware of caste for the first time… Till then, I thought I was the man around town. JNU was what made a man out of me,” says Agnihotri, who now teaches French at JNU and is a member of the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA).
But while JNU has over the years positioned itself as a bastion of progressive Left politics, its sense of exceptionalism left many unhappy. A leading political scientist who had a short teaching stint at the university, says that while it is “a university with a distinct identity and culture”, it has a degree of “intellectual narrowness”. One of these “institutional downsides”, he says, has been the traditional rift between the School of Social Sciences (SSS) and the School of International Studies (SIS). “The SSS has a reputation of being intellectual, with a higher respect in terms of scholars, and the SIS of being a lot more uneven. So the SSS would not allow approval for SIS courses and so on.”
Another problem, he says, was that its “intellectual homogeneity was reflected in the rifts among scholars”. “Within the Left, it could be a brutally factionalised place. So in JNU, they would say we are invested in social processes and you could not study political institutions seriously because these are considered bourgeois constructs… So there was reproduction of a certain kind and, progressively, JNU became inbred in some ways… JNU has this School of Languages but they wouldn’t allow a Sanskrit department till M M Joshi came. That’s where the charge against JNU gets levelled, the gripe the Right always had,” he says.
Batabyal feels that over the years, JNU has became so invested in “its sectoral politics that it is increasingly losing its umbrella vision”. “In the 70s and 80s, we could say that our nationalism is progressive. But by caricaturising nationalism as something reactionary, we have given the BJP an issue on a platter. Debunking nationalism is not debating nationalism. So now, by saying we will not talk about nation and nationalism, we are left with no larger or meta text to counter the pretenders of nationalism. For instance, many of the new students here come from places where they have gone through this whole caste grind. So when they come here, we have to give them the politics to transcend their already difficult circumstances, not drag them down deeper,” he says.
Walking down the corridor of the Centre for Historical Studies, “where the finest minds such as Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra worked”, Batabyal stops by his room, taken up almost entirely by books. “So I have this room and a stinking toilet in front of this room, and they call us anti-nationals,” smiles Batabyal.
He believes that one of the ways to break the current impasse at JNU is to reach out to ABVP students and professors who aren’t part of the protest movement. “We need to tell them that this is about our university and that by not sticking together, you are not breaking the Left in JNU, but JNU itself. A sullen minority is dangerous,” says Batabyal.
Devendra Singh Rajput, 26, from Dausa in Rajasthan, sits “sullen” in his room at Sutlej hostel on the campus. His ideology starts at the door — ‘ABVP’, it announces, beside a poster of Swami Vivekanada. Inside, he sits crosslegged on the bed with two friends.
Rajput and his friends won’t be seen anywhere near the administrative building where students have turned out to protest against Kanhaiya’s arrest. “What’s happening there? Why would we go there? Anyway, they won’t let us in,” says the PhD student of Sanskrit. “They talk of free speech but when it’s our turn to speak, they shout us down. They recently called (former DU professor) S A R Geelani on campus, but didn’t let us in because we wanted to ask a few questions. And when we decided to call Ramdev to our Sanskrit Centre, they refused to let him in. Every year, they mark Afzal Guru’s hanging as shahid diwas, we don’t say anything. During Navratri, they caricature Durga Ma and say Mahishasura represents the downtrodden and Durga is the evil oppressor. We tolerate all that,” he says.
Rajput contested the last JNUSU elections for the general secretary post but lost to Rama Naga of the AISA. “Of course, there is no campus like ours. In fact, Kanhaiya and all of us sit together and chat over tea when we meet. But when they make speeches, they call us goons, ABVP ke goons. We never call them that. In fact, we ABVP students now joke about it and call each other goons… Aye goon, kahan ja rahe ho (goon, where are you going)?”
The start of politics at JNU
The Indian School of International Studies (ISIS), set up in 1955, was merged with JNU in June 1970 and the ‘Indian’ in the name dropped. The MPhil and PhD students of ISIS, and undergraduates from the Institute of Russian Studies, which was inducted into JNU in 1969, were the first set of students to enter the new university. Rakesh Batabyal writes in his book JNU: The Making of a University that these new students “were not particularly known for their political proclivities except that the general tenor of international studies was apolitical, while that of Russian studies was pro-Soviet Union… In the School of International Studies, there were eight professors and none of them could be identified with communism, Marxism or even socialism of any hue. A couple of them had strong American orientation and outlook.”
SIS even had an active students’ union, which had young leaders such as Prakash Karat. Batabyal writes that when the SIS union was merged with the SFI-led union in JNU, several of Karat’s colleagues in the SIS union were not happy.
“The success of the JNU students’ union in demonstrating against the visit of then British prime minister Edward Heath, when he came to speak at the Sapru House auditorium, provided an opportunity, Batabyal writes, for political parties “to penetrate JNU,” writes Batabyal.
Also, a “sizeable number of the students of the School of Social Sciences tried to counter the coordinated efforts of the left parties to control the students by declaring a formation of ‘Free Thinkers’.”