I write this as an erstwhile JNU student and JNU students’ union member, who studied as hard as she did politics. I cannot decide which taught me more — academics or politics. My friends and I intensely engaged in both — sometimes spending more time reading and writing, sometimes in public debate and street politics, the one sometimes blending seamlessly into the other but at other times sitting uneasily together. That was my greatest takeaway from JNU — the lesson that academics and politics are inseparable twins.
Entering JNU, for me, was like entering a zone of freedom, overwhelming freedom. At the very first glance, JNU was like a vast expanse to spread one’s wings in — long-winding roads and overgrown valleys, the facility of being outdoors late into the night (what that could mean to a young girl!), milling in and around the library till 11 pm, mess meetings (no pun intended) after dinner, the chance to befriend anyone from anywhere, any class, caste or nationality (thanks to JNU’s admission system based on multiple deprivation points), and above all, the possibility of falling in love across all social barriers. And the teachers let you hold forth endlessly, call them by first name, be flexible about class attendance, take open-book exams and even drink tea and smoke with them.
If all this seems trivial, that may simply be because one has grown too old to remember what it takes for one to shed one’s inhibitions and grow into responsible, young adulthood. It takes freedom — even excessive freedom — to experiment, make mistakes, get second and third chances, encounter shocking social differences, and experience true, often frightening, equality of the kind that is possible only amongst peers. In JNU, we learnt quickly, through our little adventures and misadventures, the profoundly serious lesson that a free mind depended on a physically and socially free space. Intellectual excellence — merit as we diminutively say today — depended crucially on an ambience of democracy, diversity and equality. Else the threats loomed large — dogmatism, boredom and, worst of all, stupidity.
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This was the early and mid-1990s — we lived in “interesting times” in the way promised by that ancient Chinese curse disguised as a blessing. We lived through political events that challenged our certainties — Soviet collapse, Tiananmen Square, Mandal Commission, liberalisation, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Dunkel Draft, Kashmir, telecom revolution. We were the transition generation, stepping into a new world across an imaginary abyss. JNU offered us the resources to deal with this transition — intellectual and political. The courses were changed frequently to respond to new questions and the classes and streets tolerated intense debate, even outrageous position-taking. We were sometimes ridiculed but also quickly forgiven and never ever silenced.
We were acutely aware of the idyllic nature of this space. But we assumed that a university must be exactly so — a controlled, if not utopian, space for experimentation. After all, we never demand that laboratories must be abolished because they are idyllic and utopian. But then it was not entirely idyllic either. We came from such diverse backgrounds that cultural misrecognition and misunderstanding always loomed on the horizon. Ours was also the time of the rise of Hindutva outfits on campus as well as post-Mandal upper-caste assertion. The challenge to democracy was palpably close, but the atmospherics generally won out. We also felt morally tortured by the fact of our privilege as JNU students. To compensate, we became involved in politics outside campus. Some of us worked in trade unions in the city’s industrial areas, some worked in communally charged neighbourhoods, some went back to their home states to fight desperate political battles and even be killed. JNU taught us idealism but, by the same virtue, taught us the importance of reality-checks.
A popular slogan amongst students, then and now, in JNU and elsewhere, was originally Ambedkar’s gift to us — “Educate, organise, agitate”. JNU even today acknowledges this principle. But we often understate the slogan’s imperative. To insist that academics and politics must go together is not just to say that academicians should be politically committed or that politicians ideology-driven rather than interest- or identity-led. In fact, we learn in places like JNU that the relationship between intellection and activism is a complex and nuanced one. We learn that it is in a relationship with each other that politics and academics acquire their distinction, their separate definitions and jurisdictions, their respective limits. In fact, it is by virtue of this relationship that both politics and academics are rendered dynamic and changeable, as each becomes amenable to the other’s questioning and criticism. Academics and politics are not the same thing. Academics brings critical distance and analytical skill to politics, and politics teaches the dare of risky thought, contingent action and radical equality. They are different and precisely for that reason deeply connected. One cannot do one as a proxy for the other. One must do both, even as students. When patriarchs today order students to study instead of do politics, when they demand that students show their exam scores to prove their political worth, when they tell us what to say and not to say, who to love and how to love, I sense a perverse reinvention of the old ashrama sensibility. College and university students must vote, they may even marry. But they must follow political brahmacharya. Thank god for places like JNU — where no one has to be celibate, politically or otherwise.