Where even the walls talk

JNU’s culture is defined by the will to engage, debate and discuss. From ultra-left to ultra-right, it has space for everyone.

Written by Aparajitha Raja | Updated: March 9, 2016 12:12 am
This government has itself destroyed state-defined structures. Undermining the autonomy of a university and directing the police to run amok defies logic. This government has itself destroyed state-defined structures. Undermining the autonomy of a university and directing the police to run amok defies logic.

What I write is not a defence of JNU. It is not a CV of JNU, proving its nationalist credentials. It is not a reiteration of JNU’s nationalism. This has already been done by several people, from Noam Chomsky to Dhaiyaji, member, Karamchari Sangh, JNU. I write in order to present a perspective from the inside. I write as a Dalit woman who is an activist of the All India Students’ Federation (AISF) in JNU.

By now, most are aware of the developments in JNU — we are also happily counting used condoms and cigarette butts. This mountain-out-of-a-molehill issue is a clear witchhunt against voices of dissent, rationality and ideologies counter to the ruling party’s. That a mere cultural programme, “A country without a postoffice”, organised by a group of university students would raise such a wild storm is indeed surprising. The academy has always been a space where multiple strands of thought coexist. In fact, it is a space where ideas are generated, debated, revised, discarded and carried forward. In JNU, both our dissertations and political ideologies are honed at the humble chai dhaba over a cup of tea and a cigarette. “JNU culture” is defined by the will to engage, debate and discuss. A first-generation learner from Mau, UP will not be ridiculed or rejected for not-so-progressive opinions on homosexuality. Apart from producing excellent scholarship — a great service to the country and not a waste of taxpayer money — students are also political beings. We do think and talk of contemporary issues unfolding in the socio-cultural and political spheres. And if need be, we protest against some of them. We “Make in India” by not only conversing at the dhaba but also practising our politics in everyday life, which includes not smashing somebody’s skull because our sentiments have been hurt and not laughing at “innocent boy jokes” (whether said inside Parliament or outside).

The vibrancy of this campus can be judged by its walls. They have a life of their own. They engage in dialogue with that introverted boy lazily walking past them through the huge posters stuck on them. From ultra-left to ultra-right posters, everything decorates the walls. This campus is often fondly — as well as bitterly — referred to as a left bastion. However, this needs to be qualified. There are many shades of left on campus that differ with each other, theoretically and practically. One just has to visit JNU during the students’ union presidential debate to know this. Each of us is ready with paint colour charts to prove they are the “asli lal”. Student organisations hold on to their polemical and practical differences. We differ on our notions of the nation, nature of the state, modes of struggle and nationalism.

For long, JNU has been targeted by rightwingers. The Organiser, the mouthpiece of the RSS, has described JNU as a “den of anti-national activities”. Certain people have gone so far as to say there needs to be a special narcotics cell within the campus (RIP, Bob Marley!); they also say that there is “nanga naach” happening in JNU. But the fact remains that this campus has always symbolised resistance and a challenge to the powers that be, which are expressed through post-dinner mess meetings, public lectures, seminars, movie screenings, effigy burnings, cultural evenings, and so on. “A country without a postoffice” was one such form of expression. Interestingly, this is not the first time that the RSS’s student wing, the ABVP, has been disturbed by the programmes of its political opponents. Earlier this academic session, the screening of the documentary, Caste on the Menu Card, organised by the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association was disrupted. Many film screenings — including of Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai and Court — have been disrupted directly through the ABVP or indirectly using the shield of the administration. What happened on the night of February 9 cannot be seen in isolation.

What is happening in JNU is connected to the metanarrative of the ruling upper-caste, upper-class power elite trying to maintain the structural status quo of exclusion and discrimination. Clamping down on the entire spectrum of student politics serves this purpose. The Birla-Ambani report, which is oft quoted by the government, categorically states that student politics is the greatest hurdle in the privatisation of education. The corporate-media-fascist power nexus is operating through the state machinery in the form of fund cuts, institutional murders and police crackdowns. The past year has been a year of student resistance movements — the Hokkolorob, FTII, Occupy UGC and Hyderabad Central University movements, and now here in JNU, the movement against the complete impunity of the BJP government and administration that is bent on criminalising mere sloganeering by a bunch of students who dared to differ politically.

What is happening in JNU must be seen in a continuum with the historic assertion of the marginalised classes that were alw-ays forced to the periphery of society by the ruling elites. What the Sangh brigade is doing now is a continuation of its anti-Mandal propaganda; it could not tolerate the lower classes and castes speaking, thinking and generating their own theory. Their mere presence in an elite university is disturbing for the Sangh. The nexus of capitalist and fundamentalist forces that is invested in a project of homogenising thought, language and culture does not want to understand democratic dissent. The continuous targeting of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, women and backward classes is proof of this. The infantilising of Rohith Vemula as a “bacha” by the Union human resource development minister is insulting. The arrest of Comrade Kanhaiya Kumar for being “anti-national” was insulting. The targeting of Comrade Umar Khalid as a terrorist is insulting. I see this as a clear ploy to establish a Hindu rashtra by systematically dismantling the Indian Constitution written by Ambedkar. It is the spirit of the Constitution — liberty, equality, fraternity — that must be upheld. We as a country should move from formal democracy to substantial democracy. And for this, I borrow from Ambedkar’s imagination of a “Prabudh Bharat”, where the toiling majority will be recognised and represented. The BJP government is doing a great disservice to this vision.

No university can be a place of learning if questioning is disallowed, if criticality and rationality are disallowed. JNU is not its buildings, labs and computers. It is made of its students, teachers and karamcharis, the dialogue between them, the pedagogic practices evolved by them. It is our practice of progressive debate and discussion that has, to an extent, institutionalised gender and social justice.

This government has itself destroyed state-defined structures. Undermining the autonomy of a university and directing the police to run amok defies logic. These days, it seems that the most important law of the land is on sedition. I can’t stop wondering how this archaic colonial law became the defining legislation that determines our worthiness to remain citizens or be flung across the border. The speed at which sedition charges are being handed out is comic. It is time we dump this colonial baggage. However, in these dark times, sedition charges seem safer, considering that Comrades Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar and Professor M.M. Kalburgi were murdered without a hearing.

The writer, 25, an MPhil student at the School of Social Sciences, JNU, is president of the JNU unit of the AISF

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