There’s a cop in my class

The very idea of the university is under siege. When thought is stunted, societies stop progressing

Written by Happymon Jacob , A.K. Ramakrishnan | Updated: February 27, 2016 12:14 am
jnu, jnu arrests, jnu protests, jnu arrest protest, kanhaiya kumar, kanhaiya kumar release, jnu president release, umar khalid, umar khalid news, umar khalid arrest, sheila rashid, jnusu, jnu latest, jnu professors, india news JNU students agitate for the release of students arrested on sedition charges on the university campus in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

The row over the legally and morally untenable police action on the JNU campus and the arrests of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya have challenged the very idea of the university. Are universities merely an extension of the state where students rehash existing knowledge, thereby reproducing traditional notions of morality, justice and nationalism, or are they sites where some of these fundamental notions are debated and challenged?

The ongoing controversy should not be viewed in isolation. The BJP government’s high-handedness with institutions of higher learning is symptomatic of the fact that free speech, critical thinking, dissent and the very idea of the university, are being challenged.

While there may be a deep-seated sectarian, political agenda behind targeting JNU, the larger issue is about autonomous academic spaces and intellectual freedom. Academics often find it hard to stretch the boundaries of reason precisely because our political and intellectual imagination is monopolised by the state and its urge to constantly define what is moral and patriotic in conformity with hegemonic notions. When academics venture out of those boundaries, they get called rebellious, if they are lucky, or anti-national, as is the case today.

Universities can’t be expected to satisfy majoritarian notions or the “collective conscience” of a nation’s sense of morality. Not only should every university resist attempts of the state apparatus to force it to reproduce its reason, it should also challenge and question dominant societal values. Our collective belief systems have to be challenged and transformed from time to time, as they always have been, and universities as sites of critical thinking should play a leading role in this process. Once the university is intruded into by the state, the next step would be to dictate the contents of the curriculum — the meaning of nationalism, the content of history books, and culturally appropriate dress codes, behaviour, etc.

There is an under-emphasised pedagogical and moral logic to the idea of the autonomy of universities. The university and its attendant knowledge practices, which necessarily involve the clash of ideas and ideologies, are distinct from the logic of public morality. Students and researchers of politics and law should be expected to do postmortems of judicial outcomes. In that sense, critiquing the hanging of Afzal Guru is well within the academic autonomy of a university community, let alone the fact that there is nothing illegal about it. How does arguing, using logic, reason or even agitation, make one anti-national? The argument that the hanging of Guru was unfair may be unsavoury for many but it is not unconstitutional or illegal.

What makes a university classroom different from other spaces? It is the ability to deliberate on all sorts of issues, from nuclear policy to the bloody evolution of states and Tagore’s critique of nationalism. Just as discussing the Oedipus complex should not be prevented for fear that it runs counter to societal taboos, critically discussing the inherent problems associated with nationalist claims and their modern political forms (states) can’t be disallowed either.

More importantly, there is an undeniable and organic link between the classroom and the rest of the campus. University campuses are extended classrooms where students learn from post-dinner discussions, political activism, protest meetings and mess-hall debates. At the same time, the crucial intellectual demarcation between what happens inside the campus and outside should be appreciated. If we don’t, our unease with what happens on campuses today will end in classrooms and textbooks tomorrow. Therefore, the unleashing of the state machinery on the JNU campus today has the dangerous potential of policing thought in the classroom. When thought is stunted, societies stop progressing.

There seems to have emerged a false dichotomy between nationalists and anti-nationalists: That is, if you are not a nationalist, you are necessarily anti-national. That is a false dichotomy precisely because nationalism is not a settled question in our country. A quick glance at non-heartland India would make it unambiguously clear to any observer. If so, why is questioning specific forms of nationalism deemed wrong? Nationalism is an evolutionary project, not a pre-fabricated commodity to be imposed on the citizens of a free country, especially graduate students who are in the business of debating various nuances of nationalist and counter-nationalist narratives. Mature societies dialogically engage unsavoury thoughts instead of criminalising them.

In any case, our intellectual parameters should not be dictated by a regime-centred logic. As members of the larger humanity, we have every right, and indeed responsi-bility, to think beyond state-centred politics and its monopoly over our imagination of community and nation.

It is important to recognise that there is a multitude of ethical and political possibilities beyond the historical contingency of nationalism and nation-states, which are, in themselves, imagined communities. The Westphalian conception of nation-states based on borders, sovereignty and monocultural moorings has long been inflicting limits upon our worldviews and engagement with the larger humanity.

JNU is under immense stress today thanks primarily to the concerted attempts by certain organisations and the state. And they have used the simplest but most lethal tool in their kit: Calling us anti-national. We will eventually weather the storm. But it’s not just about us, it’s also about the very idea of the university that is under siege today.

Jacob is associate professor of disarmament studies and Ramakrishnan is professor, School of International Studies, JNU, Delhi

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  1. V
    V. D.
    Feb 27, 2016 at 4:57 am
    1.JNU is a university that has been producing unemployable graduates, has added no real new academic additions or growth in the last 10 years, is subsidised without any signs of earning its keep- yes it needs a rethink on the current structure. And that should be our main aim and concern- not why cops are trying to control s calling for violence and death against us citizens 2. JNU students are students with very little in terms of academic or real life experience- why do you think the rest of us are interested in what a few over aged, free loaders with no track record of any productive work have to say ? LOL. Non-issue boss- whats your day job?
    Reply
    1. V
      Vikrant
      Feb 27, 2016 at 11:02 am
      Why these so called intellectuals and champions of freedom of speech see red when they come across a view that is opposite to theirs? Why do they oppose the so called saffron historians or intellectuals or student unions that do not subscribe to their view point? Why was the opposition to appointment of intellectuals who were Saffron? Isnt that right opposite to their views of freedom of speech and blooming of 1000 ideas?
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      1. A
        ajeet
        Feb 28, 2016 at 1:40 am
        The extreme left is under attack in its former bastions and its nice to hear its last scream. I'm sure everyone knows how tolerant the left front is when its ruling as the experience in USSR, China, Kerala and West Bengal show. Scream louder please, as its music to my ears.
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        1. A
          ak dev
          Feb 26, 2016 at 8:39 pm
          These professors will need police entry in university campuses only when they encounter suicide bombers or terrorists attack. But then it will be too late to save these professors.
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          1. L
            Lukman
            Feb 27, 2016 at 4:38 am
            Every one knows that at JNU, neither professors nor students with non-leftist background were welcome. JNU has consistently stifled all non-left ideas. Those, who have always practised intellectual apartheid, are talking about intellectual freedom. At JNU intellectual parameters have been determined by Marxism right from the regime of Indira hi. But The two Professors want that India should continue to support this anti-national bastion in the heart of Delhi and that Modi regime should not work for enlarging intellectual freedom at JNU in the name of the the so-called intellectual freedom, as defined by anti-national and ultra-left elements.
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            1. A
              anand
              Feb 27, 2016 at 6:24 pm
              Do these s of JNU who are mostly from useless humanities did anything worthwhile for the country?
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              1. A
                anand
                Feb 27, 2016 at 6:28 pm
                You have already tasted the wrath of people in the public court where the was dragged and thrashed. If you still underestimate the anger and anguish of public,God alone can save you!
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                  anand
                  Feb 27, 2016 at 4:21 am
                  Dear Authors, we the common people of India do not agree with your views . Nu public insution has any right to indulge in ant-inational activities. Infact they no place in the country.
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                  1. D
                    Dinesh
                    Feb 27, 2016 at 5:32 am
                    It is hypocrisy to draw ry from the state and then criticise it. You have a right to speak whatever nonsense you like. But not at the expense of the taxpayers money. Please quit your job and write such articles...Meanwhile when you are paid out of our tax - please do not duty of teaching the children - not inciting them against the nation.
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                    1. B
                      Biplav
                      Feb 27, 2016 at 7:00 am
                      Profs and scholars at eminent universities should cite research and new ideas to justify total academic freedom. Please tell what new research has come out from this university or any where student unions are active? At present, the univs do no work, misuse freedom to niggle a section of the society while ungratefully wasting their money. The solution: a) Please set a university on private funding and do whatever you want within the realms of consution. b) If using public funding, please do some solid research work and be accountable to public and govt. Freedom is not to simply niggle but not do any work.
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                      1. d
                        drywpande@yahoo
                        Feb 27, 2016 at 3:59 am
                        Things must change with ever increasing potion. Tens of crores of students can't be handled by few hundred universities. Government must stop subsidizing education in the name of social work and uplifting. Any university which can not afford must be shut down. Rules for ping must be strict. Enough of ruining Education. Three generations have taken benefits of government scheme. Not bad. Let us stop.
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                        1. I
                          I G
                          Feb 27, 2016 at 5:18 am
                          Any amount of verbal diarrhoea can not conceal the intellectual penury of the arguments put forward by the academics in the article. No reasonable person would dispute or challenge the fact that free speech, critical thinking and dissent are integral to the very idea of a university education and that learning can not be constrained to clrooms and textbooks. Critiquing the hanging of Afzal Guru (or for that matter any subject under the Sun so to speak) is well within the academic autonomy of a university community and there is nothing illegal about it but only when such is through cogent arguments borne out of analysis and not solely through sloganeering against it! As self-proclaimed messiahs of the larger humanity the academics should have not only claimed their right but also should have shown their responsibility to look beyond self-centred ideological biases and its monopoly over the collective expectations of the society and nation when puerile romance to radicalism spread beyond academic proportions. When academics seem unable to differentiate active campaign to destroy the nation that feeds the insution from mature and dialogical engagement to academic discourse, the disgrace of the insutions and the education that they impart are but gradual natural degradation! Is it symptomatic of high-handedness of a government or inability of the intelligentsia to comprehend the reality?
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                            BharatK
                            Feb 27, 2016 at 7:55 pm
                            Jacob/Ramakrishnan: Show your contributions. How many research papers got published in high-impact international journals? Perhaps ZERO. We tax-payers do not pay for your anti-national activities and enjoying your luvish life. Every rupee counts. Be accountable to the job you doing. And stop anti-national activities. It is you teachers train these poor students all bad habits to become your instruments of dirty jobs.
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                              BharatK
                              Feb 27, 2016 at 7:51 pm
                              So what? In the USA, even a primary school guards by armed forces to prevent criminals. JNU must cleanse the criminal elements from the campus.
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                              1. K
                                k sitaram
                                Feb 27, 2016 at 6:14 am
                                arre jacob and ramakrishnan tere maika Russia me aur tere aaj ka baap chaina me bhi har doosra aadmi jos ya police tha. tujhe desh ke khilaff bolene ka haq kisne diya. aaj jo tumne likha aur jo padha rahe ho woh ramleela maidan me hota tere tukde bhi kahin nahin milta. samal jao aabhi time hai.
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                                1. k
                                  kesavamurthy.R.
                                  Feb 27, 2016 at 10:35 am
                                  If someone becomes anti national,that has to be discussed,debated broadly.Then only one can find solution for rectifying anti national mentality...Why so many Maoists,Naxalites in India?..Fighting against terrorism is ok...But,with out knowing the root cause how any gov't find solution?..Gov't is already with one side closed eyes,how it will find new ways?If someone talk regarding this is a anti national,how solution will come?...
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                                  1. K
                                    kch
                                    Apr 5, 2016 at 9:25 pm
                                    Better silent if u don't know, u can search and find thrir contributions if u want to know. Opinion page is not an space to show what one does. And about taxpayers money it's not u alone who pay taxes. Perhaps the two authors here pay much more than u and I. and if you are so concern about tax, then u better ask mallya, mr bachan, lalit modi and PM modi coz his foreign travel budget in a year is more than the w buget of jnu with nearly 8000 stdnts n teachers for four years. If u don't know the meaning of univ, then read n learn sme knowledge.
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                                    1. K
                                      kch
                                      Apr 5, 2016 at 9:30 pm
                                      Useless humanities? Better to be than cyber techno coolies who cannot think at all.
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                                      1. K
                                        Kiran Kumar
                                        Feb 27, 2016 at 5:08 am
                                        Raising anti-national slogans, organizing meetings to eulogize terrorist as martyrs, celebrating killings of CRPF jawans should not be happening in the name of free speech. Do not confuse the public with false propaa that Universities are in danger.
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                                        1. H
                                          Hannah
                                          Feb 27, 2016 at 4:28 pm
                                          Is it not appearing as an attempt to twist the truth?
                                          Reply
                                          1. H
                                            Hannah
                                            Feb 27, 2016 at 4:16 pm
                                            These are two teachers who instigate students against every JNU administration and every government from time to time. But if we the readers show some interest in their Kashmir links they may even try to withdraw this article as a compromise !
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