At a book launch Friday, former University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Sukhdeo Thorat said that those speaking of creating “quality institutions” were the ones responsible for the “destruction” of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Historian Romila Thapar also said what made the university “exceptional” did not exist any longer.
They were speaking at the online launch of the book, JNU Stories: The First 50 Years, published by Aleph Book Company. The book has contributions from former students, teachers and V-Cs, and has been edited by five faculty members of JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies, including Neeladri Bhattacharya, Kunal Chakrabarti, S Gunasekaran, Janaki Nair and Joy L K Pachau.
Thapar said, “It was an exceptional university, which makes it all that much more sad to see that that exceptionalism doesn’t exist any longer. Maybe it will come back.”
Thapar recalled her hesitation in joining JNU as faculty in 1970 leaving behind the “well-established” Delhi University, and her conversation with then Vice-Chancellor G Parthasarathi. When asked how he envisaged JNU, his response was that it would be “intellectually vibrant and therefore open to a range of ideas” which “meant asking questions, and investigating answers and taking knowledge forward”, Thapar recalled.
“We all know of course, alas, that there are Vice-Chancellors and faculty who lack vision and commitment and who disallow the right to think and speak freely. Such people can put together a good teaching shop but this never makes for a unique university of excellence. If we speak of a university of excellence, we must know what it means,” she said.
Thorat called JNU a “unique experiment” and “miracle” for primarily two reasons — its high academic standards and its admission policy which gave it an inclusive character.
“I have my doubt that the glory that we see in the book may not be there, already we see a decline. At least this document will serve as a memory of what JNU was… I feel extremely sad that those who speak of developing quality institutions every morning, are the ones who are engaged in the destruction of JNU,” he said.
“My worry is that we may lose this glorious experiment altogether. The building will be there, but the academic structure I’m not sure of,” he added.
Swaraj India leader and former JNU student Yogendra Yadav spoke of how the January 5 violence in the university, in which students and teachers were brutally attacked, changed his “uneasy relationship” with JNU.
Yadav said that when he joined JNU he felt both overqualified as he had already studied Karl Marx and underqualified because of his lack of English skills, and that uneasiness with JNU continued till he witnessed the January 5 incident.
“The public campaign against JNU has been a campaign against the very idea of a university, against intellectualism and against building a more humane country. I recalled that but for this institution, I would not have known India… But for JNU, I would not have been in public life,” he said.
Speaking of the book, editor Neeladri Bhattacharya said, “The essays are not just a nostalgic return to the past but a reflection on experiences which helps us to know what happens within an institution and how people come to be what they are and how the self is fashioned over time through these everyday encounters and social interactions.”
Janaki Nair said, “We see this only as a modest first step of a project that has to be much longer and detailed.”
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