JNU women and men have written stories of JNU at 50 (JNU Stories: The First 50 Years; editors: Neeladri Bhattacharya, Kunal Chakrabarti, S Gunasekaran, Janaki Nair, Joy L K Pachuau). They are stolid tales of personalities who have arrived. For instance, Sukhadeo Thorat, who was chairman of University Grants Commission and the Indian Council of Social Science Research and so on. You name it he has done it. Similarly, Kamal Mitra Chenoy. A former president of JNUTA, he was the firebrand of the teachers’ association. You may think he is on the wrong ladder. No, he isn’t. Chenoy led JNU teachers and today that makes him a sought-after political adviser. And so it goes on. The young police commissioner, who led the President’s cavalcade from JNU convocation, was a JNUite and knew how to lead the cavalcade without creating more mayhem.
I, of course, was the vice-chancellor when JNU would not hold a convocation because it was a “bourgeois practice”. So I would, every late evening before winding up, write personal letters of congratulations to all those who got a doctorate and MPhil with A plus in my own handwriting. They remember that and accost me anywhere in the world. You are Alagh, I still save your letter. They have memories of JNU at 50 and have written so in the volume.
But life was different in JNU when it was just 25. At 25, you are young and confident. You know you are right and yet they don’t listen to you. It saddens you and you feel sorry for them. So, when Chenoy went to the chancellor, P N Haksar, and said Alagh is downgrading the prestige of JNU because he goes to the joint secretary in the Ministry of Education to fix JNU’s grant and then lobbies with companies for donations for buildings (Tata Library), Haksar was to admonish him in his own style. Your VC will lead a long life, he said.
Sukhadeo Thorat came and met me after his stint at the university was over and said young men in Western Maharashtra come to JNU with me as their icon. “But our reservation is a farce,” he told me. I agreed and asked him to visit every department in JNU, work on reservation and tell us what to do. He said they won’t give me the facts. I said I am appointing you as a one-man committee to do the work. He did a bang-up job and that’s how the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies came to be set up. The activist Thorat in JNU at 25 was different from the staid Thorat of JNU at 50.
At 50, JNU has the activist Kanhaiya Kumar lobbying for you as the only radical in the group who have written stories. When JNU was 25, they were all so. Sometimes, I meet them again. The jholawallahs have become journalists wearing patented shoes. VC, don’t you remember me, I was joint secretary of JNUSU, she tells me. At 50, come what may, you are the establishment. At 25, you are challenging it. When they didn’t let me hold the AC meeting I went on satyagraha, a hunger fast, until they let me convene the postponed meeting. At 50, only Kanhaiya Kumar goes on fast.
And then there are the JNU women. A tribe of their own. Analysing the back of beyond, the droughts, hunger. You name the issue, they have put it at the forefront. In fact, Anuradha Chenoy was to force me into the madding crowd to get the crazed boys wanting to attack the outsiders who had behaved inappropriately with a woman student of the university. Yes, shave their heads but hand them over to the DCP waiting with his force outside, she convinced them. The case is still taught in police academies as a success in riot control if the local establishment helps you.
When JNU turned 25, I was invited, to my surprise, to a Global Rectors Group to represent a great Indian university. At 50, there is JNU and many others which have been established to be “great” in its image. It is still unique in its genre. If for no other reason, it has an Act of its own, the others are all lumped together. But greatness at 50 cannot be pasted on another institution, it will have to be earned.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 8, 2020 under the title ‘Celebrating JNU’. The writer, an economist and former minister, was vice-chancellor of JNU during 1992-95