Subverting the status quo, questioning the norm, demystifying mysterious social rules, challenging orthodoxy, and questioning modernity are some of the distinctive characteristics of JNU culture
By Mammo Muchie, Noklenyangla, Mishra Rajiv and Sheikh Fayaz.
JNU has a campus full of green forest in the middle of New Delhi. Most of the staff, the students and guests stay in this unusual environment full of green trees and a variety of animals. This campus is like a world where different ideas can be expressed. Debates and dialogue flourish making all forms of ignorance, intolerance and dictatorship perish inside the campus. The nationalist versus ant-nationalism conflict was turned into a great resource for learning, daily lectures and debates. Knowledge was flowing like a river every day. It was truly special to witness this extraordinary JNU experience as a visitor from Ethiopia and South Africa (for one of us), as it has been very engaging for the rest of us as India’s emerging scholars.
In the pages of history, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and its formation provide many insights and answers related to the conception of JNU being a unique university and how it relates to Indian society with its identity. Spread over a vast campus of more than 1000 acres, JNU is housed in a lush green dense forest in the Aravalli hill range, with more than 200 bird varieties sustaining a birdwatcher's paradise, and also some other forms of wildlife.
The hidden beauty of the campus, however, lies in its distinctive admission criteria whereby students from all the nooks and corners of India are attracted irrespective of caste, creed, and economic status. Not only from India, but it has also enrolled students from more than 140 countries. This great student diversity makes JNU a microcosm of the world. It has not only fulfilled the much required intellectual duty for India but has significantly alleviated the disadvantage of downtrodden sections of India.
The main architect behind the conception of the idea for creating a university like JNU was MC Chagla. MC Chagla, a legal luminary, promoter of civil liberties and a liberal-minded former education minister was an ardent supporter of Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister of India). This idea was formulated into the 'Jawaharlal Nehru University Bill', first presented in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) of the Indian parliament in the winter session of 1964. The journey and course of events which followed after the JNU bill was tabled for the first time in the Indian parliament till the time it was passed holds many insights into the nature and fabric of this university which are still reflected in its current outlook towards society. The JNU Bill was passed and finally approved on 16 November 1966.
The passing of the JNU Bill heralded a new chapter in the education system of the country and became a watershed moment in the history of higher education in post-Independence India. The prime reason for JNU's uniqueness was the socialist ideals ingrained in its genesis and the notion of having a university which would empower the poor and marginalised sections of the society. JNU is still working towards the ideals of Nehruvian socialism, reflecting his strong inclination towards the cause of social justice, secularism and universalism.
The two key pillars which form the core of this socialist outlook relate to the teachers and students of JNU.
Firstly, teachers at JNU not only imbue scholastic notions in students coming from diverse sociocultural backgrounds but also teach them how to orient themselves in a complex society like India which has rampant social ills like the caste system, untouchability, patriarchy, dowry, female foeticide, religious fundamentalism, communalism, racial discrimination and many other social evils which are present in society in various ways. This is one of the prime linkages of what initially Bhupesh Gupta (a communist leader) thought and imagined about JNU.
Secondly, the JNU culture and its socialist ideas are very much reflected in large sections of JNU students and their politics. The first admission of students in JNU took place in the year 1971 for the MPhil and PhD programmes, and by 1973 MA admissions of students started. The process of cultural assimilation of students from different parts of the country progressed, especially at times when anti-Hindi agitation was its peak. Hindi was being emphasised as the lingua franca and it was at this time that English became one of the connecting languages for students in JNU. Furthermore, with incoming students another important phenomenon was the arrival of activists, writers and poets from different parts of the country. By 1972, two hostels were constructed near the Northern part of the University, which added another chapter in the JNU's unique life where the debates and discussions over social, economic and political issues of the time were continued over breakfast, lunch and dinner meals in the hostels.
“The hidden beauty of the campus, however, lies in its distinctive admission criteria whereby students from all the nooks and corners of India are attracted irrespective of caste, creed, and economic status.”
By 1973-74 student politics, and especially left politics, started to get shaped in JNU. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) played an important role in establishing its student wing called the Students Federation of India (SFI) on the campus. However, the political ideologies which largely reflected the views and inclination of students were related to three political affiliations: Marxists, Non-communist, and Freethinkers. It should be noted that the right wing has always been weak in JNU as there has been much less support for students affiliated to right wing groups. The SFI played an important role in establishing and institutionalising student politics in JNU. However, the role of other political student groups such as 'Free Thinkers' has been equally important in showing the flexibility of students’ views and political inclinations.
It is often said that ‘What JNU thinks today, India follows tomorrow.’ This aptly describes this politically charged and academically vibrant campus located in the heart of New Delhi. Young at forty-two years, this university has undeniably emerged as an impressive academic institution, unique in the whole of South Asia. For its academic excellence, sobriquets like Oxford of Asia, Berkley of India are used to introduce this red brick higher learning institute. And as far as its political liveliness is concerned, it is cheekily dubbed as ‘the Kremlin on the Jamna’ by none other than the world’s superpower – the USA. America, according to recent WikiLeaks, has put this university under a watch list for a new generation of left leaders who “will use relations with the US, Indian foreign policy, and growing conflict over globalisation to solidify Left party gains.”
As India’s pre-eminent graduate institute, JNU continuously features among the top universities in world rankings. Recently in its first-ever nationwide ranking of more than 3000 educational institutions and other universities in India by the Ministry of Human Resources, Government of India, JNU was ranked third with the Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore and the Institute of Chemical Technology taking the top slots. JNU has not only produced scientists and academicians of global repute but some famous social activists and dynamic top politicians are also part of the JNU heritage. Some notable alumni of this university have served in important political offices around the globe. The President of the African Union, the Prime Minster of Libya, and the Prime Minster of Nepal are some examples.
JNU is not only a dream destination for those who seek their career in academics and politics alone but also for those who want to join government as future bureaucrats and diplomats. For instance, in the current government, some key posts are held by people who have studied at the JNU. Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, NITI Aayog’s CEO Amitabh Kant, one of PM’s favourite bureaucrats, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and Deputy NSA (National Security Adviser) Arvind Gupta, are a few JNU alumni from the long list. In science and innovation studies too, Jawaharlal Nehru University has been named the winner of two of the three Visitor’s Awards President Pranab Mukherjee instituted in 2015. These awards were given to JNU for developing a vaccine and therapeutic antibody against anthrax, and on malaria, amoeba and kala-azar parasites. For making global impact from his research, a professor from the School of Environmental Sciences has been selected for the prestigious ‘Thomson Reuters 2015 list of Highly Cited Researchers’. The Professor has published over 100 articles and has received more than 14,500 citations with an h factor of 47. This is the second time in a row that a JNU professor will be receiving this award; he was selected as ‘Highly Cited Researchers’ in 2014 also. Such evidence marks the academic excellence of JNU and shows its potential as an institute of international repute.
Notwithstanding its tangible academic contributions, JNU is more renowned for its liberal culture and freedom of expression. Afzal Guru’s hanging (accused for attacking the Parliament of India) is challenged and questioned only in JNU. The slogans for the freedom of Kashmir, Tibet, Palestine reverberate loudly every evening in the fresh air of JNU. The ills of crony capitalism, immoral expansion of the markets, unequal distribution of wealth, injustice in the world are issues which even the JNU tea sellers can debate for hours together, let alone JNU students! Marxism, socialism, and communism are the watchwords of JNU. Subverting the status quo, questioning the norm, demystifying mysterious social rules, challenging orthodoxy, and questioning modernity are some of the distinctive characteristics of JNU culture.
Every evening hundreds of posters on the re-colonisation of Africa, India, and Latin America are churned out and distributed on the hostel’s dinner tables. India’s sell-out to the corporate world; its surrender to the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and the domination of WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) concerns every single individual at JNU. Climate change, terrorism, wealth inequality and freedom of expression are some of the hot topics which occupy JNU these days.
“JNU is still working towards the ideals of Nehruvian socialism, reflecting his strong inclination towards the cause of social justice, secularism and universalism.”
JNU is not a place where arcane academic models are developed to obfuscate knowledge and people. It is nevertheless a space where unceasingly attempts are made to demystify and decolonise bizarre models of knowledge and culture.
On the night of 9 February 2016, a cultural event under the theme The Country Without a Post Office was organised by some ultra-left leaning students of the University; the event marked the death anniversary Afzal Guru (one of the accused in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack). The main agenda which was widely publicised by the representatives of the various student political organisations was to question the nature of his trial and to criticise the capital punishment given to him. This triggered a strong reaction from the right wing nationalist students’ organisation of the campus leading to an exchange of heated arguments from both sides, which drew the attention of some right wing news channels to cover the event. Once the media came into the picture, news of this event spread like wild-fire making headlines on various prime-time news channels.
After this event was completely blown out of proportion by the media, the president of JNU Students Union on 11 February addressed the students in the administrative block. He criticised the coercive measures taken by the right wing ruling regime which aimed to control and curb the voices raised, most often from this left-leaning university, against human right violations, communal violence, state terror and oppression of any kind. The next day, on 12 February, the president of the students’ union was arrested by the Delhi police. This arrest started a cataclysmic chain of events demonstrating strong resistance by the majority of the students, teachers and staff of JNU. The whole university came to a standstill, raising the voice of freedom. The word of ‘Azadi’ became a catch word which was chanted by the students’ union. Azadi or freedom connoted freedom from coercion, freedom from communal violence and freedom to live without fear. The romance and strength of resistance was not only shown and reflected in the protest and slogans against the government, but it led to open air lectures, musical events and public talks related to the state, the nation and nationalism.
Eric Hobsbawm in his classic work on nation and nationalism discussed the historically contested idea of nation and nationalism. But when one hears the extreme form of sloganeering done by some yet to be identified person, then in a healthy democratic discourse like JNU, it is something which is far fledged. From our observations, no student of JNU would want any damage to India, but every student of JNU would want that all should be open and democratically more tolerant to diverse views. Such tolerance towards diverse views should indeed be encouraged because it predominantly changes the curriculum and encourages more effective representation in the field of academics, which brings about vibrancy in the process of nation building. The 9 February incident which heralded a discourse on nationalism and antinationalism culminated in a series of open-air lectures. Violence, including Naxal violence, political extremism and mindless militancy cannot be justified. But one needs to ask serious question of society and the government as to why some of them feel compelled to choose these paths.
Students’ movements are not new to the world, including in South Africa where there are protests about issues ranging from fee structures to decolonisation to race; such is the case with the students of JNU. They have been sensitive to various issues, be it sexual harassment, militant atrocities, scholarship issues or matters relating to the policies of the country.
One interesting trend which cannot be ignored is that when JNU holds a protest it becomes a national issue, unlike other universities in the country. Such attention can be for two reasons: one, its being a premier university; and the other, its being a university which has foundations in left ideology. When the recent issue took place, there was national solidarity formed among universities and groups condemning the actions taken against the university by the government. Indeed, there was also international solidarity received from students and teachers. There was mobilisation through various social media groups and the need for building a greater dialogue became apparent. Such incidences show the unity which exists among the academic fraternity, and demonstrate the weight of JNU’s influence.
Jawaharlal Nehru University is a mini India in itself. The rich composite of race, culture, region, religion, gender etc., makes this claim justiciable. Metaphorically, JNU is a battleground for India’s culture, where cultural value itself is debated, refuted or embraced. Right from its conception, this university stood for democratic space and welcomed all kinds of diversity and differences and continues to do so. Students and faculty at JNU irrespective of political party, contribute towards healthy discourse by posing critical questions and expressing dissenting ideas and opinions. To dissent, investigate and cooperate are the features that distinguish JNU. Debates are peaceful and avoid violence, providing a space for people or organisations outside the universities like media to participate.
Overall, JNU provides an opportunity for personality development and building networks. In a way, this university gives expression to a student’s interpretation of world, power structures, society and the aspirations of younger citizens. JNU under its ambit covers inclusive policies which are, of course, antidiscriminatory, gender-just etc.
However, with all its merits, this university has been time and again brought under the radar of criticism for its radical left politics. No doubt it has produced many prominent leftist leaders, but some of the alumina of this university have right-wing affiliations and are serving in the present ring-wing ruling government. Constantly mocked as the last bastion of left politics, the element of hypocrisy which can sometimes be found in JNU’s left politics has been unceasingly attacked; especially on the basis of caste, where there has been a subtle practice of caste discrimination as felt by students from the marginalised section. Some of the scholars have vehemently pointed out things which are wrong with JNU. For example, the space for analytical thinking and questioning over the very own leftist ideological hegemonies.
Nevertheless, the core aspect of JNU is still its socialist, secular and humanistic approach. Many of the critics of JNU, especially those from the right communal forces, have always criticised JNU as a den of Naxals, Jihadists and communists, but they fail to understand the larger societal role which JNU has played. JNU has not only moved further from the narrow meanings of nationalism to humanistic principles which people like M.N Roy (Indian revolutionary, radical activist and political theorist) once propagated. JNU's very fabric is sensitive to the fate of the working class and peasants of the country, the marginalised sections, the people who face caste atrocities and fight the menace of fascist forces. It offers a strong platform to those who fight state violence, forced occupations and the ills of market.
Finally Indians should learn to recognise India as a civilisation; they should not reduce it to merely a nation. The world should go for creating one humane nation where the overriding and enduring identity is humanness before everything else. All other varieties of identities are assets and not sources for creating antagonism and conflict. Diversity should be celebrated and appreciated. Human similarity should be celebrated and all differences should be recognised and expressed to fully promote the need to self-define, self-organise, self-determine and selfidentify. We need a world to go for new humanity, new civilisation and new history. Places like India, China and Africa should unite and work together by promoting their deep values for constructing and recreating associational life to make this world move out its current state of disorder and into a new re-order. Let India go beyond the sloganeering of nationalism and anti-nationalism to promote this new humanity and new civilisation by replacing the current divided united nation, with a true human one nation! We say to India go for it, let the JNU critical debate continue until the world realises the deep ideals of "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" that the whole world is one family from the Vedic scripture Maha Upanishad (Chapter 6, Verse 72):(ayam bandhurayam neti ganana laghuchetasam udaracharitanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam.) "Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family".