Monday, May 27, 2024
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Engaging with the Idea of JNU

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By DV Kumar

Perhaps no other student union’s elections capture the national imagination as much as Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) elections do. In the recently concluded students’ union elections at JNU, the United Left alliance bagged three central posts and the BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association) bagged one central post in the union. The ABVP, student wing of RSS, which has been trying extremely hard to capture JNUSU could not win any seat. What makes JNUSU elections so unique? Why is it that so much interest is shown on a mere students’ union elections? The uniqueness of JNUSU elections is essentially derived from the uniqueness of the University (JNU) itself. JNU represents alternative imagination and the power of dissent. It stands against uncritically accepting dominant narratives and paradigms. It develops a questioning spirit without which the whole idea of a university breaks down.
What is the idea of a university? The essential idea of a university is that it should be a space for articulating contending points of view and where dissenting voices could be fearlessly expressed. It is the space where dominant narratives do not go unchallenged and uncontested. Critical imagination is promoted and education is not treated like any other commodity on a university campus. Universities as the premier institutions of learning and research are expected to reflect on and critique society, its structures and institutions so that corrective steps can be initiated. This is what an idea of a university is supposed to encapsulate. This is what precisely defines JNU. That is probably why there is so much interest about whatever happens in JNU including its students’ union elections.
Let us dwell on four critical moments in the history of independent India when JNU lived up to its reputation of standing up for what is right thereby concretising the very idea of a university. First, when Emergency was declared in 1975, it was the students and teachers of JNU who strongly protested and had to pay a heavy price as a number of them were arrested from the campus. They had to endure the high-handedness of police. When Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, tried to enter the campus sometime in 1981 to inaugurate a function, the students of JNU virtually made it difficult for her to do so and she had to find an alternative route to enter the campus. This was in protest against the imposition of emergency in the country. Therefore, contrary to popular belief that JNU has been opposing only the present government at the centre, it always took a position against all forms of authoritarianism as it was demonstrated during the Emergency. In fact, that was the time when JNU came into the limelight.
Secondly, when the Ayodhya movement was at its peak, it was the historians from JNU (Romila Thapar and others) who prepared a document questioning the basic premise of the movement and exposing the sheer illogicality of correcting historical wrongs in a supposedly modern and progressive India. Perhaps no other educational institution provided such a sustained critique based on irrefutable evidence and reasoned arguments on the Ayodhya question. Thirdly, when the Manmohan Singh government launched what came to be called liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation (LPG) programme, it was the economists from JNU (Prabhat Patnaik and others) who critiqued it, along with some others from elsewhere in the country, for its potential to deepen socio-economic inequalities. This critique gained widespread recognition. Strong evidence continues to emerge to support their critique in the form of growing inequalities in India as corporate capital took full advantage of the policy of liberalisation.
Fourthly, when attempts have been made in recent few years to define nationalism in narrow, alienating and exclusivist ways, it was at JNU in 2016 that a series of lectures (published in a book titled What the Nation Really Needs to Know) were organised about the real meaning of nationalism. They took pains to emphasise the inapplicability of European nationalism which was essentially based on one language and culture in the Indian context. The diverse and pluralist character of Indian society demands democratic, inclusive and secular form of nationalism based on the foundational principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Any other form of nationalism which goes against these principles would be regressive and destructive. The attention that JNU gets is largely attributable to the interventions it has and continues to make in such critical moments.
G. Parthasarathy, the first Vice-Chancellor of JNU was a visionary. He was very clear about what kind of a university he wanted to develop. He closely followed all the debates in Parliament regarding the starting of a new university in Delhi which was to be named after the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru. The overwhelming attempt at that point of time was not to establish any other university in Delhi but to start a university which was unique in terms of innovative course structure, high quality of the faculty, enhancing accessibility to higher education to marginalised and deprived sections of the society and promoting critical consciousness among the students so that they can play an important role when they go back to the society they come from. To a great extent, he succeeded in drawing some of the best faculty from different parts of the country and gave full freedom to them to devise their own course structure. He needs to be credited for having started along with some brilliant minds a remarkable experiment in higher education in the country. It may also be mentioned here that the inter-disciplinary structure which the NEP (2020) is focussing on now was part of the JNU innovative course structure from the very beginning i.e. 1969. This was something quite unique at that point of time.
In the last few years, JNU has become the target of sustained and organised attacks from right-wing forces for its tendency to question. Attempts have been made to vilify and demonise the university. People (both students and teachers) associated with JNU began to be called ‘anti-national’, urban naxals and so on. Bollywood is not to be left behind. A well-known Professor from JNU was targeted in the movie ‘The Kashmir Files’ and in another movie which was recently released Bastar, JNU was negatively portrayed. It does not require much imagination to know in what light JNU is going to be shown in the forthcoming movie on JNU: Jahangir National University (to be released on the 5th of April). This writer is aware of a number of scholars from JNU whose invitations to different academic programmes at other universities/institutions were cancelled at the last minute due to pressure from the powers which do not like the culture of questioning.
The newly elected student leaders from JNU (Dhananjay, Priyanshi Arya and others) have made their position very clear in tune with the ethos of JNU. They said they would fight for protecting the democratic, secular, liberal and gender-sensitive character of the university (apart from fighting for better library and hostel facilities). The politics of hatred and divisiveness and any attempt to transform India into a singular entity based on one religion, one language and one culture would be fiercely resisted continuing, in a sense the glorious legacy of JNU.
(D. V. Kumar is Professor, Dept of Sociology, NEHU, Shillong)

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