For many of us, JNU is not just a university. It is an idea that has changed several lives, making JNU a beacon of hope for young people in India. It is here that I could find the joy of learning for the first time. And this year the National Institute Ranking Framework ranked JNU as the second-best institution in the university category for its contribution to research and teaching. This is the fourth consecutive time JNU has made it to this list prepared by the Union ministry of human resource development, though it has been in the news mostly as a “hub of anti-nationals” situated just 10 km away from the Union ministry of home affairs.
I had come to JNU with a limited idea about Indian campuses. My imagination of education was limited to bookish understanding, but my teachers, comrades and classmates made me realise that it is a way of acquiring the source of knowledge. I learnt that at JNU there is no limit to learning. Quite surprised and still figuring out meanings between the lines, I later found myself hopping from a lecture on economics by Prabhat Patnaik to another by Ira Bhaskar, a professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics. Evenings and post-dinner were mostly spent rushing from listening to, say, poet and documentary film-maker Gauhar Raza at one hostel dining hall to relishing a screening at another.
Established in 1969 through an act of Parliament, the JNU we know today was formed through years of debate, dissent and churning of ideas in which the student community contributed significantly, starting from the early years. From the formation of the students’ union with its unique autonomy to penning down the JNU constitution, the students practically weaved a functional and participatory democracy. There were debates on how the university could support students coming from marginalised sections, leading to a new framework of ‘deprivation points’ and ensuring a unique admission policy. The students’ union also brought in the concept of ‘student-faculty committee’ to ensure participation of students in formulating the academic programmes of the university.
In the late 1990s, just after the Vishakha judgment on sexual harassment in the workplace, JNU saw a movement to form a gender sensitisation committee against sexual harassment (GSCASH) when Vijoo Krishnan, now joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, was the JNUSU president. In the summer of 1974, JNU students decided to march outside campus to support an all-India general strike. During the Emergency (1975-77), there was a crackdown at JNU and several students were put behind bars. In 1991, during the anti-Mandal agitations, JNU students fought in defence of OBC reservations. Be it these and many more such examples, or the brutal attack by goons inside campus this January, the students have bravely faced every situation, leaving a benchmark for the students’ movement in this country.
Over the past four years, JNU has seen a concerted effort by right-wing Hindutva groups along with the ruling BJP-RSS to malign it. The current vice chancellor is allegedly close to the RSS and many new faculty members too are said to be from the same ideological-political camp. No wonder efforts to whitewash the historic struggle of the student community have been intensified.
JNU is a microcosm of this country. It reflects the society at large, along with its problems, and is also a lab where we experiment and create our understanding of how we, as part of society, could find a framework of solutions at an individual level or as a community. JNU has always taught us to be humans first. As inscribed in the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru that stands in front of the Admi-nistration Block, “a university stands for humanism”. To understand a problem at the individual level as an issue for the whole community, critically think about it and try to solve it—this is what makes JNU stand apart.
The VC and his team, however, have left no stone unturned to change the very concept of JNU—from the #ShutDownJNU campaign in 2016, the forced disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed, a student who was beaten up by the ABVP, the scuttling of reservation and just doing away with the unique admission policy, dismantling the GSCASH and supporting sexual offenders to the process of dismantling the students’ union. It has been a very sad state of affairs to see our home, built brick by brick with diverse ideas, being purposefully homogenised. Destroying JNU isn’t about destroying a ‘den for terrorists’ as right-wing Hindutva groups claim; it is about breaking the backbone of our democracy, besides shattering the dreams of lakhs of students who aspire to join JNU.
Last October, when students were protesting for their right to accessible and affordable education, JNU was shown as a hotbed of turmoil and a university wasting taxpayers’ money. Inspired by the farmers’ long marches, the JNU students’ union led at least three long marches. Brutally attacks by the police and vicious media trials couldn’t put down the spirit of students, who answered with #NotAnInchBack. We knew as a community that universities aren’t private property and safeguarding them for the future generations is important so that no one in this country is left behind when it comes to higher education. After 80 days of struggle and following the intervention of the Delhi High Court, the JNU administration had to step back and accept the demands of students.
The past few months have been difficult. Students have been arrested and charged under the sedition law and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. But, juggling between the tags of #AntiNational to #FreeLoaders, JNU has always stood strong in defence of its idea of democratic India—a country where the money of taxpayers is spent on the education and healthcare of people so they can contribute to society, and where women and marginalised communities are empowered as Savitribai Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar had envisioned. As Bhagat Singh taught, we never bow down in front of our oppressors whether in campus or outside, and that is why we still carry comrade Chandrashekhar, former JNU students’ union president who was shot dead in Bihar in 1997, in our hearts with pride more than we mourn his death.
JNU has moulded students to study society and that is why the academic work of JNU students has excelled in several fields. The learning of any theme has never been on the basis of a particular subjective idea, but on a more rational, empirical and scientific understanding of society. We learn when we are in the streets fighting for a students’ issue or giving solidarity to others. We learn from every nook and corner of our society; we experiment with what we read, refuting ideas that are taught and creating new ones.
Universities are the spaces that mould the future generations and safeguarding them is important because the assault on freedom of thought, critical thinking and dissent will lead to a psychology of fear, which isn’t good for the future of the country. It is still a long way to “the heaven of freedom” that Rabindranath Tagore described as “where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high, where knowledge is free….”
(Views are personal)
Aishe Ghosh, President, JNU Students’ Union