‘Politics is a murky field. You should stay away from it.’ I remember this advice my father had given me during my college days. Later, I joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and stuck to his advice. During my stay in the university, my friends with political leanings used to mock me for not having aligned with any of the students’ unions. Even to this day, some of my colleagues wonder why I didn’t join politics, because that is what the varsity has been known for. It is supposed to groom future leaders.
There was another reason why I didn’t have the time for activism on the campus. My father used to send me Rs 600 per month. However, the minimum expenses for a hostelite were around Rs 1,200. I had to work as a part-time private tutor to fill that gap. I thank my star that some of my fellow student friends had helped me in getting such assignments. There was no time for ‘politics’ in my daily university life. Later, I didn’t wait to get a UGC fellowship, as I knew my fate: Whether I do MA or complete a doctorate, at the end of any such degree, one has to search for a job. I started searching for one after finishing my MA successfully.
Though I have kept aloof from politics even after being 20 odd years in the field of journalism, I realize the importance politics plays in our lives. Hence, I write on the ‘murky field’ only when the urge is compelling.
Looking at the happenings at the national level, particularly in Delhi regarding the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president’s arrest, a train of thoughts came across my mind. Campus politics in the university, during those days and I believe to a certain extent even today, has always been peaceful. Participants in debates sharing varying ideologies take criticism by opponents in the right spirit and refute their claims in a logical manner. Though I was not much interested in political debates, I used to watch what was happening around me. It was a healthy atmosphere, in which I unknowingly learnt many things.
However, today’s scene is far from a healthy debate and has taken an ugly turn. I don’t want to comment on any particular party or group. However, it is painful that things have deteriorated so much. It also reflects on the kind of politics being pursued by parties at the national level.
The alleged anti-national activities in the varsity and the arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar has brought in focus the functioning of the institution of higher learning, which is funded and established by the Government of India.
According to the JNU’s website, the bill to set up the university was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on September 1, 1965 by the then Education Minister M C Chagla. It was okayed in the Lok Sabha on November 16, 1966 and the JNU act was implemented on April 22, 1969.It is not a coincidence that the varsity was established in 1969, when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister of India. Our first Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru had Left leanings. India, though not part of any international bloc, was close to Russia, the then USSR and a communist country. Being , the father of modern India, Nehru led the establishment of military, academic, cultural, and other institutions of national and international repute during his term as the PM. He also fashioned the country’s development after the USSR’s five-year plans. Going by the political environment of his era, when half of the countries in the world had communist governments, Nehru was educated in the left liberal traditions of the West.
It is in this backdrop that Indira established the JNU, which also proved to be a sanctuary for all intellectuals, radicals, artists and thinkers having leanings towards the Left. The university has produced stalwarts including diplomat Abhay Kumar, , Ford Foundation Professor at MIT, US Abhijit Banerjee, Canadian entrepreneur; philanthropist and philosopher Aditya Jha, Indian Civil Servant Ajit Seth, PM of Libya Ali Zeidan, Indian Civil Servant Amitabh Rajan, Foreign Secretary of India, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, senior Congress leader Ashok Tanwar, former PM of Nepal Baburam Bhattarai, senior NCP leader DP Tripathi, senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh, deputy governor of RBI Harun Rashid Khan, Lalit Mansingh, Muzaffar Alam, George V. Bobrinsky, Nirmala Sitaraman, P. Sainath, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, Umesh Upadhyay, Yogendra Yadav, and Udit Raj. There are many such prominent JNU alumni working in various walks of life across the globe.
Among the university’s illustrious past and present faculty are Abhijit Sen, Amitabh Mattoo, BS Chimni, Baburam Bhattarai, Bipan Chandra, HS Shivaprakash, Jayati Ghosh, KN Panikkar, Kanti Bajpai, Lalit Mansingh, Madhavan K. Palat, Muchkund Dubey, Naman Ahuja, Romila Thapar, Sarvepalli Gopal, and Satish Chandra.
However, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Delhi with a historic landslide victory, it was obvious for them to dismantle the Leftist symbols, replacing them with their own. The new government started glorifying Netaji Subhashchandra Bose, Madan Mohan Malviya, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar with a renewed vigour. The Planning Commission was replaced with Niti Ayog. Major national schemes are also named after their heroes. In this process, it was difficult for JNU to remain untouched.
The present row should be seen in this context. The right-wing government wants to root out any Left-wing symbol of prominence so that their ideology makes deep inroads into national institutions.
In this age of globalization and liberlisation, education, particularly higher education is becoming expensive, at least for youths from the middle and lower-middle classes. The JNU gives them opportunity to educate and rise in life. After studying in the university, many students from such socio-economic background have become civil servants, scientists, researchers and professors. The university with its peaceful and intellectual campus politics grooms future politicians as is evident from the names in the list given above.
The syllabus and teaching methods of the university are flexible and give students a good scope to study their topics from various angles. Hence, it attracts talent from every nook and corner of India.
A day in the life of a JNU student starts with lectures, interactions, presentations. Then a lot of time is spent in the library searching for references. Experts from various fields keep on visiting the campus. There are lectures, cultural programmes, and debates in the evening. All this is carried out peacefully while certain decency and decorum is maintained. Opinions of opponents are respected and dissent is tolerated. The student union elections are an annual spectacle, in which students wings of all major parties dominated by SFI, AISF, NSUI, and AISA among others, take active part. The ABVP, the students’ union representing the BJP, didn’t have presence on the campus for a long time. However, it has now got a foothold, reflecting the national political scenario. It is trying to consolidate its position by raking up issues. The latest among these is playing out and has grabbed attention at the national and international levels. The Congress and the Left have also indulged in politics of suppression when in power. So, it is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
It is early to predict whether the right-wing politicians will be able to get hold over the prestigious institution. However, going by the current course of events, one could say that it is a major development, which will have far-reaching effects over students’ politics in the JNU and in India.
In the meantime, chew over this quote of Jawaharlal Nehru, which is posted on the university’s website: “A University stands for humanism. For tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. If the Universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the Nation and the People.”