Attack on JNU is attack on modern, inclusive, egalitarian and progressive idea of India


Apoorva Pathak

JNU embodies many ideals that our universities and the nation must strive for and if we fail to stand for the university in its moment of crisis, the cause of modern progressive India would suffer.

For over a month, the battle of perception regarding JNU has been relentlessly waged. All kinds of rumours have been spread and insinuation made about the JNU- one of India’s foremost universities. It’s a sad commentary on our muddled judgement that a nation, which so desperately needs more universities is more focused on maligning and closing down an what little exists than on building new ones.

An entrenched war is being staged around the JNU to remould India to suit the ideology of the current dispensation. Important as this larger battle is, it should not prevent us from understanding the role of the JNU in the current society and asking why it matters?

A very traditional way to answer why JNU matters would be to have a look at the long list of its glorious alumni who have done remarkably well in various fields and contributed immensely to the nation and the world as administrators, artists, writers, academicians, social activists, journalists, film makers,etc.

But to be limited to such a perspective would not do justice to the real importance of JNU. JNU matters because it serves as propagator and custodian of many values without which the quest for a modern India will be unquestionably poorer. What these virtues are and why they are important for our society are discussed below-

Learning beyond the classroom

India as a nation often laments that our education system lays too much emphasis on rot learning. Our educational apparatus is more concerned with mechanically completing the syllabus than generating in our students an appreciation of the process’s of learning. No wonder that studies show most of our graduates are hardly employable and ill-suited to a world where rapid changes in technology are rendering past knowledge obsolete.

In stark contrast to this dismal overall picture stands JNU. It’s an institution where informal learning is way more powerful than formal learning. Discussion and debate are the most important element of learning which generally is discouraged in India but are the hallmark of JNU. Go to any canteen or dhaba and they are always buzzing with intellectual discussions. JNU’s institutional culture believes that classroom is only the beginning of learning and not its end. It is this mindset which is needed today since openness to learning is more important than what has been learnt.

The professor-student relation is also marked by cordiality and informality that leads to seamless exchange of ideas. This camaraderie is also on display in the current crisis where the university Teachers Association is standing with the targetted students. In a nation where students and teachers see each other more as enemies than friends, isn’t it refreshing to have such an intricate relation between students and their teachers?

A political aware community that Stands up for others

It’s often said that India’s tragedy is that the educated are not political and the political are not educated. Jokes apart, most of our educational institutions especially technical ones discourage political activism and not surprisingly the student that pass through them are politically unaware.

They lack even the basic awareness that is needed to protect ones own right and those around us, let alone becoming future leaders of our nation.

Politics affects us all whether we like it or not. The choice is not between politics or no politics but between good politics and bad. Since the good, young and the fresh opt out of politics, our politics is automatically monopolised by the bad, stale and the old.

In this respect too JNU has a lot to teach us. The students of JNU are extremely politically aware and they fight for the rights of their own and those of others. Whether it was the UGC fellowship, the Kashmir issue or the issue of Muzaffarnagar (JNU community produced Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai), JNU students showed us the way in how to struggle for our rights.

Also disproportionately high number of our more educated leaders which includes Sitaram Yachury, Prakash Karat, Nirmala Sitaraman, Yogendra Yadav, etc all have been educated at JNU. This is no coincidence as the politicised culture of JNU helps bring out the political leadership skills of its students and provide a suitable platform for identifying leaders of tomorrow.

An inclusive campus

Universities are not just places of learning but are supposed to be social melting pots where student from different background live and learn together and develop understanding and empathy for those different from ones own background. Thus universities have an important place in creating a common sense of nationhood and instilling value of fraternity.

But as the death of Rohith vemeula exposed, our universities have failed to be social melting points. Instead, they are increasingly becoming places of exclusion, discrimination and institutions for preserving privilege.

Here again JNU has been an exception in a positive way. Over half of its students are women ,there is a good presence of foreign students from nations across the world, candidates from Kashmir and backward districts are provided deprivation points and the class composition is also much healthier due to conscious design of admission policy as well as the affordable fees of the institute.

This rich diversity can also be seen through studying the background of the JNU student union leaders who have led the struggle. The president Kanhaiya Kumar is a son of a daily wage labourer from backward Bihar, the vice president Shehla is from Kashmir and the general secretary is from an underprivileged background from one of India’s poorest state Odisha.

Hub of free and radical thinking

India is a society where a precarious compromise prevails between progressive ideals and conservative instincts. When our constitution chose to lean on the side of progressive ethos of free speech, special protection of minorities, equality for men and women and inclusive conception of nation, its makers had no illusion that mere constitutional embodiment of these ideals would do no good in absence of a vibrant civil society ready to defend them.

Be it standing for the rights of LGBT community, be it providing voice to cause of gender equality or fighting for preservation of liberties, JNU has been consistent and highly influential in its advocacy of liberal values. This is important as too often in India the liberal cause is orphaned at the altars of popular prejudices. The role of the JNU community in this regard has encompassed protesting on the streets to participating in media discussions for shaping public opinion to backing progressive causes with intellectual works in fields extending from study of history,society and political sciences.

Also one doesn’t have to agree with the liberal values to appreciate the importance of JNU’s leadership of liberal cause. In a world where liberal values are threatened by ever newer threats, for the richness of views at least it is important that our society have institutions that defend liberal values.

It is by its advocacy of progressive and liberal ideals that JNU invited the wrath of the Hindutva brigade. Their project to mould India in their anachronistic ideal will remain incomplete as long as the likes of JNU remain standing. So in this sense the attack on JNU is an attack on a modern inclusive, egalitarian and progressive idea of India. JNU has stood by the nation and its voiceless communities when most others dared not, now today when JNU is under siege we as a nation must reciprocate and say loud and proud “#StandWithJNU”

The author has studied at IIT-Roorkee. Views expressed here are the author’s own and doesn’t subscribe to them.