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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 10 New Delhi February 27, 2016

JNU: What is at Stake?

Sunday 28 February 2016

by Shruti Jain

A mother, also a student of the JNU, was carrying her daughter on her back, straining to listen to a teacher over thousands of other students and teachers gathered on Saturday evening at the JNU administrative block. She had to strain to hear, as mikes were not allowed by the administration. The child was making mischief and the mother gently rebuked her in satire ‘stop being anti-national’. Her remark for me aptly captures the distorted picture and travesty that certain media and the government authorities have made nationalism to be, in the context of the JNU incidents. Gathering there in large numbers, peacefully in solidarity, was our way to counter the atmosphere of threat and injustice that everyone inside the JNU was feeling due to the turn of events of the last few days. Sunday saw a three kilometre-long human chain wherein people came from different institutions to defend a space of free thinking and that by no means was against India. The chain was asked to limit itself to the pavement. We wondered how insecure are our nationalism and our government to unleash such threats against students?

The new VC came to the JNU in the last week of January. Many of us students have not even seen him still. So we wonder if he has got time to properly acquaint himself with the JNU culture. He gave permission to the police to enter any hostel—boys or girls—and to do whatever ‘they deem fit’. This sudden move seems too harsh and has never been experienced before during my stay as a student here. The order was not withdrawn even after the protest against such an unprecedented order by the Deans and Teachers’ Association. In contrast, the VC was very prompt in withdrawing the permission granted to hold a cultural event, minutes before it was to start, after a simple letter by an ABVP student.

The JNU Students’ Union President was arrested and taken to solitary confinement for three days, again for two more days and booked under sedition. On his facebook page, ‘BJP IT cell’ people posted the dirtiest of abuses. Media-trials labelled him a ‘terrorist’ without bothering to hear themselves or to play for their audiences his speech that was easily available on social media-sites and was held as prima facie evidence against him. Anyone who has an independent mind, that can work outside the clutches of what the authorities say, and listens to this speech, will know how balanced and thoughtful the President was in defusing the conflict that the ABVP ‘students’ had forced on all others during the protest march. To seek answers to the questions he raised, one needs extreme sensitivity and deep thinking about what kind of society we are striving for, rather than whipping up crass emotion in the name of nationalism. No one knows who gave the slogans, there are videos that suggest they were by some of the ABVP students themselves. Anyhow, everyone condemned them. But the way things have unfolded, it is as if the ABVP was looking for an excuse to disembark on a preplanned scheme of raiding and terrorising the JNU, now that they have the backing of the ‘might of the Indian state’. The JNU is one of the few university campuses where representation and power have eluded the Right-wing. The ethos of politics here is based on debate, dialogue and arguments instead of money and muscle power or so we believed till now. Even as a minority, the Right-wing student groups have been able to operate without any threat precisely because of this kind of thoughtful and issue-based politics that the campus propagates.

I remember when I had first entered the JNU, I had felt different, slightly suffocated as well. The very air was different and made me uncom-fortable. Perhaps it was because I had never experienced such an air of freedom, of free ideas and infinite possibilities that are to be imagined in our societies. My lungs were used to the congestion. I was confused whether to join the JNU or DU for my research. It is then that I talked to a JNU Professor and he aptly described the JNU as an ocean where different regions, disciplines, thinkers, ideologies and political beliefs interact and learn from each other. It is a family, in which teachers, karamcharis and students live inside one campus—and in moments of distress and despair we turn first to our teachers and friends inside the campus. It is due to this culture hopefully, that any Rohith Vemula in our campus will not be forced to take his life. It is a campus in which girls can walk freely at any time of the day or night, without fear, without feeling constant threats of being abused as in other parts of Delhi. It is a campus in which every caste and region intermingles freely. It is a campus in which students from very modest backgrounds get space to realise their potential and flourish, like our President has. It is a campus that thrives in easy relationship with its neighbourhood, where hundreds from nearby places come for walks, buying vegetables and breathing in the fresh air. It is a campus that invites relaxed and open disagreements and interactions across party lines. Wherein even individual students like me, without belonging to any political party, have a voice.

Surely such an atmosphere, where ideas and free thoughts and imaginations of better societies and human lives run unhindered, should provide a lesson or two in what nationalism and democracy are. Such an institution needs to be saved and its culture and intellectual tradition replicated in other public universities, if they so choose to emulate this model that has nurtured talents who have contributed to the achievements of the Indian nation in arts, culture, history, humanities, media, politics, international relations, civil services, academics. Rather than the attack of blatant vengeance and hate politics, we need to realise what price we will pay by silencing a beautiful and vibrant culture of debate and discussion, an ethos that is central to any good university.

The author is a Ph.D scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.