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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 14 New Delhi March 26, 2016

What we Learn and Teach in JNU

Monday 28 March 2016, by Arun Kumar

The discussion on JNU in Parliament brought out the political divide on the issue of nationalism and the functioning of the institutions of higher education in the country. JNU has been under severe attack since the Ninth of February when some shouted objectionable slogans on the JNU campus. These have been used to characterise JNU as anti-national. A video grab shows objectionable slogans being raised by a handful of people at a cultural event organised by a student group. The Students’ Union President was arrested and now is out on interim bail even though he repeatedly clarified that he was not involved. Some of the student leaders have clarified that they had gone there only to ensure that violence did not take place.

In the past I, as the President of the JNU Teachers’ Association, was asked by the students groups to come to events to see that violence did not take place. I had gone to some events as an observer. A video grab could have been misconstrued as my participation in the events even though that was not the case.

Those attacking JNU admit that only a few were shouting the objectionable slogans and that these may have been outsiders but in the next breath they tarnish the entire University as anti-national. They also ask: how can such slogans be allowed to be raised in a publicly-funded university like JNU? There have even been calls to close down the University.

It now transpires that the evidence against the JNU Students’ Union President was doctored. The other accused students are student leaders who have clarified that they played a rather limited role in the events of February 9. While this leadership is being harassed, those who shouted the slogans are still at large. In the past, I have interacted with some of the accused and found them to be highly nationalistic in the sense that they have sided with the marginalised majority in the country.

The students are painted as misguided and in the media the teachers have been asked what do we teach and why are our students anti-national? This question needs to be addressed in public interest. This would be JNU’s accountability to society.

The contribution of JNU has been widely lauded except by the hard-core critics. NAAC, an independent officially recognised body, has rated JNU as the highest ranked university in the country. JNU’s contribution to the nation’s life has been substantial with many top academics, mediapersons, bureaucrats, police officers and so on having passed out of its portals.

JNU’s uniqueness lies in the involvement of its faculty and students in a continuous process of learning and teaching. The JNU faculty upgrades itself via the research it carries on—teachers are also students. Courses are not static but respond to the changing situation in the country and the world because of the ongoing research. Often, JNU academics are at the forefront of the debates in the country and the world and the students become a part of this in the class rooms or during their research. There is constant questioning and this is reflected in the teaching. The students are taught not just the subject but to question established ideas in their field of study. Libraries are full not just at the time of exams but throughout the year. Interaction between the faculty and the students is not just in the class but during contact hours and outside.

In most of our schools and colleges, students learn mostly by rote and question little. Most students mug up to do well in the exams and then forget it so that their base is weak. When students join JNU they face difficulties with this way of learning but they pick it up to varying degrees. Everyone imbibes the spirit of questioning to a greater or lesser extent. The student body itself is active and organises lively discussions and meetings on current issues. The debate continues in the canteens and dhabas dotting JNU. It is wrong to say that students should just focus on studies in the class—learning is multifaceted.

Constant questioning helps students to develop intellectually and form their ideas through reasoning. Questioning of orthodoxy and established views leads many students to become Left-oriented, but some also turn Right. Thus, in JNU, all shades of ideology exist—from extreme Left to extreme Right. The Left is also not monolithic given that orthodoxies are challenged by the more radical ones. Those on the Right are uncomfortable with this process of constant questioning.

The faculty does not teach/discuss one single idea. Existing ideas on any topic are presented and critiqued to enable students to form their own opinion. This is not to say that teachers do not have their own proclivities. They do emphasise what they believe in. But, students get a choice. For example, in the JNU Economics Department, students are exposed to theories from Classical to Marxist to Keynesian to Neo-Liberal ideas, etc. This is unlike what even the best Western universities offer today. As the Nobel Prize winner Samuelson lamented in 1985, for most young economists, economics begins in 1980 with game theory. JNU’s Economics Department offers a choice to the students even though the job market is increasingly forcing them to choose courses that are either technical or to the Right. The attempt is to develop a holistic and historical view. It is clarified that economic issues may be approached in many ways and none is complete or in its final form.

The concept of nationalism is taught as an evolving and multi-dimensional idea. It implies non-acceptance of the ruling party’s narrow ideas of nationalism—whether the Congress or the CPI or the BJP variety. Many in JNU question the Congress’ role during the Emergency, Mrs Gandhi approaching the IMF in 1980 and the introduction of the New Economic Policies under the pressure of the IMF and World Bank in 1991 under Narasimha Rao. The CPI’s tilt towards the Congress is also questioned. The diversity of India leads many in JNU to believe that the issue has to be understood from the point of view of the marginalised and not just the elites in society. It is argued that the focus has to be on the Dalits, women, Muslims, peasants, the unorganised and the workers—what Gandhi captured as ‘last person first’. Is this being anti-national?

Given the contestation, someone’s sedition can be another’s nationalism and vice-versa. Nationalism and sedition are political issues as the parliamentary debate shows. No wonder politics is taking place around the events in JNU. While JNU has dealt with the issue of slogan-shouting—even the objectionable ones—and extremism by politically marginalising such elements, now the issue has been turned into one of law and order. This is unfortunate since the political issue of nationalism will not get settled this way but the manner in which it has been raised threatens JNU’s autonomy and the associated freedom of thought. The impact of this is likely to ripple down the academic life of the country to the detriment of all.

(Courtesy: The Tribune)

The author is retired Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the former President, Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA). He can be contacted at e-mail: arunkumar1000@hotmail.com