Letter to my daughter: Why JNU matters

“I hope you won’t have to unlearn a lot by the time you cast your vote for the first time”


Ashish Mehta | March 5, 2016 | New Delhi

#nationalism   #supreme court   #sedition   #law   #human rights   #jnu row   #JNU   #gandhi   #kanhaiya kumar   #jawaharlal nehru university  

Dear daughter,

You asked me about the JNU episode the other day. For a nine-year-old, you seem quite concerned about the controversy, probably because it involves my alma mater. I thought it would be best to respond in a letter, which you can also read later when it will make more sense to you.

It is said that parents wish to live their unfulfilled dreams through their children. My wish is not so specific that you go to JNU one day and complete my unfinished research project. It could be another branch of knowledge, at another university – if not another calling altogether. Here, I will talk about JNU, with a fond hope that everything which makes it unique – critical attitude, equality, democracy – will survive the next decade when you will come out of school and consider JNU for higher studies.

After I secured the admission and before I entered the campus, a colleague, who had just come out of there, had offered a well-meaning advice: just stay away from those communists and enjoy your time. But I soon found myself bringing up the rear of every protest march and torch procession, and still enjoying my time.

Initially, I found myself eagerly attending every post-dinner lecture in the mess by headline-makers of all political hues, the left, right and centre. Why I stopped going to the ABVP events (even) after listening to the wise words of the Hindutva leaders will need a separate letter, but at least I did not start with a prejudice and gave them a chance to convince me of their ideology. 

On the left side too, I did not enrol myself with any of the four organisations. I would pester my SFI friends with uneasy questions about its (albeit rare) populist postures, even as I dutifully shouted slogans along with them. I would pose questions about opportunism of AISA even as I would follow their instructions and collect ‘chanda’ at the end of film screenings. I would criticise any justification of violence even as I would take sunday-afternoon walks through forested parts of the campus with DSU sympathisers.

Not that the left has an ideology whose greatness is incontrovertible, or a practice that is unblemished. On the contrary, in the states they have ruled, their track record is not flawless and some of the left student leaders who were baptised in the bylanes of Kolkata could offer a fitting match to an ABVP ‘lumpen’. However, and this is where JNU’s uniqueness comes in, when they were once beaten up by ABVP in a major fracas in 1999 they chose not to respond in kind. I can claim, without much evidence to offer right here, that the JNU campus, unlike other politicised campuses, has been free of violence, thanks to the left – barring exceptions (which of course are thanks to the right).

Because, unlike the right, the left seems to believe in reason and dialogue – at least in JNU. When my repeated ridicules and ripostes after Sitaram Yechury’s speech reached the right ears, an SFI friend confided in me a secret: that there was a file, meant for the election time, in which the political leaning of every student was noted down, and the remark after my name was “needs to be talked to”. Which they did soon: the whole top leadership descended one day when I had not even properly woken up, and requested me to let them clarify each of my doubts. For some reason, few have heard of such visits from the ABVP.

Now, since my allegiance is not to the left and its politics but to the place and its ethos, let me focus on that. Before coming to JNU, politics meant reading edit-page articles of the Sham Lals and the Shouries, and indulging in debates with friends over a cup of tea or with colleagues between editing two copies. Not that JNU has a monopoly in this but for me it was here that I was taught politics goes much beyond that.

JNU is possibly the only place where students union elections are organised and carried out by students themselves. If and when you will actively participate in one season of JNUSU elections, you will realise what democracy is supposed to mean but never means outside JNU.

First there will be pamphlets and posters from various parties (I am sketching a scene from before the advent of social media), discussing a whole range of issues – from hostel facilities to India’s ties with Israel. Then there will be a slew of speeches from national leaders of these formations, followed by an unmoderated session of questions and answers. Meanwhile, there will be door-to-door canvassing, small closed-door meetings, and here I confess that a bit of parochial regionalism can creep in. It may matter if the candidate is from Bihar or Bengal or Kerala or the right target group. On the eve of the voting day, all top candidates gather for a nigh-long joust, taking questions from any student on any issue. Enforcing a code of conduct, voting and counting, all is done by a bunch of unaffiliated students. And unlike elections elsewhere, there have been no accusations of impartiality or of malpractice – not even from ABVP, which otherwise cries foul of the left’s stranglehold on the campus. (They even had a shakha running in this campus.)

The elected students union then actually sets about the job of implementing all election promises – getting hostel rooms to newcomers or ensuring extra points in admission process for students of some or the other variety of marginalisation. If the promised changes don’t come, the union – or other parties – go through the whole process of pamphlets, marches, hunger strike and any other means as long as it is nonviolent and make the other side see the rationale of their demand. Come to think of it, isn’t this the textbook case of the democratic process?

It was through precisely such a democratic process that JNU became the first university in India to establish, in the late 1990s, the gender sensitisation committee against sexual harassment, following the famous Vishaka judgment. That is something many places do not have in place even today. Just for comparison, our state, Gujarat, did not have even a women’s commission till 2005 and it is yet to make an impact of any kind.

As I witnessed an election season unfold over a few months in 1998-99, I realised what the constitution of India had actually envisioned for the country. I realised that when we all live together, in a country, depending on one another, and when conflicts arise as they will always do, there is only one way out, and it is enshrined in the constitution but increasingly rarely put into practice.

When a bunch of intellectually challenged right-wingers talk of closing down this university, when they talk of taxpayers’ money wasted on archaic ideas, when they talk of anti-national activities here, remember what they are actually against. They are actually against one little model which has been showing everything that is rotten in their world.

That is why when the two worlds, the one inside JNU and the one outside, collide, it is a clash of two values, rather, of democratic values and lack of them.

Apart from what is happening right now that you seem to be following on the TV screen and front-page photos, I can offer one more example, of Chandrashekhar Prasad. A clipping of a report in the Hindu says: “‘Chandu,’ as he was affectionately called by friends and admirers, was slain along with fellow CPI (ML) leader Shyam Narayan Yadav on March 31, 1997 by sharpshooters allegedly in the employ of the notorious political strongman and former Rashtriya Janata Dal parliamentarian, Mohd. Shahabuddin, who is now lodged in the Siwan jail in connection with 35 other cases…Chandrashekhar’s principled resistance to injustices of all kinds, coupled with his moving struggle to overcome his humble origins, earned him the widespread admiration of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he twice served as president of the students union.” For long, t-shirts bearing his iconic photo were common in the campus. His memory was dear to all, including ABVP. In one presidential debate, even the representative of the student wing of the Rashtriya Janata Dal had to grudgingly acknowledge failures of his party in bringing the culprits to justice.

Do you think Chandu’s story – tragic and yet inspiring, hopeless and yet oddly hopeful – explains why so many people should feel so uneasy about the ‘JNU types’?

It is because – though JNU need not be unique in this respect – there are fewer and fewer places that teach you to think beyond you and beyond textbooks. Studying linguistics, for example, should not end at learning tools and theories of grammatical analysis. It has to make you sensitive to the social realities – in this case through the prism of language, through other prisms for other branches of knowledge. A fieldwork project on a tribal language called Sadri, spoken near Palamu, is as much about working out its verb system as about accepting a different world view encased in that language. Once you realise that the man, who is helping you in your research with his sentences that form your data, is fully capable of dealing with the world with this language, you realise that all languages are equal, and being able to speak English or for that matter Hindi does not make you superior to him in any sense, that is, any sense other than that of the earning capacity. This lesson is not exclusive to the students of linguistics – English has not been the lingua franca at any of the dhabas and canteen on this campus – but students of each branch of knowledge come to appreciate the realities of India slightly better.

JNU, and of course a few other places too, makes you aware that higher education has a larger meaning too. That is why my MPhil was – and unfortunately incomplete PhD is – not aimed at making a career in academics and earning what little fame can be earned in an esoteric branch of knowledge, but to give back to society. My guide – and her work inside and outside the chosen discipline so far – convinced me that my research is finally a way of making a humble contribution to the society that has made me capable of conducting that research. It was she who tried to convince us against the first option from that old adage that after finishing studies at JNU, you go to either America or Munirka (the locality just across the road from the campus). It was she who persuaded many of us that if your research is about India, it should better be done here in India, notwithstanding the paltry budget for education and all the resultant hurdles that you won’t have to face abroad: well-stocked libraries, job opportunities, research facilities and fellowships (a matter of life and death, as Rohith Vemula realised). As you know well, that teacher was assaulted in the Patiala House court complex last week by people who claim to love India.

But, were there anti-India slogans in the campus, you will ask. So far, no conclusive proof has been found who raised those slogans. Indeed, the proofs actually are of the opposite kind: the man who faces the sedition charge is on record condemning the slogans. Facts of the matter can be settled, provided there is impartial investigation. Yet, the larger point remains that such slogans are commonplace in some parts of India, and the PDP – the BJP’s political partner – has been on record with similar views. For a supposed superpower, the safe option is to ignore the rant of a few students in a campus, and show we are a democracy. The better option is to listen to them, understand their grievances, and show we are a mature democracy. When a government with a historic majority goes after a few youngsters without any proof on hand, it shows it is afraid, very afraid.

This is not the first time armed policemen have entered this campus, and this is not likely to be the last time. But it is no coincidence that several educational institutions, one after another, are under pressure to fall in line. They include some of the finest places in India. On a personal note, they include several where, at some point, I wanted to study. And no amount of sophistry and rhetoric can explain away the fact that merely speaking up against whatever the government holds dear can cost you your life. Even your class 3 teacher, I am sure, allows you to speak up without fear of getting beaten up. I hope you won’t have to unlearn a lot by the time you cast your vote for the first time.




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