What I Learned During My Days at JNU

What I took away from my years at the university was this big idea: that ideas should not and need not be held captive at gunpoint to any ‘ism’.

The national flag flies on top of a building in JNU, and has done so for years, spawning under the principles it represents a culture on campus where civilised debate and dissent has flowered. Credit: Shome Basu

The national flag flies on top of a building in JNU, and has done so for years, spawning under the principles it represents a culture on campus where civilised debate and dissent has flowered. Credit: Shome Basu

At a time when ‘the nation wants to know’ whether they teach ‘nationalism’ at JNU, I feel compelled to answer the question.

This is because we are taught to always ‘answer’ questions, no matter how inane they sound or how threateningly they are posed. But beyond simply answering this pointed query, I wish to frame the question more broadly and comprehensively, in order to clarify and share exactly what it was that I learned at JNU while studying there between 1995 and 2000.

Witnessing dissent, debate

When I joined JNU in the monsoon semester, I was witness to a stand off between the administration and the students where the issue at hand was to give a bigger role to private players in the university. While there was nothing surprising about a handful of students sitting on hunger strike against the move, it was the first and last time I ever saw a vice chancellor himself on hunger strike against the students’ opposition to the move. The two camps sat opposite each other on the grounds of the administrative block. Of course, the students’ side was the more colourful and entertaining one, with sloganeering, mimicry, singing and dholak beats accompanying their protest ‘performance’.

It ended with the VC giving in to the demands of the students (I guess he couldn’t outlast them in the ‘go hungry’ campaign, or, there was a far larger number of students in the ‘relay hunger strike’ than there were in the administration to take on the baton from the VC). But the lesson was there not just for the administration but also for us students, – that there is always room for voicing a different opinion in an orderly manner.

I was personally an apolitical student, engrossed in classes, exams and dhaba sessions with friends, and uninterested in the campus politics of AISA, AISF, SFI or the ABVP. However, in 1997, the female students at Godavari hostel had a crisis looming: too many new entrants and not enough accommodation. There was no issue that affected the immediate life of students more than hostel accommodation: it would have meant many of us being evicted from the hostels with no place to go and perhaps, no choice but to discontinue studying at JNU. In keeping with my apolitical leanings, I and another four from Godavari decided to take the matter into our own hands rather than go to the political parties on campus, since we did not want them to use our cause for their political mileage. So we did a signature campaign, mobilised support amongst students and hostel wardens, made presentations before the VC, and had protracted negotiations with the administration as to why the girls needed more accommodation on an urgent basis.

The net result: Tapti hostel, which was being built for male students, was converted immediately into a women’s hostel, and the pressure was relieved. It was a big victory for a handful of female students who took on the administration without any political support.

Sometime in the late 1990s, violence and sexual harassment against women increased significantly, not on campus, but on the deserted roads and in the woods encircling it, where we would go for walks and jogs. I myself was involved in one of the numerous instances, when I was sexually assaulted by a drunken motorbike rider.

In keeping with the issue of safety and security of women students on campus, the matter was taken to the VC by the political parties on campus. I was also asked to present my story as a critical case in point to the VC. He was deeply sympathetic and stated in no uncertain terms that he would ask for greater police protection along the deserted ring road for the safety of women students. I approved of the VC’s promise. But it came as a rude shock to me that the female political party members and activists who had taken me with them to spearhead their campaign reprimanded me for having supported the VC’s decision. They were unequivocal that I had greatly jeopardised women’s security by inviting more uniformed personnel on campus. This would have severe long-term consequences that I had not considered. I countered the argument by asking whether they felt that women’s security was going to be beefed up by putting up posters and writing slogans along the ring road. When I look back now, at my stand of 20 years ago and theirs, I see the urgency of my youthful ‘problem-solving’ approach clashing with the wisdom of their caution.

A microcosm of what India is meant to be

During the first hunger strike I witnessed, I was just an amused spectator, young and unconcerned by the larger political ramifications of the privatisation of a central university as critical as JNU. The latter two events suggested my continuing lack of interest in the larger political framework, for I was moved singularly by my individual self-interest. However, the common thread running through these three incidents was the simple lesson I learned at JNU during that time: that nothing was off limits, that anybody and everything could be brought to the discussion table. It did not matter what was the point of view, or the issue at hand. Everybody could make themselves heard, no matter how discordant the voices, how out-of-sync the notes in the discord and dispute.

I learned that it is imperative to give people a space to speak and to voice their dissent. Doing the opposite not only contributes to the snuffing out of democracy but also allows for violent tendencies to surface out of frustration. From the quality of the dal in the mess, to the heinous assassination of student leader Chandrasekhar Prasad, to the issue of Kashmiri azadi, everything could be called into question. There was no ‘holy cow’ — at least, not back then.

Thus, the most important lessons I got at JNU were not those which had a bearing on my immediate grades and courses. They were life-long ones that I have since tried to incorporate into my own conduct, as well as impart to my students and children – that democracy is an art, a learned behaviour that is strengthened through the practices of debating, negotiating, discussing and finally, compromising and accommodating. While it is critical to bring together all contrarian positions into an agenda for discussion, what matters equally is how the debate is conducted: the manner in which we make ourselves heard. What I learned at JNU was that this manner must be peaceful, non-violent, respectful of difference and above all, based on a willingness to ‘listen’ to the ‘other.’

My story does not end there. While my first lessons were about the art of democracy, which I learned far better outside my political theory class in the Centre for Political Studies (the most politicised of centres at JNU), the next and equally important lessons pertained to the classical Greek thinkers of (wo)man being a political/ social animal. In the course of my 5-year stay in JNU, I stepped out of, or at least, became more conscious of, my isolated, individualist, alienated existence of an upper caste, upper-class, urban, English-medium educated individual with an army background. Through interactions with classmates, hostel-mates, professors, guest speakers from all walks of life, after-dinner sessions in hostels, I slowly realised how I had lived in a bubble for the first 22 years of my life.

JNU was indeed a microcosm of the real India or at least, what India is meant to be. I was in the midst of an august, energised company of people of completely different castes, classes, and religious and political orientations. My close interactions with these people on a daily basis gave me a bird’s eye view of my own privileged existence. I acknowledged their different kinds of intelligence, talents, frustrations, interests and world-views, and I empathised with them as only a true friend can. (One example of the evolution of my world-view was with respect to the issue of affirmative action for the oppressed communities.) These friendships taught me more about the idea of India than any book written by Jawaharlal Nehru himself or any ideology propagated by the Left or Right.

What I really learned at JNU was this big idea: that ideas should not and need not be held captive at gunpoint to any ‘ism’ – nationalism, Marxism, capitalism, sedition-‘ism,’ jingoism, or Hinduism, with the possible exception of ‘humanism’ (though this is also debatable in terms of its anthropocentrism). Critical thinking, the ability to express one’s views in a non-violent manner, and, above all, to be able to grow from the experience of thinking and expression rather than clinging to a dogma — these are the lessons and skills that I owe JNU.

Anupam Pandey teaches development and politics at St. Mary’s University, Canada.