That JNU is one of the few urban campuses in India with great caste, class, regional and linguistic diversity does not matter; the fact that young men and women there seem to interact so easily is all that does.
The esteemed BJP legislator Gyandev Ahuja, representing Ramgarh from Rajasthan’s Alwar district, recently conducted an audit of the trash collected at the JNU campus. Ahuja counted over 10,000 cigarette butts, 4,000 beedies, 2,000 bottles of liquor, 50,000 big and small pieces of bones, and 2,000 wrappers of chips and namkeens. He also discovered 3,000 condoms and another 500 contraceptive injections that, he claimed, had been used to “commit misdeeds with our sisters and daughters there.” We are not told whether this rather impressive evidence of spectacular debauchery was the detritus of one day, one week, one month or a year in the life of JNU.
Ahuja’s (dirty) laundry list did leave me feeling a bit foolish. As someone who spent three of the best years of his youth on that campus back in the early 1980s, I seem to have missed out on all the fun. My recollections are of long hours spent in the library, of endless addas in the dhabas and lawns arguing over matters mundane and worldly, of the slogans and energy of student general body meetings, the unremitting slog of writing tutorial papers for one of the most demanding History faculties anywhere in the world, and listening to – among others – Charles Taylor, Etienne Balibar, Amartya Sen, Teodor Shanin and Piloo Mody, as they shared their latest ideas with us in mess halls still fragrant with the odour of masoor dal and aloo-gobi.
Of course, when you have a space filled with a few thousand people nearly all in their 20s, there’s going to be a whole lot of love – both requited and not – all over the place. And like young people everywhere, they are going to smoke, booze, fornicate and enjoy life. It’s called being normal in the rest of the world.
What is most striking about Ahuja’s feverish fantasy is its utter familiarity – he was merely confirming an impression about JNU that is widely prevalent in much of the city and nation that surrounds it. I vividly remember one occasion when I was in the waiting room of a doctor in Munirka, just outside the campus. I was forced into a reluctant conversation with the middle aged, middle class Delhi-ite sitting next to me as we waited our turn to see the doctor. The minute he found out I was a JNU student, his expression changed to a combination of puerile curiosity and sanctimonious censure. Was it true, he wanted to know, that sex was rampant on campus? That women there were (to borrow a wonderful phrase from the American author Jonathan Safran Foer) “very informal with their vaginas”? That the place was basically one non-stop orgy?
I was at the time going through what I would later realise was my Agastya-Sen-phase in life (see Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August) and when faced with such petty bourgeois morality I couldn’t help lying through my teeth just for the fun of it. I assured him that every lurid tale of bacchanalia he had heard about JNU was not merely true but possibly an understatement. I told him he merely had to step on campus and he would be besieged by attractive young women ready to fulfill his kinkiest fantasies. The mixture of horror, temptation and fear on his face was priceless.
So, whence did this enduring image emerge, of which Ahuja is merely the latest purveyor? Thomas Blom Hansen, in his work on the Shiv Sena in Mumbai (Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay) and more generally on Hindutva, unravels the hidden injuries of caste, class and frustrated libido that energises these movements. Denied access to what they perceive to be the good life because of a lack of fluency in English, and the material and cultural capital that bespeaks cosmopolitanism, they are simultaneously moralistic, frustrated and violently resentful of all those who seem to be enjoying the nation. India’s torpid economy does little to help them realise their dreams of fulfilling careers and the rising political power of the backward castes further energises their sense of being beleaguered. They sense there are glass ceilings but cannot see them, let alone break through them. Amidst all that seething ressentiment, nothing incites their rage more than the sight of young women and men interacting naturally.
It is not hard at all to see the projection and displacement of frustrated libidinal energies all across sections of middle class India onto that space of desire called JNU. In this, the reality of JNU is quite irrelevant. That its unique admissions policy actually makes it one of the few urban campuses in India with an extraordinary degree of caste, class, regional and linguistic diversity does not matter. The fact that young men and women there seem to interact with so little of the humbug that characterises all too much of our country is all that does. To such a perspective, the easy camaraderie between the sexes in JNU, and especially the freedom that its women take for granted, appears to be out of joint with the rest of the nation. Ahuja’s fantasy tells us a great deal about the inner-world of the Hindutvadi – but it bears no resemblance to life on that campus.
Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and took his Masters from the Center for Historical Studies in JNU in 1982.