JNU Convocation Was Another Signifier of the University's Systematic Decay

For how long do we keep witnessing the fall of a university that once aroused hope in the possibility of a public institution?

“The judges of normality are everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’ judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the  normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact of disseminated forms, with its system of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in the normative society, of the normalising power.”

∼ Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

When a university decays, its symptoms can be seen everywhere. Unhappy students, discontented teachers, the normalisation of fear psychosis and a culture of surveillance. One feels that the Jawaharlal Nehru University is falling apart. Amid this pessimism and pockets of resistance, the university held its second convocation ceremony. Paradoxically, it was held outside the university – at the AICTE auditorium in the national capital. Does this indicate something? Has the administration begun to suspect its own space? Is fear infectious?

However, when I opened my official mail, and saw the circular informing us of the ‘minute to minute’ programme for conducting the convocation ceremony, I could not bear it any more. It hurt my self-dignity (and I am sure this is equally true for many of my colleagues). Before I narrate the story of my pain and anguish, let me reveal the structure of the programme: a perfect technique of ‘hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and meticulous splitting of time’.

8-8.45am: Registration starts, Entry of students
8.30am onwards: Performance of Army Band
8.30-9am: Arrival of Guests, Robing of Guests
9am: All invitees, students, faculties, staff being seated in the Auditorium
9-9.15am: Assembly of Procession in the corridors of the AICTE auditorium
9.20-9.30am: Academic Procession to the dias led by the BSF band
9.30 to 9.40am: Lighting of Lamp by Chief Guest: Invocation of Saraswati Vandana
9.40am: The V.C. declares the convocation open

12.50pm: National Anthem (Everyone will stand)


Despite my ‘gentle anarchy’, I do acknowledge that a programme like the convocation ceremony requires some decorum. Yet, what repels me is the militarisation of time – its tone, its language, its harsh ‘disciplinary’ practices. Take, for instance, the ‘performance of army band’. Why is it needed? Or is it that the JNU administration too is giving its consent to the growing militarisation of consciousness – an inevitable product of anti-Gandhi/anti-Tagore hyper-masculine nationalism? Is it that a place of creative ideas, academic innovations and radical experimentations needs to be taught a lesson: follow the army discipline and sing in tune with its robotic performance, its ritualism?

What irony – a university that has seen the articulation of fairly innovative artistic skills in many of its creative posters has to be awakened by the BSF/army band. It is not easy to digest this metamorphosis (more frightening than what Franz Kafka depicted in his masterpiece). Possibly, we are being perceived as potential ‘anti-nationals’ (or ‘urban Maoists’). Otherwise, what is the reason to be reminded of the order to stand up at the time of the national anthem? Or is it that we have not yet grown up as responsible adults? Are we like naughty schoolchildren refusing to be ‘disciplined’ at the time of school assembly?

Is it a beautiful ceremony that awakens the fond memories of the university life amongst its graduates? Or is it an army camp teaching us the lessons of what Michel Foucault with his characteristic wisdom regarded as ‘the ceremony of power’ filled with the exercise of ‘disciplinary’ time characterised by the constant gaze of surveillance? Not solely that. The administration, it seems, thinks that as students and teachers we have no sense of civility; we are eternally hungry, and restless to loot the ‘packed lunch’. Otherwise, how do you explain the instruction: ‘Move schoolwise/centrewise only to collect the packed lunch’?

It hurts. It insults. But then, this is possibly the new normal at JNU. You take part in a peaceful demonstration called by the legitimate body called the JNU Teachers’ Association, and a notice is issued to you. See its language:

As per the reports submitted by the JNU Security, you have been seen participating in the strike on 31st July ,2018 called by the JNUTA…

Yes, this is the way we spread the psychology of fear, the practice of surveillance, the culture of spying, rivalry and mysterious whispering. The university decays, the ethos of meaningful learning suffers; the collegial relationship is poisoned.

For how long do we keep witnessing the fall of a university that once aroused hope in the possibility of a public institution? I have lost my words. I begin to listen to Bob Dylan:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man…

Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at JNU.