Education

'Jasn-e-JNU': What Lies Behind the Calls to Dismantle Public University Education?

The story of JNU – and its place as the exception it has come to be – can only be framed within the Indian university system and its histories.

A golden jubilee for any institution is not something that should go quietly into the night. Yet Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is commemorating – ‘celebrating’ would be grotesquely inaccurate – its five-decade existence as ‘a premier university with the unique model of interdisciplinary teaching and research’ (to cite the official website’s words) stood perilously close to just that.

Apart from some lacklustre and politically questionable programmes, including the lending of the golden jubilee logo to a pet company-sponsored event, the year has passed in turmoil rather than in celebration. Still, by the official golden jubilee calendar, November was supposed to celebrate ‘Jasn-e-JNU’ as a fitting closure to 2019.

What supreme irony indeed that the last five decades have climaxed in the bloodiest confrontation yet between those determined to transform the idea of the public university, and those committed to defending it! The story of JNU – and its place as the exception it has come to be – can only be framed within the Indian university system and its histories, and the extent to which one institution has rewritten those histories (there are of course many others).

M.C. Chagla, who piloted the bill to bring a public university like JNU into existence, pointed out that this would be a university of  “an entirely different and new type”. “It must have a free atmosphere where the students can enquire and investigate, challenge every dogma and every doctrine and start on a voyage of discovery,” he continued. “A university should provide an experience of living as well as an opportunity of living and this is what we expect of this university.”

To what kind of exceptionality was he gesturing? For one, it was affirmed that existing hierarchies and structures of the 70-odd universities of the time (the 1960s) should not be replicated, since they had all been found wanting. In its founding moments, there was fierce debate between those who envisioned JNU as an audacious experiment – but whether as a place for the production of distinction, or as a site that would equalise access, remaining true to all the varieties of Indian democracy? Could these two at all be reconciled? Was a doctoral degree to be a universal right or a restricted privilege? Or both?

Also read | JNU’s Four Subversions: A Primer For the Anxious Right-Wing Citizen

Over the past five decades, JNU has proved that such that such paradoxical values can be reconciled – achieving excellence while upholding its commitment to inclusive democratic ideals. How was a public university to pursue the ideals of distinction while yet fulfilling its commitment to opening up the worlds of thinking to those who had been denied such opportunities for centuries, if not millennia?

As those who participated in the debate on the JNU bill pointed out, a real memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru, in whose name the institution came into being, could not ever be a ‘church’ or ‘caged in the cult of a prophet or any great man’.  Yet a commitment to adhere to the causes that Nehru held dear was enshrined in the First Schedule: “national integration, social justice, secularism, democratic way of life, international understanding and scientific approach to the problems of society.” The commitment was to build a new community, “a continuing membership of minds devoted to the tasks of learning and of the good life…inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

To begin with, this meant that the university was not to be a mere department of the state. A founding commitment to autonomy was therefore a crucial building block, the compulsory autonomy of the public university as defined in the report of the Radhakrishnan committee (1948) at a time when the private university appeared almost an oxymoron:

“We must resist, in the interests of our own democracy, the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process. Higher education is, undoubtedly, an obligation of the State,  but State aid is not to be  confused with State control over academic policies and practices. Intellectual progress  demands the maintenance of the spirit of free inquiry.”

It was planned as a postgraduate institution, committed to research and writing as much as to teaching, and a residential university like none other that existed at the time. But did it deserve to be called, as it was by one of its severest internal criticism the first few years of existence, the ‘government’s think tank’ serving the ‘ruling classes’? Or would it be the gadfly, critiquing and provoking people into action? Or both?

Also read | Why the University and Its Questions Worry the State

JNU’s reputation as a university that simultaneously produced establishment intellectuals and anti-establishment intellectuals is reluctantly acknowledged even today. If significant cohorts of bureaucrats and civil servants, teachers and journalists are counted amongst its alumni, politicians of all persuasions, activists and critical scholars and commentators have equally emerged from its ranks. These contradictory impulses – of a commitment to sustain societal structures and processes while simultaneously imagining alternatives to them – have given JNU its public purpose and direction.

The red brick university with a difference was brought into being through a deliberative process, assuring prospective students a degree of fairness and transparency that is relatively rare in our university ecosystem. In its early years,  JNU’s students fashioned by 1974 the justly famous ‘deprivation points’ policy of weightage for regional, class and caste deprivations. It was removed in 1984 following an unusually disastrous period of student-teacher antagonism, and restored only after sustained and momentous struggles by the student body in 1994. This is among the unique achievements that stand dismantled today.

Since its inception, JNU has been a residential university with a difference. Partly since its student body enjoyed a larger than usual role in determining institutional life, a true alternative to some aspects of life outside the university was imagined and has been sustained over the last half century.

Two significant achievements speak of the truly  alternative values it has managed to sustain and protect over the decades. The first is the resetting of gender hierarchies, rare and even unimaginable in a society that has been deeply scarred by misogyny, violence against women, and harassment of women in daily and academic life. The JNU campus has enabled female students to feel relatively freer in their daily lives and academic transactions, within and beyond the classroom, in hostels and in public spaces. JNU has paid a price for this freedom, since it has long had to live with the backlash against this achievement, earning the reputation of being  too ‘permissive’. Growing resentment about the perceived ‘permissiveness’ of the campus has periodically called for re-imposition of more familiar gender hierarchies.

Second, this achievement has been sustained by the unusually high participation of the student body in the conduct of the university administration at all levels. Student elections are conducted through a widely acclaimed constitutional process which has kept JNU free, to date, of the kinds of violent, money-driven election processes that have become the norm in most universities in the city of Delhi, as well as the country. This relatively dispute-free election process, in addition to being relatively inexpensive and ecologically sustainable, run by an Election Commission composed of students themselves, consciously gives every political formation – from extreme right to every shade of  left – a chance to contest and deliberate during the elections. This too stands severely challenged today.

Also read | As Freedoms Continue to Be Curbed in JNU, It Cannot Be Business as Usual

JNU is no stranger to attacks on its achievements and its autonomy: the Morarji Desai government famously undertook an ‘enquiry’, the entire process being carried out through correspondence with the university by a joint secretary in the prime minister’s secretariat. The Morarji Desai Enquiry Report was never made public, though it is purported to have called for the closure of JNU.

As an institution, it has pushed back to remain relevant. But over the past few years, the assault has been relentless.

Student opposition to hostel fee hikes must be seen not against the backdrop of JNU’s own statutes which are committed to inclusion, but against a long subcontinental  history that inextricably links hostels to learning opportunities that were historically denied. Which Dalit autobiography today does not talk of the central role played by the hostel in refiguring opportunity?

In the state of Mysore, while Brahmin students attending institutions of higher education in its towns and cities were able to organise a system of varanna – being housed and fed by a caste fellow via a  system of weekly rotation – most other castes had no such provision. Lingayat and other mathas stepped in to fill the gap, but the Mysore government was not far behind. The landmark Miller Committee Report of 1919 in Mysore, which recommended reservations in educational institutions and in government jobs, had this to say:

“We recommend that preference be given to the backward class pupils for admission into such [educational] institutions. … We deem it essential that hostels should be constructed in all taluk headquarters to encourage parents to send their children from the village elementary schools to the secondary schools.”

We should ask why the strident call for dismantling the public university system is coming just at a time when it has emerged as the most inclusive of all institutional spaces. Why now, when more than two generations of privileged and underprivileged people have equally benefitted from the public university system, are the state and the self-righteous ‘taxpayers’ vociferously demanding its end? Could it be because over the last five decades, what has already been dismantled with contradictory and unexpected outcomes are those very structures which had served elites so well? Is it because, as the poet Sikhamani tells us, ‘The steel nibs are sprouting!’

For an untaught lesson
You demanded our thumbs—
There sprout nibs of steel
To write history afresh—
Then, The people who poured
Hot metal in our ears
Would need ladders to climb
To pluck hairs from our ears!

At the end of its 50th year, this ‘township of the learned’ has played a role in helping steel nibs to sprout. Judging from the echoes of support from every nook and corner of the country for the cause of inclusive education, has JNU finally shed its exceptionalism to become part of a new national movement?

Janaki Nair is a professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.