JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University

I was always over-enthusiastic about my university, but today, with the the psychology of fear that pervades the campus and the silencing of dissenting voices, I have lost that confidence.

Even though I am one of those 48 teachers who have been issued a chargesheet for taking part in a peaceful protest march organised by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association, this article is not about the semantics – the bureaucratic/legal interpretations of the ‘rules and regulations’, and the mechanism of ‘discipline and punishment’.

Instead, this is about an intensely ‘subjective’ experience of loss and pain, and the ‘objective’ reasons for this pathos.

Let me begin the story with a personal note. The other day a friend of mine asked whether his daughter should think of JNU for her postgraduate study. And I gave a categorical reply: ‘No’.

This happened for the first time in my life. I was always over-enthusiastic about my university; I used to tell people: JNU is a dream, a project, a fantastic experiment – a public university reconciling excellence and equality, a creative space conducive to the growth of critical thinking, emancipatory ideas and alternative life-practices.

Fear destroys creative learning

However, today I have lost that confidence. How can I ask my friend to send his daughter to a university where the psychology of fear or the bombardment of threatening circulars invades every sphere of life?

When you see a senior professor with a dissenting voice is humiliated in the one-dimensional Academic Council meeting, and others prefer to remain silent, the message is conveyed: don’t question the ‘competent authority’. When you see a young professor, despite the presence of many senior and experienced professors, is recruited as the Dean of the School of Social Sciences, you realise that nothing matters – be it the institutional norm or the academic convention; what matters is only the ‘discretionary power’ of the ‘competent authority’. 

Or for that matter, when the aesthetically enriched and politically meaningful posters are removed from the walls, the students are asked to be aware of the ‘limits’ to their agency. When the teachers whisper whether they should write their names in the attendance registrar (even though it has not yet become mandatory) in order to be ‘safe’ (the biometric, they fear, is coming), you realise how the backbone of the teaching community has been systematically destroyed.

Or for that matter, when for a peaceful march in which not less than 150 teachers participated, they target 48 teachers, the strategy is clear: divide, fragment and demoralise.

Also read: JNU Aspirants, I Feel Sorry For You

Fear is an anti-thesis of creative learning. With this sort of toxic environment, everything becomes hypocritical, empty and superficial – be it a lecture on Gandhi’s civil disobedience, a term paper on Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, or a seminar on ‘Marginality and Resistance’ (and even inaugurated by the ‘competent authority’).

I know that I am somehow becoming pessimistic. I ask my research students: submit your theses as early as you can; this is no longer the place you dreamed of. I realise that so many stalwarts spent their life-energy to build this university. It took time. But then, see the irony. In three years it can be finished. Is it that in our times, destroyers are more powerful than creators?

Bureaucracy and the mysterious castle

Let me share yet another story. Nothing is easy here. A student works for four years, writes her Ph.D thesis, and then, somewhere a clerk or a section officer makes a technical mistake – say, a wrong spelling of the title of the thesis. She has to move around, meet all sorts of officials, and experience humiliation.

In order to help her, I tried to meet the concerned staff in the Academic Evaluation section. No, it was not easy. The security guard interrogated me. Yes, 29 years of teaching, my students teaching in different universities of the country and the world; and now suddenly I realise that this is no more my university; it is the university of the registrars and rectors, section officers and security guards; and of course, this is the university of the ‘competent authority’.

Credit: Reuters

The freshers – the MCQ generation – have come. I know that my centre would organise an orientation programme for them. Earlier, I used to welcome the freshers, and tell them about our shared memories: an old banyan tree that has witnessed the likes of Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra walking towards the library with a group of students; the owner of the book shop in the shopping complex conversing with Professor Namvar Singh and Professor Sudipta Kaviraj, and showing them the ‘new arrivals’; the historic protest against the Emergency; the students protecting the Sikhs in the nearby localities during the 1984 riots, and working selflessly for the victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy; and the late night meetings in the hostel mess where the likes of Medha Patkar spoke of social movements.

Also read: Youngsters: Are You Ready to Rethink Education?

But then, what do I do now? Should I generate fear in them, and ask them not to spend sleepless nights for writing pedagogically enriched posters, not to think beyond the ‘syllabus’, and not to bother about lynching, violence, poverty and hunger, and only to attend the ‘convocation’ ceremonies like disciplined soldiers? Should I tell them not to read good books, and instead, hire the lawyers to interpret the meanings and implications of the circulars that would be issued to them time and again?

The story of the fall of a great university shatters me.


Yet, like a Dostoyevskyian character, there are moments when I see a dream. Here is the story of the dream:

I have written a letter to the ‘competent authority’.

Dear Professor,

Please come out of the castle; please overcome your loneliness; please join me, walk together, see the monsoon clouds and the dance of the peacocks, and converse – the way a professor talks to yet another professor, the way a sensitive human being communicates, and please see the world beyond circulars, showcause notices, court cases, chargesheets, and modes of punishment (expulsion, suspension, service break), and rediscover the world together – a world where Tagore spoke of freedom from fear, Martin Buber and Paulo Freire spoke of communion and dialogue, and on the occasion of the inauguration of Benaras Hindu University Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi reminded the teachers and students of their collective responsibility for creating an inclusive/compassionate/egalitarian society.

Feel the warmth in Marx’s beard, the wisdom in Tolstoy’s footsteps, the compassion in the eyes of the Buddha. Realise the meaning of satyagraha, and experience the poetry of resistance. And yes, here is a gift I have brought for you which, I am sure, none of your legal advisors or official subordinates could ever think of.

This is a butterfly, and like William Wordsworth, find the historian of your infancy in it. Freedom is your right. What do you gain as a lonely ’emperor’ suffocating in the iron cage of bureaucracy?   

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.