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

JNU's liberal thought, social commitment, environment of equality and sustained excellence discomfits its critics. Here's why.

Dear right-winger, neo-liberal, anxiety-ridden denizen of India, this is for you.

This is basically a primer on the four major subversions that JNU has wrought on this Bharat Mata of yours. 

It is also meant to answer two of your perennial queries: why is JNU forever in the news, and why is there trouble in JNU all the time?

Your enlightened comparison to the peace and quiet of the IITs and the IIMs is well taken. After all, maintaining the status quo is, in your view, a profoundly nationalist act.

These are also conundrums to which there are no easy or convincing answers. Also, given that your ideology is somewhat inchoate but incandescent with a burning hatred, I bet you are pretty sure that JNU’s ideology is ‘leftist’, or ‘commie’ or, as the Union home minister revealed to the CRPF, that of an ‘urban Naxal’s’.

At your most charitable, you are willing to climb down to ‘liberal,’ but as only a pejorative: a person who wears Fab India kurtas and thinks like the ‘Khan Market caucus’.

You pillory this university in your wine parties, kitty parties, card parties and political parties. But at the end of the day, a fact remains:  JNU does tend to get under your skin and makes you violently itchy, just like the poison ivy which you may have accidentally brushed against.

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The irritating itch that JNU gives you is that fear of subversion it creates in your petty, secure lives. JNU is subversive of all the little non-liberal, right-wing, conservative and reactionary codes which constitute your mental DNA. You would like to wish it away, but your wishes are not your horses, not at least where JNU is concerned. 

The first subversion is liberal thought.

Bloody hell, imagine a university where students are encouraged to think for themselves! The load of lectures is kept at a level where they can go to the library and read more. Less lecture loads don’t mean less work. The counterbalance are the tutorials which an average M.A. student in the School of Social Sciences has to write once every 10 to 12 days.

Posters at a JNU canteen. Photo: Jai Pandya/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

These are presented to their peer group in the presence of the teacher for that course. Arguments must be defended, ideas have to become argumentative before a submission can move to its next stage, grading. A teacher just can’t grade and be done with it.

She must justify the grade she has given to each student in the presence of those who have credited her course. So, there you have it, there is a permanently interactive subversion of minds which goes on in JNU.

These students take their subversive minds into the public arena and grind any hostile interlocutor down to the ground. You should see online videos of some of them ripping apart ‘journalists’ from some chronically anti-JNU media channels.

Such maturity needs to be carefully nurtured. Why do you think JNU students want better library facilities and longer library hours? And why do you think this administration wants to cut down on both? 

The second subversion is that of social commitment.

In India’s damagingly skewed social environment, JNU has dared to dream. It has dreamt of an equal opportunity admissions policy to the greatest extent possible. It has dreamt to empower the downtrodden, the marginalised and the oppressed by enabling them to enter its portals and study with peers who have come from privileged backgrounds, but without any barriers of access to space, food, library and social interaction.

A poster at a JNU canteen. Photo: Jai Pandya/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

JNU’s dream is for you a very dangerous nightmare, a nightmare of equality in a society riven with myriad oppressions of caste, community, religion and gender.

Prior to 2017, admissions were made keeping in mind the constitutionally mandated reservations for the marginalised and deprived social groups and to facilitate them more, they were given extra deprivation points keeping other parameters of deprivation, like region, gender and community in mind.

Deprivation points based on gender worked like a charm. JNU became one place where women students tended to outnumber males in classrooms, libraries, seminars and in its many dhabas. Since this was working well – though there were still miles to go – it had to be dismantled by the administrative regime that was installed in 2016.

And just look at what immediate devastation it caused. Admissions of students from families earning Rs 6,000 rupees per month (oh yes, such people still exist, shocking as it may be for your genteel sensibilities) dropped from 25.7% of the total in 2016-17 to 9.8% in 2017-18.

Students from rural backgrounds shrank from 48.4% in 2016-17 to 28.2% in 2017-18. 

The third subversion is the sensitive and humane environment that JNU strives to provide to its students and other residents.

JNU’s humanism lies first in its spatial openness, then in its social openness and accessibility. All public spaces have unrestricted access, or used to till, dear right-winger, your conservatism kicked in.

The most iconic representations of this openness are the dhabas, the chai shops and that venerable spot for the star gazers – the Parthasarathi rocks.

Dhabas provide food and beverages to people who wish to supplement the often-drab food in the hostel messes. But these dhabas are also subversive. They provide convivial spaces for ideas to be exchanged and debated, for arguments to be made and for political agendas to be put to the test.

Students chat at JNU’s Ganga Dhaba. Photo: Jai Pandya/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Now, this will surely churn your neo-liberal stomach. Students have come to study, why must they do politics, you will ask indignantly.

JNU’s subversive answer to your anxiety would be ‘study and struggle’. Shocking, no?

More shocking to your morality are the emotional offshoots of this openness: people finding love, sex and general companionship in keeping with their sexual orientations. Parthasarathi rocks is an enabling place for love as well as star gazing or watching the planes flying past.

Whatever your orientation, JNU enables it. No, you say, this can’t be allowed. It offends your high morals, I know.

Did you know, a person belonging to the ruling political dispensation you so wholeheartedly cheer spent many a night prowling around JNU counting used condoms and empty beer bottles, most of them in his mind? But there is moral to his efforts: even used condoms in JNU are deemed subversive.

The fourth subversion, my dear right-winger, that JNU has brought about, is the idea of a public university as a source of excellence.

You applaud privatisation and in all probability have a child or two studying in a private institution because it caters to ‘merit,’ whereas in your exalted view of the world, public universities are sullied with reservations.

You are also deeply disturbed that your hard-earned tax rupees are being wasted on people who are spending years on doing what appears to you as some incomprehensible research, plus demanding that they need more subsidies and facilities.

Please know that a public university is a constitutionally mandated responsibility of the state and citizens must enjoy that right. If your tax rupees are working in that direction, you should grin and bear it no matter how painful it may be for you.

One of the buildings at JNU. Photo: Jai Pandya/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I would like to draw your Ray Ban-ned attention to the fact that about 40% of JNU students come from families whose monthly income is less than Rs 12,000 and these students often send funds from their already meagre merit-cum-means scholarships and non-NET fellowships to supplement their family incomes.

Also, do you know, JNU students actually pay more to live in their hostels than students of other central universities? And with the recent hikes in charges, they will be paying much more. If anyone needs subsidies, they do.

By the way, have you given up your LPG subsidy? Do you think of the subsidy you enjoy when you fill your car’s fuel tank with diesel or feel happy at your low electricity bills in Delhi these days? 

So, what does this all add up to? People like you who desire quick-fix solutions and immediate gratifications see education as a utilitarian object. In JNU, we see it as a public good, and public good is something which works for the good of the public.

JNU also believes that unless education enhances the fund of knowledge (no, not information which you source from Google probably every minute of your day) it serves no purpose, and that’s why research is encouraged in this university. Research is a slow process, like good wine it takes time to mature (ah! you got that, the wine bit, yet not the research bit).

Consider this: if one finishes an MA at the age of 21 years, and gets into an M.Phil/PhD course at 22, one will exit at 29 or 30 with one’s years spent in researching on issues like caste, tribe, environment, gender and much more.

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Do you realise a researcher in JNU is investing the most happening years of her life in creating a fund of socially relevant knowledge, and for what? Rs 5,000 rupees a month, upgraded to Rs 8,000 at the end of three years. 

Finally, do pause for a moment to compare a similar researcher, say, in the USA. While the average age of a person acquiring a PhD in the social sciences in a USA university is 33 years, Google tells me that ‘the cost of PhDs in the USA can vary between $28,000 to $40,000 per year, and students find that they can get funding for much, or all, of their studies’.

Your ideal is the IIT and the IIM of course. Did you know that these institutions enrol 3% of total students in this country but use 50% of government funding on higher education?

What do many of their students do after enjoying this massive subsidy? Pack their bags and go to the USA to write programs for software companies or play bulls and bears at the NYSE, of course.

Now compare this with Rs 5,000 that a researcher in JNU gets and feel some shame. But then you have none, for you are a neo-liberal, JNU-bashing, right-wing majoritarian.

I am waiting for the day when one IIT-ian or an IIM-ian gets a Nobel prize in the sciences or in economics. Your very subversive, ‘anti-national’ JNU can boast of one recipient already.  

Rajat Datta is professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.