The beginning of the university coincided with both the politics in the country and the general mood of the youth. The first two batches of students played quite a significant role in setting the tone of the university. The M.Phil. and Ph.D students of international studies and undergraduates of Russian studies were the first set of students to enter the new university. They, however, were not particularly known for their political proclivities except that the general tenor of international studies was apolitical, while that of Russian studies was pro–Soviet Union as they had many experts from the Soviet Union teaching and interacting with the students.

In the School of International Studies, there were eight professors and none of them could be identified with communism, Marxism or even socialism of any hue. A couple of them had strong American orientation and outlook, which was in some sense at variance with the flavour of the day. The ISIS professors had a close and regular interaction with the American think tanks and universities and therefore were not too sectarian in their attitude. Only one professor had socialistic sensibilities because of his personal proximity with Jayaprakash Narayan.

The SIS Union merges

SIS had a students’ union that was active with Prakash Karat and a couple of active students leading it. Prakash Karat had returned from the United Kingdom where, during his studies, he had come into contact with Victor Kiernan, a Marxist and a great scholar who had taught in Lahore in the pre-Partition days. With a sharp political eye, Karat got into close contact with CPI(M) leaders like P. Sundarayya and E.M.S. Namboodiripad. This was the time for the CPI(M) to start its students’ wing and Karat was an ideal choice. He was articulate and was someone acquainted with the British Marxists who were held in high esteem by even these anti-colonial communists whose minds were not totally decolonized. His being from God’s own country, Kerala, also helped in befriending many gods in the party.

As soon as the Students Federation of India was set up, north India seemed to be within communist grasp. From the standpoint of CPI(M), JNU was like a clean slate where it did not have to fight it out with the likes of the Chhatra Parishad in Bengal or the National Students Union of India in Kerala or the socialists and the RSS in UP and Rajasthan. Karat’s popularity among the mostly apolitical students of the ISIS was an excellent opportunity to establish the credentials of the fledgling party and its new students’ wing.

With Karat’s initiative, the SIS union was amalgamated with the SFI-led union, which had come into being following much discussion and efforts. His SIS colleagues were upset and demanded that he resign because he had not taken them into confidence.2 A significant section of the School of International Studies was in favour of a federal structure in student politics because this would emphasize their own distinctiveness. However, some members of the SFI, who were both activists and had the idea of a liberal university union, played an instrumental role in convincing the majority of the students of the school of the rationale behind this move and the need for an integrated students’ union. As a result, in a general body meeting the school passed a resolution in favour of an integrated union. However, there were twenty-seven votes against as against forty-five for the proposed constitution of the union.

The constitution

The constitution of the union in those heady days reflected the main currents of political thought among the left and socialist movements in the country, which included the major socialist demand for representation of students in decision-making bodies and the communist demand for making academic courses relevant to the masses. The aims of the union were summed up in the constitution as:

1. The union shall strive to live up to the important role students have to play in the development and progress of our people.
2. The union shall endeavour to make our academic courses relevant to the needs of our society and meet the expectations our people have from us.
3. The union shall endeavour to democratise the structure of the decision-making in the university in order to be able to effectively strive for the relevance in our education.
4. The union shall promote and safeguard the genuine interests of the student community and link it up with the democratic movement in the country.

The best feature about the union was that the entire election process was to be conducted by the students themselves without the direct involvement of university administration at any level. The first election to the JNUSU was held on 30 November 1971. An SIS researcher, O.N. Shukla, won this first election as an independent candidate for president-ship. There were no organized parties as such, and the task of this union was to organize itself structurally and financially which took almost six months. In April 1972, the union managed to establish a systematic process for the transfer of money collected for extracurricular activities from the university to the union’s account. As one of the earliest students recalled, ‘a draft constitution of the students’ union was circulated and approved through broad consensus among the students’.6

The second elections to the union took place on 11 October 1972. Although the candidates did not declare their party affiliations, it was clear that V.C. Koshy was the candidate for the SFI, the student wing of the CPI(M), while J.S. Ram represented the National Students Union of India, the Congress outfit. A third candidate, Prashad, however, was an independent but came out with the best posters.7

The JNUSU Constitution, by making the presidential election a direct one, gave it a bit more focus than required in a university-like situation. And, although the president required consent from council members, he/she began to exude a collective personality, and this would, in the long run, turn out to be the undoing of student politics as such. It concentrated politics in a single personality, and invested a lot of time in building an artificial persona around certain people or the parties, particularly the left. All of this clashed with the avowed principles upon which the union was based.

Social scientists enter the university

One of the first acts of the JNU students’ union was to demonstrate against the visit of British prime minister, Edward Heath, when he came to speak at the Sapru House auditorium. It was, as a contemporary recalled, ‘a class act’ and the ‘professionalism of the organizers even took the Delhi police by surprise’. With the success of the demonstration and new-found enthusiasm, the students’ union now demanded democratization of the decision-making bodies. The mood was nicely captured by a contemporary who saw this as an opportunity that the political parties tried to use to penetrate JNU. He also saw how a sizeable number of the students of the School of Social Sciences tried to counter the coordinated efforts of the left parties to control the students by declaring a formation of ‘Free Thinkers’.

The character of the university took a dramatic turn when the School of Social Sciences (SSS) became operational. Suddenly, the university was full of scholars who were widely known for their disciplinary excellence and many for their political radicalism. Unlike the SIS students, the SSS teachers and their first batches of students came to a brand new institution and were in a mood to start fresh experiments and express the mood of the times. The teachers were, naturally, looking forward to a long phase of engagement. This was also the beginning of two completely different traditions; one (SIS) had already set up an insular institute with wide diplomatic connections and the other (SSS) was trying to start a new institutional tradition.

JNU was inhabited by many scholars who had come to represent that new-found consensus at the national level. Many from the regions and provinces were included in this panorama, e.g., the people from the literati and upper classes from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, etc., who came to the university both as faculty as well as students and gave the university a profile quite different from that of any other university in modern India. When the violent linguistic agitations and the Naxalite violence took its toll on the institutions in those areas in the late 1960s, JNU provided a safe haven to scholars from centres of excellence located in the different regions.

Rasheeduddin Khan, and later, K. Seshadri, came from Hyderabad; a large contingent came from Jaipur; K.J. Mahale from Karnataka, Pramod Talgeri from Maharashtra; and Sivatosh Mookerjee and Tapas Mazumdar from Calcutta. JNU was providing space to an intellectual class who would envision academia not as an extension of the state or government department (unlike many other universities in India), but as a habitus of both mind and body. Pierre Bourdieu, the astute French sociologist, defined habitus, some years later, as a ‘set of attitudes which structure the perception and practice of research: the logic of the practice of scientific labour is related to the way in which the problems are set out, explanations developed and tools forged and used’.

Students with teachers

JNU’s foundational principles had envisaged a very close relationship between the students and teachers. The new faculty, particularly the social scientists, contributed much to the close rapport between teachers and students. The education minister in 1964 had envisioned a joint council for teachers and students. This was the ideal way to respond to the whole milieu of distrust that had been brewing in the campuses during the early phase of the 1960s that had led to student violence. To some diehard Marxists, e.g., Bipan Chandra, it seemed utterly impractical to have a common council or common union. Such a union could do no justice to different, and sometimes conflicting, sets of interests of the students, teachers and non-teaching staff. He, therefore, argued for separate unions for teachers, staff and students. The first president of the common council for teachers and staff, Prof. Yogendra Singh, one of the most perceptive and astute readers of Indian society, realized the impracticality of such a common council and agreed with Chandra. Soon several others joined this train of thought, and the student leaders, under the aegis of the communist parties’ sympathizers, chalked out plans for a separate union.

The CPI at JNU

The membership of the Communist Party of India increased with the prospects of a job in the new university, especially among the faculty of the newly established School of Languages who were either long-standing communists or new converts. This faction also had a preponderance of teachers in the social sciences stream. Thus, the political formations in JNU found their respective constituencies. The All India Students Federation (AISF), the students wing of the CPI, was like a baby born to milk and honey. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had recently established its students wing, and, as a new organization, it was infinitely more energetic and militant. After the split in the original communist party in 1964, those who moved to the more radicalized wing of the party were mostly from Bengal, Andhra and Kerala. Extremely provincial in their outlook, they were now represented by the leaders like E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Jyoti Basu, etc., who could have otherwise lived in the CPI itself except they thought it politically pragmatic to be with the new party. The other tall leaders of the party were hard-core organizers like Pramod Dasgupta from Bengal and P. Sundarayya from Andhra. All these stalwarts raised their profiles to represent the party at the national level. Most of the leaders in CPI(M) were great mobilizers of the peasantry and they gave the new party strong orientation. As they had a strong base in their respective regions, it made their outlook more provincial rather than all-India. This was often masked by their Marxist rhetoric against capitalism, bourgeoisie, etc.

On the other hand, the CPI leaders, many of whom were the finest intellectuals and parliamentarians, e.g., S.A. Dange, Bhupesh Gupta, Hiren Mukerjee, Mohit Sen and many others, did not have the same mass base in the provinces and were located, politically, more at the all-India level—both in their parliamentary as well as intellectual lives. JNU had an advantage in this respect because the people responsible for setting it up were either very active party members or had strong leanings towards the CPI. The education minister, Nurul Hasan, had been a leading figure of the intellectual wing of the CPI and so was Moonis Raza. For the two communist parties the wound of the split was still very raw and the talk of an alliance was not highly appealing. In JNU, however, the parties attempted to converge. An alliance formed during the second student union election in 1972-73 was called the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF), and, V.C. Koshy, a political science research scholar, became the president of the union under this combine.

JNU’s first MA batches, particularly in the social sciences, were articulate and some of the most talented graduates were from the best colleges in the country. For many of them the new atmosphere invited them to a discourse on freedom and decolonization, and radical alternatives. Such a student population would not be slavish followers of the communist parties; they provided the communist parties a readymade target and were accused of elitism. The new students who were the targets of the communist attack, insisted that their programme and not their class background be analysed. Many of the SFI leaders, including Karat and his comrade-in-arms, Sunit Chopra, had returned from Britain, and were therefore more elite and colonial in their academic attitude than those who were attacked as elitists.

No critiques

The intellectual critique of the passionate and brilliant youth was not going to make much of a difference for these parties as their vested interests and theoretical positions were too strong to accept such critiques. The complete capture of the university was possible only through elections. The first battle lines were drawn in 1973 when mostly the social science students decided to take on the increasing dominance of the AISF and SFI leadership who were hand-in-glove with their professoriate led by Moonis Raza. The core of this was in the School of Social Sciences, primarily in the centres for history, sociology and political sciences, and they named the group ‘The Free Thinkers’.

The communist parties that sought to capture some political space, particularly in the northern Indian belt, viewed the student body elections in JNU as a way to do so. Therefore, the JNU elections as well as the CPI(M)’s party-building exercise in north India were synchronous. The Free Thinkers, however, saw the elections as a means to save the university from the manipulation and control of the Stalinistic parties. The radical fringe, which claimed to be more communist than the communist parties were, also attacked the organized communist parties in order to break their ideological dominance. They themselves were just as dictatorial in their own organizational matters. The Trotskyites, for example, were perceived as a bunch of pompous intellectuals. The battle, therefore, was also for influencing the minds and controlling ideas.

Electrifying elections

Though the 1972 elections saw a political science research scholar becoming the president of the union, it was the 1973 elections which signalled a high-voltage political contest. With the arrival of the new batch of students, the Free Thinkers of JNU got a mature, political, Hindi-speaking student who was well suited to counter the SFI–AISF elitist charge. The popular slogan devised by SFI–AISF for this ongoing struggle was to take JNU to the level of Gorakhpur and BHU. Anand Kumar had become the president of the BHU during the worst phase of its history when the elected president was ousted by the manipulation of the university administration in collusion with the local RSS and local university mafia. His presence was very significant as he too came with a deep socialist ethos.

Anand Kumar, an excellent reader of situation, while no match for the political acumen of Karat, had a mature and well-developed political sense. As a staunch follower of Ram Manohar Lohia, he imbibed the visceral hatred of both the Congress and the Left.11 This made him an excellent candidate in such a volatile situation. For the social science students who wanted to counter the SFI’s allegation of elitism against the university, Anand Kumar’s background was a godsend: it refuted the SFI’s claim that they monopolized the subaltern groups. The stage was set where left was fighting left and there was no centre and right in the picture. From the beginning, the Stalinist left practices of the Indian communist parties in particular and the Indian left in general had their first major critique in JNU.

A contemporary write up on the JNU quite graphically presents this mosaic of politics and culture of the time:

Interest at the moment is centred on the forthcoming elections to the union of students. But the fight is not between the rightist and the leftist as was in the case of Delhi University, but among the groups of radicals of various shades of red. Everyone in JNU likes to be called progressive.

This university is free from the canker of communalism. The ABVP has no base at all in the campus. Explaining this, Prof. Bipan Chandra, head of CHS, said JNU students were not easily attracted by the Jana Sangh type of ideology. Since the university only provides post-graduate courses, the students who join it are by and large mature and serious in their intellectual pursuits.

The election debate was about the practices of the left and that of the communist parties. The issues of gender, race, empire and labour were discussed at great length and the syllabuses which were framed during this time were quite often reflections and insights of the struggles happening outside the campus. Topics like the character of the Indian state and the autonomy of the intellect were keenly discussed, and so was the career of socialism in India and the world.

That very year, the students and karamcharis (non-teaching staff) of JNU in a joint general body meeting decided to close the university for one day in support of a strike called by the trade unions. This joint action of the karamcharis was the result of SFI’s attempt to politicize the karamcharis. In the election, the PDF had brought the karamcharis into its fold. Their election manifesto in 1972-73 clearly stated that, to make democratization meaningful it is essential that students, teachers and karamcharis are given proportional representation in all decision- making bodies. The three components must be represented in the executive council, the court and the finance committee.

Excerpted with permission from JNU: The Making of a University, Rakesh Batabyal, Harper-Collins India.