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Student Protests

The problem with JNU: Too left for liberals, too liberal for leftists

That's why it's important: The university allows young people to engage critically with all shades of opinion.

When I tell people that I am alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, I am treated to a range of reactions. Relatives presume that studying political science at a university in the national capital is the automatic route to a secure government job and confused about why I don’t have one. My old school friends assume that I have become a leftist-activist jhholawala who has lost significant amount of neurons by reading too much. But when I go for job interviews, there’s begrudging admiration even before the questions have begun – having a JNU degree accords some privilege.

Last year, though, there was a comical moment when the interviewer from the Human Resources Department at a liberal arts university glanced through my CV and warned, “If you do join here, you know that a university is not a space for criticism, but for constructive work with the government.” He went on to prod me further in an effort to gauge my political alignments, but I fobbed him off with the line that has become my favourite description of JNU – that it’s too liberal for the leftists, too left for the liberals.

Over the course of the past week, there have been aspersions cast on the loyalty and patriotism of JNU students. There has been a concerted attack to delegitimise the university’s standing. On the Times Now news channel, anchor Arnab Goswami thundered that JNU students have eaten the subsidised salt of the nation and yet dare to speak against it. On social media, memes of fake JNU entrance-exam question papers are doing the rounds – they make jibes at everything from the tolerance debate to the beef-ban and ask aspirants to write answers on saints Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab. These attacks culminated on Friday in the decision to send the police to the campus to arrest JNU Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar in connection with allegedly anti-national slogans that had been chanted by some people at a cultural event related to Kashmir on Tuesday.

A fringe group

Behind this spiral into slime-slinging and persecution is an event organised by ten students who resigned from the Democratic Students Union in November. The union and its members took pride in being affiliated with the Maoists, being anti-national and there always were rumours of intelligence agents keeping tabs on their activities. These are active JNU students with strong political positions: they claim martyrdom for Afzal Guru, who was hanged for the attack on Parliament in 2001, and support self-determination for Kashmir. But they are barely representative of the student body of JNU, let alone mirror images of other left organisations. Anyone who visits campus on Independence Day will see students from within and outside political organisations standing together for the national anthem and hoisting the flag.

Why then, despite their ideological differences, have other political organisations on campus and unaffiliated students come out in support of the ten students? Why has student leader Kumar been targeted for standing up to the persecution of students whose viewpoints he does not condone? Because JNU is an institution that celebrates debate. It is a space for the incubation of ideas, the protection of free speech and, more importantly, dissent – the right to disagree with and challenge the (dis)order of society and the state.

Despite what my HR interviewer seemed to believe, universities have historically been the space where anti-segregation movements, women’s rights movements, indigenous rights movements and closer to home, the Independence movement, have taken shape. Universities have been the crucible in which nations have been mobilised in their quest to change the structures of unfair societies and states. Imagine the trajectory of these movements if the right to protest and dissent was not accorded to university students.

Students (and faculty) on the JNU campus across party-lines contribute to change by asking critical questions that are important for nation-building. The university is literally the universe for raising these very questions and expressing these dissenting ideas and opinions, regardless of how different and difficult they are. It was no surprise that when the Akhil Bharitya Vidyarthi Parishad and others took out processions and distributed celebratory pamphlets on the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013, the left organisations did not try and shut them down. Instead, they retaliated with their own pamphlets and counter protests. Freedom of expression, if not practiced and propagated by the young adult, has no meaning for the society at large.

The real threat

At the time when JNU students are being targeted as anti-national and arrested for sedition, we must remember that the university is not the real threat to the nation. Those who stifle voices within the university should be feared even more. The crackdown on dissenting opinions has deteriorated to the point where police entered campus to arrest an elected JNUSU President. It become obvious just how the sanctity of academic institutions has been degraded when we remember that during the Independence movement, student activists took solace within universities since the police were not allowed to enter the autonomous space (a rule that exists even today).

We must also note that the current events in JNU have not occurred in isolation – over the past few years, there has been a revival of student political mobilisation on campuses around the country that has raised serious questions on social change and nation building. For instance, students energetically demonstrated in the pursuit of gender justice after the 2012 Delhi rape case and more recently caste discrimination in the light of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad.

By calling for a shutdown of the university, by declaring its diverse and critically thinking students as anti-national, and targeting the student body by arresting its representatives, it is evident that those who enjoy the status quo are avoiding the very real questions being raised within the bastion.

Khaliq Parkar is an alumnus of the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He teaches political science at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune (which is not where the interview mentioned above took place).

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Q. Have you incorporated this concept of space into previous projects?

HT: Yes, in different ways, no matter if you are working on government-sponsored housing projects or in the luxury segment. Usually our projects are more in the luxury segment, where space is crucial. We are currently designing a building where luxury can already be sensed at the parking level. You reach with your car and you are already supposed to have the feeling that you’ve arrived at a hotel lobby. This is how far luxury has come. That the arrival in a garage already gives you the feeling as if you are coming to a palace—you get out of your limousine into this stunning lobby and this feeling continues as you go up into the apartment where you have a bathroom that is 20-30 square metres and not just 5-10. The idea of really designing your bathroom or kitchen has not yet reached India. Bathrooms are still rather compact and practical since the idea of spending quality time in your bathroom doesn’t seem to exist yet. Customers definitely do not request a spacious bathroom when we discuss their projects. For me, personally, a great bathroom is extremely important, as it is the first thing you use in the morning. Afterwards you go to work, and you come back home. But I believe the areas that you use most need to have enough space for you to move and thrive in.

Q. Do you have any role model in the field of architecture? Maybe a building or a person?

HT: The Bauhaus is still my role model. Back then they designed products for day-to-day life, affordable for the general population. But those products have become classics today like the lounge chair by Le Corbusier. Those were project works but Bauhaus thought further ahead. The idea was to give people light, air and space, and to free them from elements that were poorly designed and uncomfortable like big stucco ceilings. The focus needs to be light, air and sun. For them, architecture and product design were always very fluent concepts. Le Corbusier, for instance, designed fantastic buildings as well as whole cities, but on the other hand also designed furniture. Gropius had even designed a car once and furniture, too. This school of thinking has influenced me, and once you have all those “tools” and this way of thinking, you get very far. With this “toolbox” of modern design, you can create anything and influence society. The times back then aided this development; everyone was opening up, living in and with nature, not hiding away in little holes. And the world evolved from there. And today you can see they are daring even more spectacular things in Asia than they used to in Old Europe.

Q. You have already gained quite some experience in India. Is there something that you would define as a typical “Indian palate”, and if so, how does it differ from the international projects? You already mentioned the differences in bath and kitchen design, but are there, for instance, taboos like colours you wouldn’t use or something in room composition?

HT: I haven’t encountered anything like that. What I do experience is that many projects are influenced by religious thoughts and by Vaastu, something like Feng shui. So the master bedroom has to be in the south-west and the kitchen has to have a certain location. Those rules need to be followed exactly, no matter if it makes sense for the building or not. Here in Mumbai it’s a little more liberal but in other regions, Hyderabad for instance, every centimetre has to be exact as per Vaastu. Sometimes they want a dedicated room for pujas. All this changes while designing a project, of course. But overall the ground plans are not that different. The families might be bigger so houses and apartments are bigger as well, or they are trying to utilize each and every square metre and avoid hallways, for example.

Those projects are also in the centre of a lot of marketing. We are not used to that in Europe but here in Mumbai or even more in other cities like Bangalore, along the entire highway from the airport into the city you only see 50-metre-high billboards announcing new real estate projects. You don’t see anything else! And it’s very creative marketing with catchy headlines and slogans. That isn’t happening in Germany. One more difference: when designing upper class buildings in India, they require a maid or servant room, maybe a separate entrance from the staircase and so forth. Here, you can still afford having a maid. In Europe you might have someone coming by for three hours once a week but certainly not living in.

Q. Let’s talk about the Lodha Altamount. What was the challenge?

HT: The design of Altamount was strongly influenced by being a Lodha project and by its location. Next to Altamount stands a luxury highlight of architecture, the Ambani tower, the most expensive home in the world. How do you want to top that? The Ambani tower is very structural. It shoots through the air, it combines all sorts of crafts and structural design elements with gaps and open spaces. You can’t top that and definitely not with our type of design. That’s why we decided to hold back and instead develop a dark and sleek building. That type of building doesn’t exist a lot here in India. Usually buildings have many structural elements like beams and balconies. By creating a calm building in the skyline of Mumbai, we will make Altamount stand out. Plus, the top of the building is very unique. Many structures are either simply cut off straight or completed by a dome. We have two geometric pointy tops so that the building is properly completed and doesn’t look as if it could grow further. It has a head and feet and is finished. So for us to hold back was our way to stand out. It doesn’t devalue the building design in anyway. It is meant expressively in the sense of “less is more”. And the interior is of course very luxurious: it is designed through and through, there is the green car parking podium, each balcony has a mini pool. So all those luxury features are present but the architectural design is based on the idea of “less is more”.

Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.
Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.

Q. Luxury can drift into the eccentric, depending on the client. Have there been any projects that were very eccentric which you still accepted or projects that you had to turn down because they were too eccentric?

HT: As architects, we create a space. What happens, of course, is that people buy an apartment in a great contemporary building and then furnish it in a baroque style. But that freedom has to be there, of course, because we can’t also tell the client which curtains to use or clothes to wear. At a certain point our job is done. However, when it comes to public buildings, the public is supposed to benefit from, so I have to be strict and dictate. In private buildings you can leave it up to the individual but publicly I have a responsibility and cannot consider each and every taste. I have to do a clean job so that in the end every individual can find himself or herself in my design. Anyway, taste always stems from a certain upbringing, culture and environment, so I also have the duty to educate and that’s what I do with my projects. When a small child walks by a building, she recognizes when the proportions are right even if she has no idea about architecture. But if the proportions are off, the child will pick that up too, because every building also exudes energy, either of unease or comfort. So we have quite a big responsibility as well. I always say doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, but our mistakes will always be there for everyone to see.

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This article was produced on behalf of Lodha by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff

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