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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