Eminent historian Harbans Mukhia, 76, who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, talks about how it came to be a university of dissent, why it is wrong to say it is Marxist, the unrest among students, the attempts of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to impose its worldview, the protest movement of the 1960s and 70s and and some delectable anecdotes about JNU and the several towering intellectuals who were his colleagues.

The unrest at JNU seems to be snowballing into a major crisis. How do we read the current unrest on its campus?
To begin with, it was a very, very minor issue. These things happen all over, outside and inside universities.

When you say it was a minor issue, I assume you are referring to a group of students wanting to hold a ceremony on the anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru.
Right, this minor issue has been blown up because of a conflict of worldviews. There is the RSS worldview of the singularity and eternity of the truth – that is, their version of Hinduism. Since this truth of theirs is supposed to be eternal, it must prevail over all other different opinions. It is a conflict of ideologies, so to speak.

Earlier, the RSS used to work through their sishu mandirs (RSS schools) and shakhas. Since they have the state power now, the RSS wants to use it to impose its worldview on others, by eradicating all other views and dissent, whatever they may be.

How does the idea of nation get fused with Hindutva? After all, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s activism and the state’s response in JNU is linked to their claims that a group of students was indulging in an anti-national activity.
There is a conflation here between nation and majoritarianism. Since Hindus constitute 80% of the population, the RSS wants to appropriate the role of becoming the spokesperson of the majority community and define what constitutes nationhood.

But the notion of nationhood is a very open question. All these questions – what is nation? What is patriotism? What is anti-nation? – are all open. In fact, had Rabindranath Tagore been around, he would have been put into prison for being anti-national. This because he thought nationalism of any kind is extremely destructive. Nationhood is an open question, which is how it should be.

True, this idea has been evolving over centuries.
Yes, we have seen that 30-40 years ago, European nations gave up a part of their nationhood to become members of one unit (European Union). Every concept is a concept in evolution. Therefore, is Great Britain a nation? After all, it has been challenged from within by Scotland, which wanted separate from it.

Quebec, too, wanted to separate from Canada.
Yes. Fernand Braudel’s in his book, Identity of France, which is in two volumes, asks the question: Is France one country and one society? He says France began to evolve as one country and one society only after the Radio came and then the TV. The region called Brittany still resents being called French. The point I am making is that all these concepts and entities are in evolution. They are not given. The RSS wants to treat nation as a given entity.

It also says that only they will decide what the definition of nation is. Since the RSS claims to be the spokesperson of Hindus, who are in majority, it says that it will alone decide what is nation, and what constitutes what is loyalty and disloyalty. But it does not want to debate these issues. It has never been interested in debates. We’d be happy to argue with them. But they think since they have state power now, they can impose their views on the society.

In other words, they are not so much interested in, say, the electoral consequences of their action as much as they are in changing the discourse in the country.
Yes, they want to shift the focus of the national discourse. They want their view to become, to quote (Italian Marxist Antonio) Gramsci, the common sense of the people.

You retired from JNU, 12 years ago. You are 76 years old. What pulled you to the protest on the campus?
I taught in Delhi University for 11 years, and joined JNU in 1971. I was among the first few faculty members who were recruited. Those were my formative years. There was this excitement of creating JNU. That excitement still remains dear to me. As a historian, I matured in JNU. I, therefore, have a deep attachment to JNU. Plus I lived there for more than 30 years.

I suppose JNU constitutes the memory of your youth.
Indeed, yes. To then see this assault on JNU, I was greatly appalled at what is happening to it. JNU has fostered debates, arguments and discussions all the time.

How has this culture of debates come about? This culture, for instance, is not dominant in Delhi University, right?
To understand why this culture exists in JNU, I will have to go back to its formative years. G Parthasarathi was its first vice-chancellor (between April 28, 1969 and April 27, 1974). He was, like Nehru, a visionary.

He was essentially a diplomat.
He was a diplomat who had never been associated with administering an educational institute. But he was a great vice-chancellor. He was the very embodiment of liberalism. He was not only tolerant but also promoted diversity of opinions. And, mind you, diversity means dissent. He wanted JNU to be very different from the universities where we had learnt our discipline or had taught there.

First, he wanted it to be a small university, where students and teachers could interact with each other all the time. This concept is there in JNU’s layout. When you enter the JNU campus, you first come across houses for the faculty, then you have hostels, then you have faculty quarters, then again hostels.

I never saw it that way.
Yes, we realised that JNU was supposed to be a family. Its members were not supposed to live in separate quarters. It fostered a kind of culture – students would come to our houses without prior appointment and argue over endless cups of tea. This we greatly welcomed, because we also matured because of this interaction.

Two, the problem of old universities such as Delhi University is its structure. Once you have an annual examination, then you prepare for it in the last two months. Also, students prepare about 15 questions after selecting them from the examination papers of, say, three or four years. That’s good enough to see you through.

JNU’s was a completely different structure. It had a semester system. Second, it had very few lectures. We used to teach two hours of class in one course in a week.

So how many hours of lectures were you all required to deliver?
Maximum four hours. Of course, there was research supervision, the workload of which was very heavy. Unlike other universities, we didn’t want to pass our knowledge to students and then have them regurgitate it in examinations. We wanted them to create their own knowledge.

We provided them guidance in the classroom. We gave them a reading list, give them a few topics from which they were supposed to write a tutorial on one. These tutorials were then discussed in a group of three-four students with the teacher smiling benignly at them. This was done to have students think for themselves, do their own research, write their own papers and present and defend it. By the time they finished their MA, they would have done this 30 times. This is one reason why JNU students give excellent interviews everywhere. It trained them to answer questions. But it also taught them to think for themselves, argue for themselves, differ with each other and also with teachers. This was greatly appreciated by most teachers. JNU students are trained to ask questions of all received wisdom, all concepts, all theories.

This has led them to debate just about everything.
Absolutely. In fact, it helped us as well. It was because of this training, I asked the question: Was there Feudalism in Indian History?

I know. It generated tremendous debate. When did you ask this question?
In 1979, when I was president of medieval India section of Indian History Congress. This question was my presidential address. The dominant paradigm then was that there was Indian feudalism, which was formulated by RS Sharma, who was a great historian. My question was directed at him. This was the training JNU gave us, including me, that you pose questions to even the most respected historians – such as RS Sharma.

We then invited him to participate in the debate. He countered me with his, How Feudalism was Indian Feudalism? I must say his affection for me grew after I posed this question. I asked this question because as an historian, I matured in JNU’s milieu.

From this perspective, it seems Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon seem to haunt students, whether in JNU or Central Hyderabad University, like Banquo’s ghost. What meaning does Guru and Memon symbolise to them?
For students, I think Guru and Memon are symbols of the Indian state becoming repressive. They are, therefore, protesting against it. Secondly, it is true both were sentenced to death by the Supreme Court. What students are asking is whether or not the punishment awarded to Guru and Memon was fair. The Supreme Court very often revises its own judgements. Around the world, including India, you have the right to question not the validity but the fairness of any judgement. JNU students are exercising that right.

Then there is the matter of capital punishment, which is being raised again and again. This question was raised by 900 eminent people before Yakub Memon was hanged. Among them were former judges as well. All of them are now anti-national. So what is involved here is the right to question – yes, even the Supreme Court judgement.

What about slogans like Pakistan Zindabad?
That is what we saw on television. But there is a video being circulated now (which suggests that the slogans were not shouted by JNU students)…

Irrespective of who or which group shouted the slogans, what do you think of these slogans?
Pakistan Zindabad is a slogan which should not be raised. There is no question about that. If ABVP boys were raising the slogan of Pakistan Zindabad, then, obviously, they were working as agent provocateurs. I have heard (JNU students’ union president) Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech. He starts by saying that he stands by the Indian constitution.

The way everything happened in Hyderabad [Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in the Hyderabad Central University] the way it is happening in Delhi… JNU’s vice chancellor is now saying that he never called the police. Ajay Patnaik, the president of JNU teachers’ association, said on TV channels that he had asked the vice-chancellor whether or not he had called the police inside the campus. The vice-chancellor said that at 10 at night he had received a call from the police saying they were entering JNU. This means they have informed him, not sought his permission.

Police cannot enter the campus without the vice-chancellor’s permission, even if a murder happens. It seeks permission – and it is given. The question is: why did they not seek the JNU VC’s permission?

You see, once the Home Minister says strong action will be taken, the police say, “To hell with the law and institutional autonomy and the Constitution, we are going in.” It is, once again, the might of the state being exercised against a handful of students.

It is they who are saying that JNU is the centre of anti-national activities. JNU is one of the finest institutions of the country. But they are denouncing it because it stands up to Hindutva, to its ideas of single truth. Look at what Mahant Adityanath is saying – he wants JNU closed down. This is the mindset of these people.

How would you describe the ethos of JNU – liberal, leftist?
It is liberal and leftist.

It is largely anti-right, for sure.
It is.

Why is it so? There are people who say JNU has had vice-chancellors who got in leftists and Marxists such as you, Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Bipan Chandra, etc and that you all, in turn, produced students who are leftists.
To begin with, the number of leftist teachers at any stage, not even at the beginning, would have exceeded a dozen. For instance, the School of International Studies…

Yes, it once was considered more pro-America than Americans.
(Laughs) Then in the school of languages, barring Anil Bhatti and Namwar Singh, there was none. The school of life sciences, none; school of environmental sciences, none. Maybe, you had a dozen teachers in social sciences – in the Centre for Historical Studies, in economics and, to some extent, in the Centre for Political Science.

In sociology?
No, Prof Yogendra Singh was a father figure there. But he wasn’t, by any yardstick, a Marxist. What I am talking about here is a committed Marxist. Even Marxism has a range. The only committed Marxist historian we have had is Irfan Habib (of Aligarh Muslim University), who still remains one. And yes, DU’s [Delhi University’s] Prof Randhir Singh, who died recently.

I was a Marxist in the 1960s, 1970s, and was even part of the Communist Party of India. I never became anti-Marxist.

I guess that is because Marxism as a tool of analysis can’t be ignored.
Quite right. But from the 1980s, I began to realise the limitations of Marxism.

Limitations in what sense?
Marxism explains certain things beautifully – for instance, the question of structural change. But by the 1980s, new problematics, new themes, new ideas had begun to arrive in social sciences. Take the history of the notions of time. It says time is not given, we only assume it is. Apart from Einstein’s theory of relativity, in history too, the notion of time has evolved. Jacques Le Goff was among the first one who wrote that beautiful, beautiful article, “Church time and Merchant time in Medieval Europe.

Goff says time was different for the church and it was different for the merchant. For the church, time was from the day of creation to the day of judgement. The merchant lends you money. For him, the rate of interest goes up on the 366th day. He, therefore, calculates time in terms of days. It is not cosmic time for him, as it is for the church.

You have notions of time in Indian philosophy. You have notions of space. Then you had themes of inter-personal relationships, family, gender relations, etc. One Rosalind O’ Hanlon had written, I think in 1998, that the Mughal empire was characterised by masculinity, not religion or this or that, but malehood-ness. So the emperor went out to conquer. Now, there is an essay which says femininity characterised Mughal culture and polity in the eighteenth century.

These are issues which Marxism is not equipped to handle. When these issues came to the fore, Marxism was found wanting, not only in my understanding, but also in that of many others.

What about (economist) Prabhat PatnaiK? He is a committed Marxist.
Yes, he is. I admire him and others for their commitment. I don’t agree with some of their formulations, but there is something admirable that a person doesn’t change with the times. I didn’t become anti-Marxist, because it is part of intellectual legacy of mankind. So it is not that I denounce Marxism, or that I regret being a Marxist for many years. But I do recognise that Marxism has its limitations.

So it is wrong to say that JNU is teeming with Marxists.
Absolutely, there was, at best, just half a dozen of committed Marxists at a given point.

How did JNU students move towards Marxism then?
That was because, right from the beginning, there were discussions and debates among students. In the 1960s and 1970s, Marxism was a very powerful influence around the world. Those were the decades when there were big causes – Vietnam war, Cuba, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and...

There was also the tradition of the anti-colonial movement. Marxism as a language to counter exploitation had great resonance in this milieu.
Exactly. One really thought we needed to have a better world than what we had. You had protests on American campuses. In 1968, you had Paris uprising. This was the era in which JNU came about. Leftism was around in the world of ideas.

Sure, teachers too had their influence on students, not only in JNU, but elsewhere as well. They were also among the best teachers in their subjects. You had Irfan Habib at AMU [Aligarh Muslim University], RS Sharma at DU, in our JNU, Romila Thapar… Now she never was a Marxist like Habib or Sharma. Bipan Chandra was a Marxist in one article, that is, in his presidential address to Modern India section of Indian History Congress. Apart from that, there is not much Marxism in his writing. Then, of course, he became a champion of the Congress. They were not kattar (diehard) Marxists like [JNU’s] Prabhat Patnaik or Delhi University’s Randhir Singh.

But if they were so few, how did JNU become Leftist?
Apart from the influence of these intellectual giants, JNU’s founder, G Parthasarathi was himself was a liberal-leftist. He wanted JNU to be known as a university of dissent.This dissent was magnificently expressed, I think, in 1981.

Then the chancellor of all central universities used to be the prime minister. Indira Gandhi was the chancellor of JNU. SIS (School of International Studies) is older than JNU. It decided to celebrate its 25th anniversary, for which it invited Indira Gandhi and she agreed to come. JNU’s vice-chancellor then was Yelavarthy Nayudamma.

The students union, which was led by the SFI (Students’ Federation of India), said it wouldn’t let Indira Gandhi into the JNU campus, because she had imposed Emergency on the country.

Nayudamma, who was a very democratic person, said to the students, “Let us ignore that Indira Gandhi is the prime minister, let us ignore she is the university’s chancellor. Isn’t she the country’s citizen?”

The students said, “Yes.”

So Nayudamma asked them, “Does she, as a citizen of the country, have the right to enter the university?”

The students said, “Yes.”

Nayudamma told them, “How can you then oppose her entry into the university? You can’t, but you do have the right to protest.”

Nayudamma told them that they should let Gandhi enter the campus and they would be allowed to exercise their right to protest.

She came into this huge pandaal. Outside it, there were students shouting, “Down, down Indira Gandhi.” It epitomised the culture of protest.

Was that all? Gandhi must have been incensed.
What happened thereafter was even more interesting. (Sociologist) Dipankar Gupta and I were standing outside the pandaal. One student had smuggled himself into the pandaal. The security guards were suspicious of him. They posted a policeman beside him. As soon as Gandhi stood up to speak, the boy also stood up, and the policeman caught hold of the boy’s neck. He whisked him out. But then they started beating him, inflaming passions all around. It ruined the entire celebrations.

Next day, JNU was extremely tense. Nayudamma was so graceful that he went over to the union’s office and apologised for police action. The tension dissolved.

This has been JNU’s culture. On the one hand, you could protest against the prime minister, that too, one as powerful as Gandhi, and, on the other, the VC [vice chancellor] apologised for police inaction. Obviously, no sedition charges were pressed. (Laughs)

But isn’t it also true that the RSS wants to impose its idea of what university students should be like?
Oh yes, they want students to be obedient, but not ask questions. It fits in with their idea of Hindu culture. Wives should be obedient, students should be disciples or chelaas. They are supposed to seek clarifications, not ask questions.

There are signs of student unrest in India. How do you compare this with how the students responded to the Emergency or Naxalite movement?
The unrest hasn’t yet turned into a movement. But there is a growing resentment against the state’s interference in universities. With the internet around, anything that happens in one part of the country, its effect gets enhanced manifold. This resentment could have been stemmed had the Modi government something to show, say, in economy, in terms of creating jobs.

Many academicians were very concerned that post-liberalisation, the young have stopped caring about improving the society and were focussed on getting lucrative jobs and consumerism. Are these protests, including that of JNU, an encouraging sign?
In the 1960s and 70s, the world was our stage, our canvas. Even though you were located at a great distance from where an event occurred – Cuba or protests against the Vietnam war – it inspired everyone. Superhuman figures like Che or Ho Chi Minh or Castro inspired us. For instance, the Naxalite movement attracted some of the brilliant students of St Stephen’s College, Presidency College, from some of our best institutions. The entire milieu was such it could draw them out.

Today, there is no big cause which can inspire people other than their salaries and cars. Gender issue is important, but it isn’t of the kind which would inspire people to sacrifice their careers.

From this perspective, how would you characterise the student protests?
In one sense, there are protests happening across the globe. The rise of Bernie Sanders in the US, what happened in Greece, Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square in Egypt… there is unrest around the world.

Is Aam Aadmi Party’s rise in Delhi too symptomatic of this unrest?
Yes, absolutely. There is restiveness, people are saying they are sick of the system. There is a search for a new meaning. In a limited sense, this has prompted people to vote the way they did in Delhi, then in Bihar, and the way they are likely to in Punjab.

There is a search, alright. But this search isn’t of the kind witnessed in the 1960s. I am not talking here like an old man who is nostalgic about his past. We could then imagine the world changing right before our eyes. I will narrate you a personal anecdote.

In 1967, Congress had been voted out of several states. It ruled at the Centre, though. That was electrifying. I was in the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] then. We thought, now, the revolution is knocking on the door. We thought we just had to grab it.

So Prof Randhir Singh, Prof Bipan Chandra and I went to Punjab villages for a few days. (Laughs) We did this to spread the word of revolution. It looks childish now, but we really believed it. We were accompanied by Prof Randhir Singh’s brother-in-law, the great street theatre figure, Gursharan Singh. He came along with his troupe. Also with us were the great revolutionary Punjabi poet Paash (pen name of Avtar Singh Sandhu).

We went to the villages to teach the people but they taught us instead.

Taught you what?
We went around asking them how much land they owned, what they did, et cetera. One thing that struck us was what we could never have learnt from Marx’s writing. One rustic villager told us, in Punjabi, that earlier they would be given us tea in a broken tumbler, in which a dog would have pissed, and then would be asked to sit apart from others (to drink the brew). Today, he said, they were sitting with us and drinking tea from the same tumbler from which everyone did too. We realised that dignity mattered to them more than half an acre of land. That was one lesson we learnt from them.

I suppose the idea of change differs from one group of people to another.
Absolutely, this we couldn’t have learnt from reading Marx. So desperate we were for a revolution that a minor poet among us had composed lyrics the title or the first sentence of which, read, Oye, Kraantii, tuu aandi kyuun nahin? (O! Revolution, why don’t you come?”) Obviously, we were foolish to think that.

So what you are saying is that, as of now, the protests we are witnessing involves pressuring the state to behave as it used to. It doesn’t involve a larger vision.
Yes. It doesn’t involve a larger vision, as was the case in the Sixties and the Seventies.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.