Last week, a much awaited package finally arrived. It was the review copy of a book written by a former classmate. Impressively titled Reordering Adivasi Worlds, the book had been talked about and talked up for almost a decade.

But after the immediate thrill of unwrapping and holding the book, another realisation dawned: Reordering Adivasi Worlds was the fourth single authored monograph published from the prestigious Oxford University Press by a student from the 1988-’90 Masters batch of the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

When this interesting factoid was posted to a WhatsApp group of university friends, pat came the reply that there were many more single authored books by other batch mates as well. If compiled as titles, it was breath-taking.

A really short list would read as:

Rajput Lineages and the Colonial State (2002)

Indo-China Relations in Post Cold War Period (2004)

Colonial Capitalism and flood Control in Eastern India (2006)

Writing Dalit Histories (2007)

India in the Shadows of Empire (2010)

Against Ecological Romanticism (2011)

Anticolonialism and Imperial Authority in British India (2021)

The bar could be raised even higher upon including a historical novel with an eye catching title, The Communist Cookbook (2013), a tale of espionage, intrigue and divided loyalties in the fading years of the British Raj.

Adding edited volumes, journal articles, book chapters, popular writings, working papers and throwing in books reviews as well, then the academic output of the Centre for Historical Studies from a single cohort of 1988-’90 could effortlessly stack a good sized shelf in a library.

But how is one to make sense of this burst of academic creativity and research stamina that poured out of a classroom of a little less than 50 students? This is not an insignificant question given how much bad press Jawaharlal Nehru University has received in the past few years.

Graffiti on the walls of a department at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Credit: Psubhashish, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since 2016, mischievous and wholly untrue allegations have been made to run rife about the campus being a breeding ground for “anti-nationals”, “urban-naxals” and the “tukde tukde” gang. Alongside this, there has been a well-funded and coordinated social media campaign that has energetically reviled Jawaharlal Nehru University students, declaring them to be nothing but parasites and a drain on the tax payer’s money.

The image foisted on the public imagination at large is that the university has been overrun by aged students who were aimlessly doddering between tea stalls and wallowing about in wasteful talk. In the world of fake news, Jawaharlal Nehru University is only a paradise for an assortment of shirkers, losers and idlers who want to sponge-off state subsidies.

While the hard facts of the mentioned academic output of the MA history class of 1988-’90 could easily dispel the version put out by fake news campaigners, it is more important to reflect on why Jawaharlal Nehru University, as a novel public university, was able to generate such an astounding level of intellectual heft in the first place.

I would submit that, amongst many others, three defining and distinct institutional and policy features of Jawaharlal Nehru University that enabled it to rapidly emerge as a significant global force in higher education.

First, the original model of Jawaharlal Nehru University was premised on the strong conviction that there was absolutely no positive correlation between high fees and the quality of education and academic research. The low fees and subsidised residential housing was particularly appealing to the early 20s demographic, with the brilliant and inspired among them being able to thus pursue higher education programmes without having to worry about being a burden on their families.

Similar would be the case for many families, especially in the late 1980s and early 90s in India, who would otherwise be financially dis-incentivised from sending their daughters to far-away places such as Delhi for higher education.

In short, by radically lowering the costs of fees and living, Jawaharlal Nehru University could draw from a much larger pool of the truly talented and motivated in the country. In effect, more women students, no bank loans and no post-education debt. With higher education, thus, turned into a magnet for all those ambitious and daring, Jawaharlal Nehru University had no place for the client-customer student.

The second feature would undoubtedly be the unique entrance exam and student recruitment design. Jawaharlal Nehru University had elaborately worked out a system for selecting students based on deprivation points, which, at heart, was aimed at fostering a conversation between not only different social and economic experiences but equally aimed at tapping into India’s immense regional variation of cities, small towns, villages and even forest-based communities.

The income spectrum, similarly, spanned the range from a sprinkling of elites, middle to lower-middle, rural and included many of the poorest of the poor as well. To the best of my knowledge, the majority of the MA History batch of 1988-’90 were breaking fresh ground as far as higher education was concerned within our families. The deprivation point system, in effect, was based on the understanding that meaningful education and research was possible only as a dialogue between facts, theory and personal biography.

The third would be the MPhil. As a two-year programme, the MPhil was sandwiched between the Masters and the PhD. At heart, it was to encourage a more intense one-on-one interaction between the faculty and their research students. The MPhil, by focussing on personal attention was, in fact, crucial to reducing the research gap between the poorer students who came from economic and socially challenged backgrounds and those who had privileged educational opportunities.

It was the MPhil programme that provided a launching pad for many who either used the concentrated research training to apply for and secure fat scholarships from prestigious universities abroad or harnessed the time and context for cracking the famed public services exams.

A protest at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in January 2020. Credit: Reuters.

It would be wholly correct to argue that the accomplishments of the MA History class of 1988-’90 owes much to the the unique institutional and policy arrangements at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. From the “modern stream” (roughly studying the 18th-20th century), while a number of us submitted our PhDs at Jawaharlal Nehru University itself, four of our colleagues (all women) clinched scholarships at top universities in the United States and the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, several among the brightest chose instead to take up jobs with the government, public sector undertakings, journalism and a few joined research foundations as well. On a rough count, 14 of us in the batch currently hold academic positions, of which nine are teaching in universities in India (Delhi, Assam, Lucknow, Benares and Chandigarh), while five are teaching abroad (US, Canada and Japan).

Clearly, we have made good on the investment of the Indian tax payer. But, equally, we acknowledge that it was Jawaharlal Nehru University that enabled our social mobility by empowering us with the educational means and resources to better the fortunes of our respective families.

In all, low fees, subsidised housing and an education that aimed to harness India’s social, economic and regional diversity made us productive, inspired and responsible citizens. Nor is it the case, that we are all ideologically on the same page. Differences are intense and we often squabble bitterly. But I think I would be speaking for the batch of 1988-’90 in saying that the Jawaharlal Nehru University helped us realise profound strengths and possibilities as well.

Other batches, too, must undoubtedly have equally riveting and lifting stories about success and achievement. While all along making us also intensely aware that the seeds of our individual triumph and personal glory originate in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s ability as an archetypical public university to instil in us a sense of community, solidarity and mutual care.

Sadly, in recent times, within barely a few years and in rapid succession, Jawaharlal Nehru University’s deprivation point system was scrapped, fees raised and the standardised testing of the Common University Entrance Test, based on the flawed and comical belief that objective questions can indicate academic potential, decides the enrolment of students.

The much touted New Education Policy 2020, which saw no debate in Parliament, moreover, inexplicably scrapped the MPhil programme.

Meanwhile, one is witnessing what is jocularly referred to as the “second quit India” movement with thousands of Indian students, saturated in education loans, making a beeline for universities abroad. It has been pointed out that not even a 7 % decline in the value of the rupee has managed to stem this enthusiasm for flight, which many commentators have also suggested may actually be a migration story masquerading as an education quest. Indian students, by some estimates, may end up spending up to $80 billion by 2024 to realise these overseas education dreams.

The story of the MA history batch of 1988-’90, however, suggests a different possibility. If students in India are to save themselves from crushing debt and life-time loan repayments, then hope might actually lie in reviving and energising the public university and the democratising of higher education. If anything, the future requires us to even more keenly understand why the “idea” of Jawaharlal Nehru University is most undying.

Rohan D’Souza is Professor, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.