A few years ago, I found myself in a heated but very enjoyable argument on why women change their surnames after marriage, when somebody yelled from across the room, “What has JNU done to you?” I wasn’t surprised, only annoyed. Reducing someone’s entire biography and political beliefs to an institution they attended once upon a time is a favourite pastime in India, particularly when that institution happens to be Jawaharlal Nehru University.

I could have explained to the genius who shouted this that my political opinions were neither surgically implanted in me at JNU nor will they wither away like the bourgeois state in Marxism if JNU ceases to exist. I should have been grateful that the JNU-phobia was posed through the formal courtesy of a query. Usually, it takes the form of a statement, “You JNU folk are all lunatics!”

In family settings, JNU-bashing is the preferred insult to shut down an argument: “It’s the JNU in you speaking!” At seminars, a question or a paper can be made illegitimate with the simple investigative exercise of determining if you’re from “a particular institution with a particular ideology”. Of course, the person asking the question has miraculously escaped institutions and ideology, remaining gloriously neutral in this fractured world.

One of the many

It matters to nobody who slaps you with the JNU taint that university is only one of the many institutions that will shape a long life. The police, bureaucracy, judiciary and media are also institutions with ideologies, but nobody seems to be in the mood to accept that.

What about family and immediate surroundings? You are born in a particular place, “belong” to a particular caste or religion, attend a particular school or as in my case, a number of schools, enrol in an undergraduate degree somewhere in the country, and only then go to JNU, and probably only for one of your higher degrees.

At JNU you may study at any of 10 major schools, of which only one, social sciences, may be charged with teaching Marx’s thought, because it happens to be teaching political thought. Most JNU graduates, statistically, will never even open a book by Marx or Lenin, because they will be studying molecular biology, physical sciences, international relations or linguistics.

For most students, JNU is a place to get a decent higher education at an affordable cost, gain a foothold in this cut-throat metropolis and start the serious business of looking for a job and starting a family.

Left, right and centre

In other words, JNU is still doing what many universities in the country have stopped being able to do – provide a quality education for children of all classes. As Khaliq Parkar has written, if seen through the eyes of a hardcore leftist, it is a depressingly normal, centrist, liberal institution – churning out skilled graduates for the job market.

Of course, JNU has traditionally been a place that enjoys furious political debate. It is also far from perfect – rife with bitter struggles between student groups, students and administration, faculty and administration; steeped in a patriarchal, misogynistic ethos regarding sexuality and sexual harassment; having hosted ham-handed police action with administrative complicity in the past, most famously during the Emergency.

But the important point is, for the most part, the imperfections have been visible and of a nature that can be accommodated within any sensible democratic administrative arrangement. This is more than you can say about most public and private sector institutions which are masters in covering up their institutional rot.

The shutting down of this institution would mean one less affordable university for an already crumbling higher education sector and one less place of open and non-violent political battle for students and teachers.

If the Left was all that existed in JNU, why does the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad routinely win elections there, and why is the university’s ABVP unit and its large body of supporters now triumphantly swarming all over the besieged campus? Why are you as likely to stumble upon an ABVP meeting celebrating Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who admired and recommended Adolf Hitler’s fascist solution to the problem of minorities in India as an All India Students Association meeting saying a nation that doesn’t protect its minorities is no nation at all?

But it’s much easier to imagine the worst about JNU – that like a demonic Hotel California, anybody who enters its gates cannot leave, at least without becoming a dangerous leftist and anti-national. That instead of awarding degrees and asking students to move on, JNU sucks on their healthy nationalist bodies, weakening their spirit and turning them into bloodsucking anti-national vampires. So the news anchors and their viewers cheer and thump their chests when this properly nationalist constellation of forces – the police, the ruling party and the courts – arrests the clueless president of JNU students union, Kanhaiya Kumar for sedition.

The sedition bogey

The irony of Kumar being held culpable for an event in a campus full of sectarian political divisions within the Left, should leave somebody breathless with laughter. If he hadn’t been arrested, Kumar would probably have been found locked in mortal political battle with the organisers of the ill-advised event on Afzal Guru.

The most danger he would have posed would have been to his own bank balance and health, drinking 50 cups of tea while embroiled in another intra-left discussion between All India Students Federation, All India Students Association and Democratic Students’ Union over fine points of party line and philosophy.

Clearly, more than evidence of philosophical disagreements or, even philosophical extremism, is required to arrest a student and take away his physical freedom. Shouting slogans against the nation by 10 students in one part of the country is not sedition, nor can it justify this embarrassing excess of police action, where students’ rooms are being searched without warrants.

Open democratic dissent within universities doesn’t produce terrorists; simmering disaffection within the nation at large does. Blaming JNU for anti-India feeling is exactly like someone blaming their child’s “bad company” for her argumentative nature, unable to handle the truth that all families/nations contain (in both senses of the word “contain”) dissenting voices and groups.

Violent cadre

The motivations of the current ruling dispensation are cynically obvious – proud inheritors of a long history of jingoistic mobilisation, they have a cadre that is bewildered at the mere existence of academic debate on things like nationalism and love for country. These are people who don’t understand the pleasure of sitting in a library for five hours and unlearning treasured beliefs, who often find themselves all dressed up and nowhere to party – tilaks on their foreheads and no Leftist or inter-religious couple to bash up.

Political parties are bound to their constituents, and always looking for a galvanising enemy. What makes them so confident about JNU is the hope that they can count on the long tradition of JNU-bashing in this country. The cream of this country, whose sights are set not on JNU or Delhi University but on Harvard, Cambridge and Wharton, would not blink if the university shut down permanently; they will heave a sigh of relief and say good riddance to bad leftist rubbish.

Others with more modest ambitions congratulate themselves on being good, hardworking citizens unlike the decadent, hedonistic, wildly radical JNU professors and students. Nobody really understands the miracle of a functioning, inclusive public institution in a country as divided as India.

A time to choose

We have to decide very quickly if we need this pumped-up nationalist response to an institution of higher learning.

We may personally believe universities must limit themselves to simply reproducing the existing social and political order and not “fomenting dissent”. But make no mistake – if we refuse to vocally support the right of JNU to exist without the draconian action of the state, not to mention violent party cadre right now, we make ourselves indistinguishable from the lynch mob collecting around JNU, planning for something far worse than the drama unfolding currently.

Yes, the idea of India can handle some students shouting anti-India slogans in a university campus. And no,it is not so fragile as to disintegrate because of some slogans.