Dear Mohandas Pai,

I read your piece “Dear JNU Students, We Fund Your Studies, Not Your Politics” with a mix of indignation and discomfiture.

Indignation, because you are really not in any position to make the magisterial judgements and claims you make. Your claims are unsubstantiated, uncorroborated, dogmatic, even as you chide Jawaharlal Nehru University for its “exclusivist centralised dogma”. Canards and hearsay are unintellectual, as is such a broad-brush, and they insidiously reinforce the cycle of untruths and falsehoods.

And discomfiture, because the article was written by an educationist and a philanthropist. One expects education and human resource experts to have a more encompassing perspective on education.

Left or liberal?

You guessed right, I am a JNU alumna. I studied in JNU for a fair part of the 1980s. Some of my teachers – a fair guess would be about 50% – did indeed have a Left orientation of various shades.

They did not, as you said, “hold themselves out as liberals”, but were committed to frontal critiques of capitalism, bourgeois democracy and so on. Including my PhD years, I spent eight years in JNU, which, you’d agree, is a fairly long period for dogma and doctrinaire thoughts to strike deep roots in a young mind, especially when you say that JNU, in its heydays of “allegiance” to leftist ideologies, “left no room for new thoughts and vibrant debates and sought to shut out all voices except its dogma”.

But guess what? That was not the case – I came out of JNU a practicing and professing liberal, much of which can be verified though my published writings. And I was not the exception that proves your unsubstantiated claims. This is probably true for the majority of my MA and MPhil class of political studies. Evidently the professors of dogma were not so successful in developing a "ready cadre" and inheritors of left ideologues.

For sure, this story varies from centre to centre in JNU. Graduates from some centres would perhaps be more left, more committed to Marxist ideas of equity and social justice. The point simply is this: the repute of innumerable social scientists, bureaucrats, teachers, lawyers, journalists who have emerged from the portals of JNU is not beholden to any one ideological colour or political ideology.

I am sure you will agree that Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and department of industrial policy and promotion secretary Amitabh Kant – the force behind Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” campaign, both from JNU, turned out sufficiently “right”, as did the rest of the past and present Akhil Bharariya Vidyarthi Parishad who seem to have been at the forefront of getting the ruling political party and police into the campus.

One could likewise go on about a a host of others with varying political and personal beliefs – two names that come to mind readily are of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and deputy national security adviser Arvind Gupta, both handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Teaching standards

You say teachers were unaccountable: I only have memories of classes, examinations, readings held very regularly and very meticulously. The teachers held themselves to high standards and in a day and age when “accountability” was not a buzz word, we’d often use the word “motivated” to describe such teachers. As students we’d often witness passionate ideological, political debates, in seminars, conferences and even staff-rooms. We were encouraged to carry that spirit of questioning into our classrooms and intellectual pursuits. Unlike what you – dogmatically – assert, my only memory as a student is of being nurtured and mentored, and not as a “worst sufferer” or victim of the “totem pole of Left-captured” institution whose “studies were sidelined”.

You only have to see pictures of mass gatherings, “human chains” of students and teachers and alumni and solidarity statements to understand that this is not only and solely about “my” experience” of JNU. But, perhaps you have access to many more stories, of many more teachers, of many more centres, of many more schools of JNU. As an expert and practitioner of commerce and education, you may have access to machinations and motivations of a scheming left academia that I do not have. Please do share so that we are not left wondering about the source of these broad, ungracious, unsubstantiated and sweeping statements.

Subsidised education

I was also rather dismayed when you made a case for students to bear the “full cost of education”, especially if students dared to focus on politics and not on studies. This view is doing the rounds but coming from an educationist and founder of Akshaya Patra Foundation, Bangalore (a midday meal program for school children), it is a shocker.

You ignore two things: One, that you yourself may have been a beneficiary of subsidy in education, as most of us have been. And now when that education has enabled us to make our bucks and fund our children’s – private – education, we discredit the idea of subsidy, totally ignoring the fact that just like us in yesteryears, there is a new generation of citizens who can only afford public funded university education.

You also seem to be saying: If you receive subsidy, shut-up and study, don’t mess around with political issues. Is that even possible? Universities are in the business of production of ideas, ideas relate to ideals, ideals to perceptions of futures, futures to desirable institutions that could strive to attain them, desirable institutions to desirable political programme, parties, politic, policies and so on. The conduct of teaching and learning at the university level cannot but be political. The argument for or against subsidy of education should be delinked from the conduct of education or else we’ll be seen as making a crass argument which may run like this: I give you mid-day meals, it’s free, so you are beholden to me and have no right to question me.

The “anti-subsidy” argument that you seem to endorse, surreptitiously ties public funding of education to an idea of “charity”. Charities by definition are reliant on the good-will and impulse of the donor. Erode this goodwill and the charity may well be withdrawn. It is dangerous to even implicitly equate the two. Public funding ties to an idea of education as a matter of right, irrespective of the structure of privileges that we are born in. It is not a form of charity or quid-pro-quo that can demand allegiance, compliance and thought control. And as for conceited taxpayers, it is time for those professing withdrawal of subsidy/ funding in universities, to payback to the state the full cost of the subsidy they received, adjusted for inflation, along with interest at market rates.

That would, of course, only be a start.

And may I conclude with this Facebook post that has been doing the rounds today? I am not a finance person, but perhaps you could enlighten us with your views on it.

Rajshree Chandra is a proud JNU alumna who has been teaching politics for the last many years.