I never studied in Jawaharlal Nehru University, and I am not qualified to teach there. And yet when the state repression of the university began earlier this month, I was pulled in instantly. After almost 10 days of supporting the movement of students and teachers, mostly through social media, I asked myself – why this connection with JNU? I feel this story is not just mine.

I earned my undergraduate degree at Presidency College in Kolkata many years ago. Those days a student body called the Independent Consolidation was slowly forming in response to the need for creating a space for debate, dialogue and resistance and to keep large political parties, their interests, influence and resources away from matters of students. In a world where the oppressed turn to the parties on the Left to find their marginalised voices, it is difficult being in a state where the same Left parties become oppressive. Independent Consolidation, in that sense, was particularly important.

For many of us who came from small towns and districts to Kolkata to learn, this was our first tryst with collective ways of thinking and being. We learnt many things through Independent Consolidation, including organisational understanding, people dynamics, relationships of power, running elections, campaigning, barricading, marching, raising slogans – we learnt ways to make the unheard and invisible come alive in our struggle against the powers that be. It was an incredible time.

Confluence of ideas

While my life would take me elsewhere after Presidency, many of my friends went to this amazing place in Delhi called Jawaharlal Nehru University. Remember this was the early nineties, connectivity wasn’t what it is today, and it was still possible to visualise places by just listening to stories. And I did. From the stories, JNU seemed like an ocean where many rivers meet, and I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit to the university to see the names of its hostels – Ganga, Godavari, Jhelum, Kaveri. Along with the many students from Independent Consolidation who found place in JNU, there were others from different parts of the country who were engaged in multiple movements and belief systems. They came from all kinds of social, economic and political backgrounds – and many were first in their family or community to go to university.

Every time I went to JNU to meet my friends I would be left with a feeling that this was a place where these young people found a space to deepen their search for meanings in life. Often, I would be pulled into their debates. (That’s why I do not understand when authorities sometimes talk about the ‘outsiders’ at universities – they have always been spaces that have embraced the outsider in their fierce passion for engagements). Everything mattered to these students, every little incident in the social lives of the citizens of this big country would be discussed threadbare, often using theories that I would not immediately understand but would be forced to read grudgingly. Moreover, the fire of these debates was not limited to words alone – the students would march the streets over matters that, at first look, didn’t necessarily have direct relevance to them. As students not just of education, but also of life, they would grapple with everything.

As an outsider, I watched and observed and often thought that this is how the slice of citizenship in the making should look. I knew this was true not just for JNU. Many universities were free spaces for explorations. If not here, then where? If not now, then when?

Like the rivers that converge for a while and then diverge again, the students who came in from all over India took up jobs in different parts of the country and the world in different sectors after graduation. That is why you find a JNUite almost everywhere you go. I say “almost” because I have not seen too many of them in the corporate sector. But perhaps that is another story for another time.

Wit in dark times

Years after my first brushes with JNU, I connected back with it. Many of my friends teach there now and I have formed friendships with its students, some of whom are my partners and colleagues in the arts. Today, as much as before, I see the same spirit for nuanced debate, sharp critical thinking, and rigorous practice among them. I learn of new books from JNU students that introduce me to new thoughts, and I get tickled by how the silliest of films get the wittiest of reviews in their midst. I learn the important similarities between philosophers across time from such associations, as also the differences between words like seduction, sedition and secession. I see a zest for life, a desire for a more equitable and just world, and a passion for making that happen at a cost sometimes too dear to themselves.

I also see in the face of dark times, laughter, humour, wit and love.

In the world that is so full of market bluster and noisy babel, JNU fills me with energy, hope and delight. Today I am a hard-working Indian citizen and I pay my taxes. And I am proud and honoured that part of my taxes go into sustaining spaces where, despite dangers, dreams simmer, boil over and it still matters what you do while you stand your ground.

Of course, I have my criticisms of spaces like JNU. I have sometimes felt that students here develop an antipathy, a dismissiveness towards those they seek to confront. They have little curiosity when it comes to understanding the strengths of their oppositions and the reasons why these oppositions grow and win popular votes. Many are, therefore, shocked by election results. Many of them also seek to find quick gratification in any movement that catches the temporary imagination of people. I have observed their inability often to speak in a language that can connect people outside of academia to their thinking and actions. If one believes in multiplicities of voices, one needs to also train in multiple ways of speaking.

I have often had intense debates with teachers and students of JNU on their lack of interest in the sector that’s running the world today: business and financial markets. If historians and political scientists don’t engage in conversations across sectors – and I don’t mean just understanding theories but also participating in daily conversations with practitioners of the sectors – will they truly understand what they critique? Or what about, say, conversations with leaders of religious thoughts?

Relevance of JNU

These are but some of my criticisms of JNU. But the fact that it can be critiqued, fought with, and even made fun of sometimes stands out in a country where those raising questions about the ways of a certain government are being branded anti-nationals.

After a connection of so many years, I deeply understand the relevance of spaces like JNU in my life. Brilliance has a way of seeping in. I am inspired by these spaces to instil all the values of democracy into institutions where I have a role to play. JNU enables me to find time and energy to stand at town hall with posters demanding abolishment of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and write about the importance of independent support for the arts. It makes me question why corporate debts are erased with public money and why some governments find it necessary to efface the rights of tribal communities over their forestland. It reminds me of the agency of a mashi of a brothel who once told me, “If our bodies are our only tools for survival, who are you to tell me which part of my body I will use to labour?” It makes me suspicious of do-gooders who parachute into communities to teach them the values of art and of gurus who only love their own voice. It also makes me laugh at individuals who think they are indispensable in collectives.

Spaces like JNU provide much more than education as it is commonly understood. They reach further than its immediate community of teachers and students. They become a metaphor for spaces that we would love to nurture and build across our lives, throughout our lives.

And that is why JNU is a part of me even though I was never a part of JNU.