One of the curious aspects of the on-going struggle at Jawaharlal Nehru University is that the more support it gains from a global audience, the more it appears isolated from the local population. It is this group from which it must gain support if it is to survive in its present form.

This is curious because, under normal circumstances, Indians like nothing more than endorsements from the West for their institutions as well as life-ways. Indian civilisation becomes great – and our institutions become worthy – through even the feeblest words of Anglo-American and European appreciation. Even our millionaires and billionaires seek to achieve globality by endowing chairs and scholarships at some of the richest universities in the world in the West.

In the case of Jawaharlal Nehru University, however, the case appears to be quite the opposite. The more it attracts global support – and even acclaim – for the stand on dissent and freedom of speech taken by the majority of its students and faculty, the deeper the national hostility that is gathering around it. Unfortunately for its supporters, social media and the English language press (both print and electronic) are poor guides to the national mood.

Free speech for a few?

Let us begin with the support received by the university from other universities around the country. There are approximately 485 publicly-funded universities and deemed universities in India. It is sobering to reflect upon how many of these – represented either by the teachers or students organisations – have spoken in favour of the causes that animate the current agitation at JNU. What has been the level of support from university-based associations from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and Odisha? The topography of dissent is, actually, frighteningly miniscule and hardly stretches beyond the territories of long-standing familiarity.

There now appears to be a gated community of free speech, its residents exchanging notes and succour with like-minded neighbours. If this seems like an unsubstantiated assertion, just ask around. Initiate a conversation on JNU with your neighbour, bureaucrat-friend, tax accountant or the local chemist.

The bald truth is that the Indian battle for free speech, critical thinking and intellectual autonomy has to be fought around and through local conditions, attitudes and mentalities. It is Indian support against intellectual and cultural tyranny that has to be mobilised. This is a task that those of us who support the JNU cause have largely failed in. It is comforting to get Ivy League support but the thorns are all ours. It is imperative to reflect upon a political strategy that moves beyond the JNU-is-special position and reflect upon why this itself might be the cause for a great deal of heartburn within India. If the residents of Munirka locality that abuts JNU have begun to display open hostility towards the institution (declining rentals to its students, for example), we need serious reflection about attitudes in the rest of the country where understanding of the university comes from far more distant interactions.

In a deeply asymmetrical educational system such as ours, it is entirely to be expected that an institution that self-represents as special will attract hostility if it does little to engage with other institutions that – for historical reasons – find themselves at the bottom of the academic pecking order.

The Indian situation cannot be compared to the American one where the difference between public and private universities does not translate as starkly into such phenomenal disparities in access to material and scholarly resources as we see in India. The Indian system is one where JNU academics and students have a public voice and clout that, say, their counterparts in Madhya Pradesh cannot even dream of. Given this circumstance, a familiar refrain I have encountered from academics at non-elite institutions is along the lines of “the world is only concerned if it happens to JNU”.

The irony of this is that the university has been at the forefront of championing the cause of marginalised populations and has consistently sought to increase their representation in what is one of the best institutions of higher education in the world. The problem, however, may be that JNU has done little to build a national coalition of critical thought and has been far too easily satisfied with the tag of “we are special”.

The crisis of university education in India – and the current lack of support for the events at JNU is one symptom of it – cannot be tackled through revelling in paeans of praise from the Anglo-American academia or through an inward intellectual gaze that says “this is what we do and we are very proud of it”. If the struggle of the JNU cause is not to dissipate – university administrations and the state have infinite capacity to sit out sequestered agitations – then it is imperative to think about a strategy within which JNU’s cause is accepted as that which should concern the majority of the Indian population. That this is not currently the case is not the result of deliberate elitism but, perhaps, a lack of attention to the role of an institution such as JNU and the historical privileges – intellectual and material – it has had access to.

Build a coalition

What might be possible strategies for building coalitions in an era of large-scale privatisation of education and consumerist modernity within which issues of free speech and dissent are viewed as elitist preoccupations by bohemian JNU-types playing out wastrel fantasies on public funds? Political parties have a deep interest in propagating and exploiting such perceptions. To begin with, we must resist the temptation of intellectual involution. In the present context, this refers to the kinds of fora JNU supporters have mostly accessed. Political parties are keenly aware of where votes lie and the present dispensation is unlikely to be troubled by kilometres of pro-JNU columns in The Hindu and Economic and Political Weekly and “we stand for JNU” activities at US universities, as important as all of these are.

A broader coalition is urgently required through forays into more unfamiliar (and hostile) territories. Many of JNU’s students and faculty have deep access to the non-English language print media, and yet how many articles have we seen in the Dainik Jagran – to take just one very significant example – that explain what is happening at the university? And, also explain why the events at JNU should concern every one: business people, bureaucrats, accountants, farmers and all else in between. A university must remain a special place, but if that special-ness is not to be undermined by self-seeking politicians and their minions, it must secure support beyond its own boundaries.

JNU also requires an outreach programme to engage with other universities, many of whose faculty view it with a mixture of envy and hostility. Of course, not everyone is likely to share the political position taken by the university faculty and students, but there are certainly many who will reciprocate the gesture of dialogue. The university – by which I mean the faculty and students rather than the administration – cannot fight this battle alone. The State can hold out much longer in a war of attrition, especially when the political party in power perceives no loss of popular support in a conflict with an institution that is perceived not only as elitist but, what is worse, working against the common good. JNUs supporters need to redefine the common good through strategically establishing a broader network of common-ness than presently in evidence. Its future lies in demonstrating that the vast majority of its supporters are those with the capacity to express electoral displeasure. Political power cares about little else. As for global support, that is wonderful and always welcome but can only ever be the icing on the local cake.