The recent right-wing attacks on premier institutions of learning in social sciences and humanities in the country has generated a sense of deep insecurity among the community of researchers and intellectuals there, and also among the networks of alumni of these institutions throughout the country. Clearly, what is at stake in these attacks is not, as right-wing ideologues project it, a curtailing of the powers of influential left-wingers who have hitherto enjoyed some control over these spaces. Rather, the right-wing agenda pertains to the very silencing of the demand for freedom of thought and intellectual exploration in academic spaces.

Nearly hegemonic outside the academy through near-total control of the corporatised mass media, the Hindutva right wing sought to claim academic spaces and convert them into machines that will bolster that hegemony. Given that the results from attacks continuing from last year are not as promising as they seemed initially, the attention seems to be now on eroding these institutions by interfering in admissions, diversity policies, rules of functioning, and so on, even as canard upon canard about these institutions continues to be manufactured by the media.

I deeply mourn the damage that these attacks have inflicted on the JNU.

Yet, as a scholar who has spent just two years of her student life here, and has been located far away from these spaces, I end up wanting to think more closely on what exactly we, on the left of public opinion and politics, have lost in these attacks.

I am not entirely comfortable with the claim that we have lost academic freedoms, because from where I am talking, there was hardly any such thing as that. In fact, one is saddened so much by these attacks on JNU mainly because that was the place where one caught a glimmer, albeit a slight one, of the possibility of academic freedom which would allow one to reflect on different perspectives without being bullied.

I admit that this was possible only by taking a critical stance within this relatively more liberal space: one had to resist the prescriptions of the official intellectuals of the student organisations one felt close to, and risk being slut-shamed and isolated all the time. In hindsight, that looks like a small price to pay as against the enormous costs of insisting on intellectual freedom – the loss of the freedom to critique established ways, and to explore other lifestyles, which is being inflicted on students and teachers of the JNU now.

Maybe this reveals that even this sliver of freedom was attained by struggles, not just by organised groups of students but also by individual students.

I mean, students who resisted the pressure to conform to what was projected as politically correct by the university authorities, and also by the dominant student organisations, often at considerable personal costs. At the JNU, this is indeed a very prominent part of the university’s history: collective interventions by students to change broader policies affecting them, legal interventions against various aspects of policy and administrative decisions, the defence of the student union autonomy, and so on.

Then there are the many undocumented everyday struggles against pressures from powerful academics and student organisations by both individuals and collectives of marginalised social groups and viewpoints. While the recent history of the university might reveal a distinct fall in the intensity of such resistance and active intervention, the spirited resistance it put up was clearly related to the strength of the legacy of demanding and fighting for academic freedoms from below.

I cannot stress the significance of this more, writing as I am from an academic institution where a liberal academic culture was shaped from above; no doubt, a unique instance in the country. This is at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), in Kerala, which was created and guided by one of the greatest of India’s Nehruvian liberals, the economist K.N. Raj. Founded in the early 1970s, CDS espoused fearless exploration of research questions, pluralism in perspectives (in letter, initially at least), and unquestionable personal freedoms.

Yet, this was largely from above – and the relative lack of the demand for fuller academic freedoms from below was evident in the way in which liberal academic culture here stayed largely static and even stagnant as the decades passed. This is not to belittle it; for it is abundantly clear that it was its very persistence that enabled the re-emergence of questions of academic freedom and struggles for it from below (in whatever limited fashion) on campus in relatively recent times.

However, it is quite evident that when academic freedoms are bestowed from above, there is no guarantee that these freedoms will even survive, let alone thrive.

For instance, much of what was recognised as liberal academic life on campus, clearly rested on what authorities perceived as ideal and therefore neither the patriarchal nor the caste-elite connotations of these were easily discernible. Further, it even meant the stagnation of intellectual life, and interventions from above (from the faculty) – even when they seemed far-reaching – have had relatively weaker impact on the general orientation of intellectual life here.

In other institutions of higher education in Kerala, where such liberal leadership never existed, pressure for pluralism in perspectives came from below – through the larger political movements and civil social activism – and rarely from the academic community itself. The pressure was hardly exerted directly on higher authorities, and I cannot really remember learning anything substantial in the undergraduate course I pursued here.

The syllabi and the teaching of history here in those days was out-dated by at least two decades; and in the university departments which took research seriously, doing research that questioned the certainties established by the patriarchs of both the liberal-nationalist and Marxist streams was a huge risk, at least until the end of the 1980s. It was outside these spaces – in movements and activism – that one learned to think and influence wider intellectual life, utilising one’s many cultural skills, particularly bilingualism for which the academy had no use.

Therefore, while the attacks on the JNU left me feeling sad, they did not make me feel despondent.

It is not that sedition charges were never imposed on dissenters before JNU – I myself remember how, in the 1980s, ex-Naxalites were charged with precisely sedition for raising slogans against the government in Kerala, slogans that were quite tame, really, by today’s standards; how plays were banned for being blasphemous, and so on.

There was no freedom of expression on the campuses I was familiar with, either. But because we did learn early on that academic freedoms and the powers to influence wider intellectual life and public opinion did not completely coincide, and that academic freedom from above was useful but rather lifeless, we found other ways and skills that allowed us to occupy a no-person’s space between academics and public discussion. A place that is unstable, under attack from both sides, and hard to occupy for sure, but one that is useful and powerful if one has the skills and the agility to stay there. Believe me, I have been living there since the past couple of decades or so.

J Devika has written on the histories of gender, culture, politics and development in her home state, Kerala. She currently teaches and researches at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Excerpted with permission from “Looking At Academic Freedom From A No Person’s Land”, J Devika, from The Idea of a University, edited by Apoorvanand, Context.