Why did JNU attract the punitive eye of the state? For one thing, it was – and still is – unique and enjoyed the prestige of being named after Indira’s father and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Although MC Chagla, a jurist and the education minister, introduced the JNU Bill in the Parliament at the end of 1964, the discussions on the university’s establishment began soon after Nehru’s death on 27 May. In August 1964, the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund formed a committee of experts to discuss the establishment of an institution of higher learning named after Nehru that would be different from existing universities.

The most detailed advice came from Dr Douglas Ensminger of the Ford Foundation in Delhi. His nine-page note titled “Prospectus for a New National Institution of Higher Learning in India” proposed a small residential institution named Nehru Academy, or the Nehru National Institute for Higher or Advanced Studies, or the Nehru National University. It advised the passage of special legislation to create the institution to ensure that it would be independent and free from government interference.

The note also contained specific suggestions on the structure of the institution, a nontraditional and interdisciplinary curriculum, and the recruitment of talented faculty and students housed in a residential campus. It recommended that the campus be located near an urban and industrial centre, not in Delhi but possibly Bangalore, Nasik, Hyderabad or Trivandrum.

The expert committee headed by Romesh Thapar, a left-wing journalist and the founding editor of the noted public affairs journal Seminar, developed Ensminger’s proposal into the final plan. Proposing Nehru Academy or the Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies as possible names, the Thapar committee envisioned the establishment of a small, research-oriented institution of a different kind. It was to advance Nehru’s ideas on national integration and his global outlook.

In keeping with Nehru’s broad-minded scientific perspective, the new institution would stress interdisciplinary study and research and abandon the annual examination system of Indian universities. It would recruit top Indian faculty from within the country and abroad and teach a select body of students. Disagreeing with Ensminger’s view, the committee strongly recommended it be located near Delhi, both because that would be more convenient for international exchanges and because Nehru’s reign as prime minister was in the city.

The left-wing student body of JNU in the 1970s would have been inflamed if they had known of the role played by Ensminger in the foundation of the university. Not only were the student activists stridently anti-American, India’s image under Nehru and Indira was also pro-Soviet Union.

But Nehru, in spite of his socialist leanings, was not averse to American assistance. While securing Soviet help in establishing highly visible steel plants and heavy engineering projects in the public sector, he was receptive to expertise and assistance for modernisation from everyone, including the Ford Foundation.

The Foundation recruited Ensminger, a rural sociologist who had earned his doctorate from Cornell University and had previously worked in the Department of Agriculture in the United States, to establish and lead its field office in India to promote its agenda of “human welfare”. He proved to be an excellent choice, for Ensminger recognised that the Foundation’s success as a philanthropic organisation depended on keeping its distance from the US government.

Recognising Indian political sensitivities, he positioned the Foundation in India as a purely technocratic body of development and social engineering. He defended India’s goal of achieving a “socialist pattern of society”, fought Ford’s New York headquarters to secure local veto power over projects, and made sure that they were partnered with Indian scientists. During the nineteen years of his tenure in New Delhi, Ensminger succeeded in inserting the foundation in shaping key areas of development initiatives.

In addition to spearheading programmes such as family planning and rural community development, the Ford Foundation helped establish several important institutions like the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the National Institute of Design, and the Indian Institutes of Management in Ahmedabad and Calcutta.

The key to Ensminger’s success was the rapport he established with Nehru. Upon arriving in New Delhi in 1951, he concluded, “Nehru was India”. Not only was he the prime minister, the external affairs minister, and the head of the Planning Commission, he “told the people of India what was expected of them, and the people looked to Nehru to tell them what he wanted them to do”.

Accordingly, Ensminger quietly forged a productive working relationship with Nehru, regularly informing him of and discussing with him all of the Foundation’s activities, which he presented as technical advice and financial assistance on priorities determined by the Indian government. At no time did he have to wait longer than three days to meet with Nehru, and they frequently exchanged messages on ongoing projects.

Over time, Ensminger thought that they had developed a relationship “truly Indian in character”. Evidently, his ready access to Nehru made him appear such an influential figure that the American architect Albert Mayer, who headed the formulation of the Delhi Master Plan, remarked in 1959 that Ensminger was “the second most powerful man in India”.

Nehru’s death in 1964 profoundly saddened Ensminger, but his productive relationship with the Indian government continued. It is no surprise therefore that he was asked for advice on setting up a university that was to be named after a leader he so admired and with whom he had worked so consequentially during independent India’s formative years.

Ensminger’s proposal was revised and redrafted into a plan for JNU. As the Ford Foundation chief had suggested, special legislation was introduced in the Parliament, which passed the Jawaharlal Nehru University Act in 1966. The university formally started functioning in 1969 under the newly appointed vice chancellor, Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, or GP, as he was popularly known. It was housed temporarily in the unoccupied buildings originally constructed for the National Academy of Administration on the southern outskirts of the city while construction for a permanent campus began on the adjacent rocky outcrops of the Aravalli mountain range.

The government held a design competition for a master plan of the new JNU campus, which attracted sixty-eight proposals. It invited the competing architects to design a campus that reflected Nehru’s educational philosophy of unity of knowledge and reflected the “unity in diversity of India” and embodied “the spirit of democracy and social justice”.

The injunction that the plan should incorporate the states and cultures of India did not mean an institution “where Kerala students live in Kerala House” and “Bihar students live in Bihar house”. The ideal was that the students and teachers from all of India would live together in the spirit of unity in diversity. Just as Nehru was “thoroughly modern and still rooted in and took sustenance from the past – not its fossils”, so should be the university named after him.

JNU was to literally embody the ideal of a pedagogic state, teaching its citizens to be Indian in the fashion that Nehru envisaged. The irony was that this was being built precisely when the ideal itself was coming apart on the streets.

The architectural competition, however, went ahead. The winning entry was by CP Kukreja Associates. It planned for a campus built of red bricks set amid rocks and shrubs, designed to reflect the terrain. The student dormitories were named after India’s rivers as a nod to national integration. By 1973, the New Campus was ready to house students while teaching and administration remained on the Old Campus. The university itself had become fully operational a year earlier.

Vice Chancellor Parthasarathi, an Oxford graduate, a former barrister, and a diplomat, recruited top faculty from across India and abroad. Initially, many of the admitted students were from privileged and anglicised families and were graduates from elite institutions. To diversify the student body, the system of admission introduced in 1974 was designed to give preference to applicants from economically deprived families and to those belonging to the officially classified backward regions of the country.

Both Parthasarathi and his subordinate NVK Murthy, the Registrar, were suave cosmopolitan individuals, cut from the Nehruvian liberal cloth. They were open to diverse views and opinions, tolerated dissent, espoused a plural view of India, held progressive social and political values, and exuded an international outlook. They fostered JNU as a place of academic excellence and free exchanges of ideas between the administration and faculty and students.

Radicalism thrived in this milieu. Many of the leading historians and social scientists recruited to the faculty also belonged to the Left. Graduate students formed the overwhelming majority of the student body, while the undergraduates were confined to the School of Languages, where the prime minister’s younger daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi, the wife of Sanjay Gandhi, was a student of German.

The university was small – under 800 students and 200 faculty until 1975. This fostered an atmosphere of a close-knit community woven together with informal face-to-face relationships and exchanges. The residential campus and the close proximity of the dormitories of men and women also produced a liberal atmosphere of conversations and friendships across genders, which was unusual for India.

JNU Stories: The First 50 Years

“A Prospectus for a New University”, Gyan Prakash, excerpted with permission from JNU Stories: The First 50 Years, edited by Neeladri Bhattacharya, Kunal Chakrabarti, S Gunasekaran, Janaki Nair, Joy LK Pachuau, Aleph Book Company.