Jawaharlal Nehru University, At A Dangerous Inflection Point
The essence of any higher level university is that it is a forum for constructive and progressive engagement between thoughtful, kind and enlightened teachers and questioning, critical and respectful students.
The JNU has taken an altogether different path – in several unnecessary tangents.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was established back in 1969. Even in 1965, when the bill for its formation was introduced in Parliament, it was held that this should not be just another university but instead a centre for “scientific socialism”.
The first vice chancellors and senior professors at the university were all eminent educationists and administrators, but their leftist leanings were unmistakable. Over the decades, JNU remained a government think tank, notably for the social sciences, and as long as the prevailing political paradigm in the country was left-of-centre, as seen through the prism of the Congress idea of pluralism, and as peppered with a mild dose of Marxist thinking, all went seemingly well in this institution, with successive generations of professors mentoring students in their image and these students going on to become future professors.
Significantly, quite a few successful politicians at different points of the spectrum also began their political life in the student unions of JNU, and this has played no small part in the aspirations of politically inclined students of the university till this day. The students, many of whom came from middle-class backgrounds, were influenced by the mild optimism generated by the soft leftist doctrines that prevailed during those years.
The essence of any higher level university is that it is a forum for constructive and progressive engagement between thoughtful, kind and enlightened teachers and questioning, critical and respectful students. Once this equilibrium is established, a university can go on for centuries, independent of the political realities of the day and which political icon is the flavour of the season.
The University of Bologna is nearly 1,000 years old. It is still the best university in Italy. But Italy as a unified country has existed for only around 150 years. The University of Cracow is 650 years old. Poland did not even exist as a country for around 120 of these years, between 1795 and 1918. Wonderful universities do not derive their authority from the people in power in government. Much of the JNU’s apparent strength arose from the fact that it was favoured by the benign gaze and patronage of the government in power in New Delhi. In general, such a situation does not provide for long-term stability.
The JNU issued a circular on 22 December mandating compulsory attendance for all regular registered students in all its teaching and research programmes. Without going into technical niceties as to whether or not this decision was ratified by the Academic Council or the modalities as to how attendance will be monitored in the various teaching and research programmes in widely disparate subjects, it is startling that any university, let alone a high-profile one like the JNU, can issue a circular of this sort. It is no mean feat to have provoked a protest both from the left-wing Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) and the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), not to mention the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA). This is a warning sign, make no mistake about it. No self-respecting university will issue a circular mandating attendance because the whole educational enterprise is an essentially voluntary one. It is voluntary both on the part of the teachers and on the part of the students. Teachers are paid to teach, and they must teach because of that, but what they teach, how they teach and sometimes when they teach is, within curricular limits, variable.
As for the students, while they pay the fees, they come and go in the full knowledge that if they do not attend classes or laboratories regularly, they may not fare so well in their examinations/research work. A research student, who does not do their work regularly, in any subject, is not going to get a degree in a reasonable time frame. A miniscule minority at either extreme can be safely ignored. There are habitual malingerers who will not attend classes, and then there are brilliant students who get bored with the lectures and therefore choose not to attend. But we are talking here about the vast majority in between and the situation I have outlined above pertains to this vast majority. A good teacher-student equation is actually what prevails in any self-respecting university, including many central universities in India, which are largely able to maintain decorum and organisation, despite their many other serious problems.
I view the circular of the JNU administration therefore as a cry of despair. Teachers seem to have lost the trust of their students and students likewise of their teachers. Imagine a situation where teachers constitute a kangaroo court against the vice chancellor! Imagine a situation where students prevent a teacher from entering his office or where a 40-year-old is still considered a student! Of course, once you get on the tiger, you can’t get off it and now both teachers and students are manipulated by a vocal and disruptive group who cannot bear to see an erosion of their falsely earned privileges.
The administration appears to be helpless. Clearly, classes as we know them are not being conducted at the JNU with any regularity, and neither teachers nor students seem to be behaving with any responsibility. Mandating attendance is not a solution to the huge problems faced by this university.
This latest 22 December circular cannot be enforced. Attendance records can be manipulated, and there is absolutely no guarantee that students will learn once they are physically in the classroom or the laboratory. No, the problems in the JNU run far deeper – this university has become a place where, because of the entitlements conferred on it by the powers that be over the last say, two decades, teachers are no longer teachers, students are no longer students and the university is no longer a university.
In hindsight, it is unfortunate that the Congress government of the day saw fit to create a university in order to have a think tank. Every government of a big country needs a think tank, and indeed our country is so big that it probably needs several of them to accommodate different viewpoints, but this could have been done in a more sophisticated manner, as for example the way in which the United States of America (US) has done with the Brookings Institution and the Trilateral Commission. When universities are chosen as think tanks in advanced countries, it is done with more subtlety and finesse than in our JNU experiment. The economic viewpoints from the University of Chicago are distinct from those that emanate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the US becomes stronger with this kind of pluralism. The JNU is now reduced to a shouting brigade that opposes everything that the government does – with no well thought-out, articulate reasoning. Words like “azadi” and phrases like “reclaiming the republic” have no meaning in a country where a solid 40-50 per cent of the voting population feel that they are quite free and are masters of their republic.
By making an entire university a leftist think tank and a laboratory in which dubious social science experiments are conducted, the government has let down the vast majority of teachers and students of the JNU who wish to do an honest job. An honest teacher wishes to do their best by the students and in a research organisation like the JNU, they would like to carry out serious research that attracts attention and approval of the national and international peer group. An honest student would like to take advantage of the environment afforded by a prestigious central university like the JNU to broaden their outlook, and to use the education received there to obtain gainful employment after they leave the university. Both these communities have been betrayed by the JNU management, successive vice chancellors and the governments over the past 20 years.
Undoubtedly, the problems of the JNU have become starkly visible today because (a) it has chosen to make itself an all-important touchstone of social and political discourse in the country, at the expense of serious academic activity; (b) there are now at least three alternative definitions for the “idea of India”. Let me take up these points.
A university ought never to link its fates to one particular political viewpoint in the country. Political and social realities change, and sometimes rather quickly. The role of the academic community is to stay above these more mundane realities and aloof from them. Sometimes the left is an agent of change, sometimes it is the right. The Gandhi idea of India is distinct from the Golwalkar idea and both these viewpoints are still distinct from the Ambedkar idea. Today, the voting population of the country is, roughly speaking, divided into three equal segments, each of which feels that just one of these viewpoints is the fastest, easiest or most practical route to economic well-being and national security. Elections are won and lost on these shifting perceptions. It’s that simple.
The problem with some elements (the noisy, disruptive minority) in the JNU are that they believe that only the first of these viewpoints is the valid one. Even here, I believe that their understanding of the Gandhi-Nehru idea of India is flawed. Neither Gandhi nor Nehru would ever have countenanced a “tukda tukda” break-up of India, and yet the person from the JNU who espoused these views was courted and pampered by quite a few of our leftist intelligentsia and politicians in candlelight vigils and other such fake demonstrations.
Even more dangerous is that there seems to be prima facie indication that elements from the JNU are consorting with separatist forces in Jammu and Kashmir, and even worse, from Pakistan. The JNU is living in a time warp. It does not seem to realise that our issue with Indian Muslims today is not connected at all with Pakistan. The former is our internal problem where we need to bring an economically and educationally backward group into the national mainstream. The latter has to do with a hostile foreign country which we need to deal with using strategic geopolitical weapons – hard or soft. The radical Islamic influence, catalysed by Jammu and Kashmir separatists within the JNU is extremely dangerous not just for the university but for the country at large. The JNU is playing with fire, and our leftist politicians seem to have put their short-term interests above the country itself. The preamble of our Constitution asks for “Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and unity of the Nation”. It does not speak about “tukda tukda”.
Where the JNU community is now losing the confidence of the academic community and the general population is their perceived intolerance to viewpoints other than their own. In part, this may have risen from the inability of the Congress to accept that they lost an election in 2014 – and that too so comprehensively. We live in a parliamentary democracy. We are never tired of invoking the sophistication of the Indian voter. It is quite difficult for one political party to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha. Let’s concede this to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). If the present government does not do its job, as seen by the voter, they will be duly voted out of office in 2019. India does not need the JNU to tell us that the BJP government is not good for the country, and certainly not every single day of our lives. We will be quite able to come to this conclusion in 2019, or otherwise, on our own. In the meantime, I think a great many honest tax-paying citizens are asking themselves as to exactly why they are subsidising this large, unproductive and now, frankly speaking, disruptive rabble called the JNU.
It appears that the teachers of JNU were having such a comfortable time doing practically nothing that they have now erupted at the first sign that their cosy status quo has been threatened. As for the students, they seem to have forgotten that their first responsibility is to their academic pursuits – and no, holding placards in Connaught Place and asking for the break-up of our republic are not recognised as academic pursuits, not by any stretch of the imagination.
To conclude, I will only invoke Zola and say “J’accuse”. Or more provocatively, should I say that we may now safely remove the “U” from “JNU”, so that it more appropriately becomes just “JN”? Take your pick!