You can still hear the shout of “Lal salaam!” on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. An alumnus tries to figure out an institution where Communism still thrives.

New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has always been an enigma. When the entire country seems to have junked Left ideology for good, the JNU campus still reverberates with the shout of “Lal Salaam” (Red Salute). While one would fear using the word “comrade” in routine outdoor existence due to its regressive undertone, the word rings a familiar note that sounds quite progressive inside the campus. This has been so since JNU was founded in 1969.

While the official line is that the university was established as an institution of learning and research that would achieve better integration with the country’s policies, both national and international, the real purpose was to give the leftists some sort of sops. By the time Indira Gandhi’s policies began facing opposition from Communists, the leftists controlled the campus. So much so that JNU students protested the then Prime Minister’s visit to the campus in 1980 and forced her to leave.

While West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura became the three islands showcasing Communist ideology and its politics, JNU became the ideological hub to provide sophisticated justification to things that went horribly wrong in these states. Also, the ambience created a feeling about the Left being progressive, since the torch-bearers happen to be representatives of the educated middle class elite who were articulate, well-fed and looking for some philanthropic activities to justify their existence.

On the campus, the Left, till some time ago, was represented by the Student Federation of India (SFI), affiliated to the CPI(M), which provided the ideological umbrella and invariably aligned with half-brother All India Students Federation (AISF) of the CPI. These two student bodies occupied most of the posts at the Students’ Union till the emergence of a more radical ideology in the form of the All India Students Association (AISA), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist, Leninist (Liberation)). This ultra-left ideology that supported Maoist terrorism became a more powerful voice on the campus.

JNU has always acted as a recruitment ground for radical ideologies. Gullible young men and women who do not know the ABC of politics would be exposed to the seductive polemic of “revolution” and “change”. The recruitment process starts with these student unions placing their tables in the campus to help students in the admission process. It used to be quite a sight to see urban westernised young women helping the newcomers from small towns “understand” the process and the campus. That used to be the beginning.

“A person like me who came from Bihar was quite enamoured with these people who seemed really keen to help. I was not aware that I was being initiated. After that would follow their numerous calls to attend their internal meetings. Before you realised what was happening, you had already become a part of one camp!” says senior journalist Ajit Verma, who completed his MPhil from JNU in 1990.

These liberated people were the ones who would smoke, talk of ideology and provide a helping hand whenever needed. The initiation would be complete after one started participating in the discussion groups and late night chat sessions in various hostels. You would take a side, and you would be labelled leftist or rightist depending on your peer groups. At times one would also participate in the poster campaign that is intense at the time of admission. From that stage onwards to the stage of understanding leftist ideology, sympathy for the poor, looking at the rich as villains, etc, are gradual and natural progressions. Before one knew, one had already become a part of the Left.

Those who came for five-year language courses were the most vulnerable since they were young, impressionable and more trusting. The problems were the students in the School of International Studies (SIS) as people joined here for Masters and left after PhD. The liberal but not leftist Free Thinkers used to dominate the SIS till quite recently.
What would intrigue many is the fact that students of Urdu, Persian and West African Studies were invariably attracted towards the Left. They were mostly Muslims, deeply religious and opposed to Marxism in their core belief.

But they ended up supporting the Left. The main reason was that the Left provided an outlet to their political energy and they were invariably opposed to the RSS and its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
They used the Left strategically as a bulwark against the RSS-ABVP, says Sanjay Sinha, senior corporate executive. The support was not ideological, at least in the 1990s, he adds.

The ideological brains came from the School of Social Sciences. The teachers there also promoted their own beliefs. People coming from a different ideology or affiliations such as the RSS found it tough to negotiate their way in the campus. They were looked down upon by most as obscurantists. In the 1980s and 1990s, the ABVP would find it tough even to field candidates.

The ABVP boys could be easily identified since they were a handful. They were too scared of moving in the campus alone since Leftists would make fun of them. Some hid their ideological affiliation and became members of the Free Thinkers. This breed has died out with the strong emergence of the ABVP in recent years. Many other students groups have emerged, based on narrow considerations. Anti-reservation groups have their own wing, as do the pro-reservationists.

Ideology? What’s that?

One would imagine that the torch bearers of Left ideology on the campus would be revolutionaries who have actually suffered at the hands of the exploiters and found fulfilment in the atmosphere of the campus. But not so in real life!
Some of the most vocal supporters could be sons or daughters of top bureaucrats or other elites of the society. Probably, it made their lives more meaningful; maybe they saw it as a mechanism to atone for the sins of their sponsors. They could easily afford to do so since after campus life, the stamp of JNU would give them access to higher education abroad, plum jobs or other lucrative avenues.

Ram Bhaskar, who today works in an intelligence agency, says the Left has always been “fashionable on the campus”. It was not important whether one knew anything about Marx. For most of these students, thinking about the poor itself is the core of Left ideology, he says.

Professor Devendra Choubey, noted Hindi writer and teacher at JNU, says that the campus has witnessed ideological aberration in Left politics. This became more pronounced after the Mandal Commission Report that unleashed various social group formations based on identity politics. He cites the example of the All India Backward Students Forum (AIBSF) that has emerged powerful and can be credited with implementation of backward caste quota in recruitment of teachers in JNU.

Why is it then that the Left—particularly the AISA—invariably wins the JNU student elections? As it used to be fashionable to associate with the SFI in the 1990s, it is now fashionable to associate with the AISA. Ideological clarity is missing and the organisation has become more assimilative of various groups. For example, one should not be surprised to see Backward Caste and Dalit forums supporting the AISA.

Some of those who were actually impressed by the Left and thought of holding the flag of the ideology high would be rewarded with teaching assignments in various universities. This was the understanding. They had learnt one thing which no other university taught—the art of masterfully articulating a viewpoint, which consisted mainly of an Angry Young Man image that proved they were keen to change the system, and a few clichéd quotes that presented them as “scholarly” and “intellectual”. Some who were lucky and well connected with the politicos and the teaching faculty would sneak into the campus later as teachers. Now, their task would be to mentor the cadre and continue to do what they had been doing as students.

Little successes of the Right

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre under Atal Bihari Vajpayee understood the importance of sending teachers into the campus. But some of them who managed to get in riding on their rightist affiliation found themselves isolated before the powerful Academic Council that controls most recruitment of teachers.

Academics was the first choice of most students not seriously involved in campus politics. Those from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who were there to compete for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) were easily identified since their participation was limited to late night discussions in hostel messes when speakers from outside would come and deliver talks.

For Sanjay Verma, who edits a magazine now, healthy debates on issues was all that mattered. For him, like many others, JNU provided the intellectual environment for the mind to grow. If some drifted to Left politics, they knew they would have to depend on the national leaders for recruitment in colleges and universities of Left-ruled states.The leadership of the unions too often came from students from these states.

At the time when the Soviets ruled the roost, the Centre for Russian Studies was supposed to be the most prestigious. Not only did it provide the ideological phalanges, but it also proved to be a recruitment ground for most Leftist leaders. They would be full-time activists, get low grades in examinations, but still manage to get plum teaching jobs in India’s prestigious universities to teach international relations. They used to visit Russia and also got admissions in Russian institutions.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated and Russia lost its hegemonic position, this Centre lost its importance. The Leftists on the campus had to work harder, with the hope that their ideology of the downtrodden would find resonance in the world outside.

Post-campus disappointments

But not all who made good on the campus found their rightful place in Left organisations outside. A classic case is Shakeel Ahmed Khan, from the Urdu language course. He drifted into SFI politics and became the students’ union president. But after campus life ended, there was no scope for him in Left politics as he was from Bihar where the Communist parties hardly exist. He drifted to Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and finally to the Congress.He could have dreamt of a much better political career if he had come from West Bengal or Kerala.

CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat and politburo member Sitaram Yechury are living examples of how campus life helped boost political careers. The same opportunities were not available to D.P. Tripathi, who was supposed to be one of the most articulate students of Karat’s batch. Tripathi, who was in SFI and had led agitational politics in JNU, is languishing as a leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

After academics and politics, the most sought after career for JNU students has been journalism. Some of the top editors in both print and television are from JNU. They joined journalism to continue their campus activism. They gave ideological support to the downtrodden and their pen invariably has a Leftist slant. But their influence today seems to be on the wane because of the decline of print media, change in the very structure of television news presentation and expansion of social media.

For others, non-government organisations (NGOs) offered a good escape. They would join an NGO, learn the tricks of the trade and establish their own outfits. There would thus be a network of NGOs supporting each other. The JNU connection came in handy with those who controlled the purse strings. Even Congress regimes gave liberal funding to these organizations. These NGOs are useful during movements on social issues for providing cadre support base. Any attempt to bring more accountability in these NGOs is likely to be opposed. Keeping them happy was one of the key strategies of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the last 10 years.

JNU has not always been fair in giving opportunities to all shades of opinion. In the zeal to defend subaltern issues and ideologies, it has also ended up rubbing government the wrong way. It has often given shelter to Naxal and terrorist sympathizers. At times it becomes rather blatant. It is not entirely wrong when the campus is labelled a den of secessionism and hub of subversive activities.

At times hapless students dreaming of “revolution” end up lodging an outsider in the hostel who later turns out to be a part of a terrorist network. Staying of outsiders in the hostels is not strictly monitored by the universitiy authorities, so such potentially dangerous acts would often go undetected. Today, the intelligence arms of the government keep an eagle’s eye on the campus.

JNU student leader Chandrashekhar was killed in Siwan in Bihar by goons of the politician-gangster Mohammad Shahabuddin. While many try to glorify him, he was a victim of JNU activism that saw him climb ladders fast amid chants of “revolution” by the AISA. But the technique of argument and mobilisation did not work in thug-infested Siwan, where guns did the talking. Fearlessness is a virtue, but chest-thumping is a foolhardy tactic against bullets. While the entire student community empathized with Chandrashekhar, a precious life was lost. Chandrashekhar, who came from Siwan, dared Shahabuddin without any back-up. This showed his innocence, says Ajit Verma.

Another classic case is Subair of our times. He used to floor even the best of presidential candidates in debates and polled substantial votes single-handedly. He was more knowledgeable than many of his colleagues and was dreaded by one and all if he entered a meeting. None of the ideological groups could bind him. He continued to stay on the campus and aligned himself with many leaders such as Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav. There are many like Subair who fail to adjust to the outside world and end up spending their life on the campus as a guest of some student friend or the other. In JNU, at least you can survive with the little money that you can generate.

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