A shocked former JNUSU President reacts in horror to campus violence and recalls more placid times

A contemporary of union minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a former JNUSU President N.R. Mohanty remembers a different JNU, different times when political rivals could be the best of friends

Masked goons on a rampage inside JNU campus on Sunday evening, Jan 5, 2020.
Masked goons on a rampage inside JNU campus on Sunday evening, Jan 5, 2020.

Nalini Ranjan Mohanty

Remember the old saying: it seems impossible until it happens.

We had never imagined that we would witness in our lifetime the dreaded spectacle of masked goons breaking heads of teachers and students in JNU, our alma mater, until it actually happened last Sunday.

5th January will possibly go down as the darkest day in JNU’s history – a day when JNU lost its soul, a day when JNU, India’s premier research institution, resembled a much-scorned crime-prone hub in a neighbouring state.

When I saw the videos of iron-rod-wielding criminals causing mayhem in the JNU campus, I felt everyone, literally everyone who has even a bit of human sentiment left in him or her would speak up, would demand unmasking of the goons and severest punishment for the despicable lot.

But what did we see? Look at the video statement of the Vice Chancellor of the University two days after the attack: there was no condemnation of the violence; there was no assurance of strict action against the perpetrators of crime. M Jagadesh Kumar invoked the spirit of Forgive & Forget: “Let us make a new beginning”, he said. Can you think of a more devilish administrator than this?

Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee,a JNU alumnus, was spot on when he told an interviewer about his thoughts on the Sunday events: “Any Indian who cares about the nation’s image should worry. This has too many echoes of the years when Germany was moving towards Nazi rule.”

Well, Abhijit Banerjee is no anti-Modi leftist hawk; barely a few weeks ago, after he won the Nobel Prize, he had told the media that he wanted India to attain prosperity under Prime Minister Modi’s stewardship. But he has been so deeply pained by the developments in the last four weeks, culminating in the Sunday’s ghastly crime, that he has no qualms in saying in unambiguous terms that Modi’s India is turning into Hitler’s Germany.

Shouldn’t that raise an alarm bell among those who call themselves patriotic Indians?

How have other distinguished JNU alumni responded to the murderous Sunday attacks? Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar – both ex-students of JNU - condemned the Sunday evening violence. But Jaishankar said that when he was a student of JNU – in the 1970s – he did not see any ‘tukde tukde’ gang there. I am not sure if his assertion ends there, or does he imply that one can locate the ‘tukde tukde’ gang in today’s JNU.

Yes, when we were students in JNU – Sitharaman was a contemporary and Jaishankar a few years senior – we prided ourselves as rational, critical-thinking, proud Indians. We were proud of our democratic constitution; we yearned to make India an inclusive and prosperous nation. Violence was anathema to our culture.

I came to JNU from a town in coastal Odisha where student wings of almost all parties – Jan Sangh, Congress, Left parties like CPI and CPM – were criminal gangs; crime was the sine qua non of student politics there.

JNU, for me, represented a refreshing change. I had friends from my town who had got enrolled in the Delhi University ; they were subjected to debilitating physical and emotional assault by the seniors by way of ragging; but in JNU, we all were welcomed by our seniors with hugs and endless discussions over cups of tea.

JNU was like an island on its own, with its own rules of game, rules which the rest of the country envied. Some branded us as lotus eaters; we took that as a compliment. We loved to live in that idyllic space as long as it lasted.

But early in my days in JNU, I felt tremors in that idyll. One evening the news spread that two activists of Free Thinkers (a campus-based liberal student outfit) had been attacked by four members of the SFI when they crossed their path during a walk from the down campus.

The physical injury was not severe. But the very fact that the SFI activists pushed the Free Thinkers with “hockey sticks” was a huge provocation. A large number of students marched to the Vice Chancellor and demanded the suspension of the four students. The VC intervened; all the four expressed unconditional apology and the matter was settled. One of the victims is now a well-known sports journalist of this country; one of the perpetrators of the crime is now a big scholar, author and activist.

But that was an exceptional occurrence. Unfailing courtesy and forbearance was the order of our JNU days. A handful might try to disturb the peace but the majority prevailed over them. I remember a lazy Sunday morning in my mess; there was a long serpentine line as Dosa was being served. Two students – barely three-months old in JNU campus – tried to jump the queue to collect their Dosa. A few senior students – who had already spent three years in JNU – were at the front of the line and they objected and urged the trespassers to get back to the end of the line.

Instead of queuing up at the end, these two students went to other hostels and mobilized their country-cousins and returned with reinforcements. One of them banged a lathi on the table and challenged anyone who was ready to take on him and his friends. Everyone was stunned; it may be a familiar sight in the hostel mess of several states, but it was an unprecedented scene in a mess in JNU campus.

Virtually all the students of the hostel present there, cutting across party lines, marched to the Vice Chancellor’s residence demanding prompt action. The VC immediately issued notice; the accused gave a written apology and an undertaking that they would not again indulge in the unruly behavior. The matter was settled; those two students never breached the JNU spirit again.

Even these instances of occasional skirmishes were rare. JNU’s political exchanges were fierce, but that never degenerated into fisticuffs. Even verbal assaults never crossed the line of minimum decency.

That is a kind of JNU which we had seen, experienced and savoured. That is the kind of JNU which was shattered last Sunday.

The culture of JNU that we knew had been created by the students and teachers, with a fair degree of backing of the vice chancellors. A large dollop of credit must go to G Parthasarathi, the first Vice Chancellor, who was instrumental in laying the foundation of the democratic culture of the campus.

The student leaders of the newly founded JNU – Prakash Karat of SFI and Anand Kumar of Free Thinkers – had their role in fostering the rules of the
student engagement. They created the unique experiment of conducting the students’ union election by an election Commission constituted entirely by the students themselves.

That both Prakash Karat and Anand Kumar became JNU students’ union president defeating each other in successive years belies the general impression that the students’ union has been a den of the communists from the outset. Karat was a firm believer in communism but Kumar was a socialist who banded together students who rejected the dogmatic approach of the communist ideology.

Successive student union presidents – DP Tripathi or Sitaram Yechury of the Establishment Left, David Thomas and Amiya Chandra of Free thinkers, Amit Sengupta of independent left persuasion or Chandrashekhar of Extreme Left Group, AISA – all had pledged and worked towards retaining and consolidating the democratic culture of the campus.

That explains why in 1983, when the students had gheraoed the Vice Chancellor demanding the revocation of the expulsion of the President and General Secretary of the Students’ Union, the inadvertent breakage of two flowerpots in the VC’s lawn had caused a lot of consternation among us. I, as the then president of the JNUSU, had admitted in writing that we were responsible for the mishap and had given the undertaking thatwe would replace the flowerpots from our own contribution.

Imagine the distance that the JNU has travelled in the last four decades, the period in which JNU’s democratic character has been eviscerated, step by step.

Why have things come to such a sorry pass? Well, that could be for various reasons, the foremost being the increasing trend of carrying political animosities to the personal relationship.

In our time, we were political opponents, but in most cases personal friends. When I was a presidential candidate in 1982-83, my opponent from the SFI, C Jayraj, a public-spirited man, was a dear friend. So was the NSUI presidential candidate, Prabhakar Parakala (Nirmala Sitharaman’s husband).

The ABVP president of the then JNU campus, Aditya Jha, was an extraordinarily cheerful company. We spat fire on public platforms, but off it, we shook hands and had tea and bread-omelette, the staple snack of JNU dhabas.

I am afraid that camaraderie is missing today. The rival student groups are dug up in their silos, refusing to engage with the other in any other way except as adversaries.

There is a second reason why JNU has lost its argumentative days: the fall in the academic standards. In our times, most teachers, across disciplines, were invariably the best minds in the country in their respective areas of domain specialisation. That created an exciting academic environment and helped students, across ideological spectrum, to proactively engage in debate and discussion.

But over the years there has been a distinct decline in the academic standard. Many of the finest teachers of JNU selected second-rate candidates - due to ideological or other reasons - as faculty members and that has reflected adversely in the academic discourse. When academic standard tends to be poor and students are not excited about big ideas, brawn usually replaces the brain. That is what is happening in JNU.

But the larger reason why JNU has lost its ethos is because of the attack by the state to enforce obedience and compliance and crush JNU’s independent and critical thinking. Ever since its inception,the university has, by and large, been anti-establishment.

There has been a larger debate about what constituted the Establishment: some would say that the Left is an Establishment in itself. As the Left has been the dominant force since the inception, there have been accusations, even in our time, that the academic freedom was constricted as one could not make satisfactory progress without toeing the left line. There may be some element of truth there; some specific teacher or guide could have been ideologically constrictive towards a student, but by and large we, those who did not conform to the Stalinist line, never felt that our academic future was under threat due to our ideological persuasion.

This situation remained as long as the government of the day did not poke its nose in the university affairs. The JNU was set up under the initiative of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, it was named after her father Jawaharlal Nehru, but she never tried to persecute the university on the ground that its teachers and students were tirelessly raising questions on the Congress government’s performance. Her government believed that a critical perspective was the academic community’s prerogative.

After the 1977 elections, when Mrs Gandhi lost and her government was out of power, students, under the leadership of the then JNUSU President Sitaram Yechury, marched to her house demanding her resignation as the Chancellor of JNU. It was a symbolic protest.

Students had thought that they would be forced to give the memorandum to the security guard or paste it on her wall and get back. But when Indira Gandhi came to know that JNU students had come to her door to protest against her, she said that she would personally meet them. She came out of the gate, Sitaram read out the charges against her; she listened and she returned to her house. The very next day she sent in her resignation.

Even a powerful leader like Indira Gandhi treated JNU with deference as she believed that critical thought was integral to a university’s public discourse. The Non-Congress parties that came to power at the Centre too did not see the need to intervene in the internal debates of JNU. Even the BJP-led government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee maintained the hands-off approach necessary to foster the democratic culture of a university.

Things began to change in 2014, with Narendra Modi emerged as the mascot of the BJP-led government. Ensuring obedience to the party in power in all spheres of life, including the educational institutions, became the guiding principle of his government. It was rather easy for a government to emasculate the institutions that are directly under its control.

But the government had to resort to many indirect means to subjugate the autonomous institutions. The public universities which survived on the grants made by the central government felt the heat. Those who were ready to defy the authority of the government in shaping their thought process were made to face the adverse consequences.

That is the story of the JNU, or that of Jamia or any other academic institution across the country that has shown the guts to pursue independence and critical thought.

How could the government discredit such institutions? By creating a bogey of a “Tukde-Tukde gang”. JNU students have always been as patriotic as one could be; they idolise the freedom of speech and the secular and socialist character enshrined in the Constitution.

In 2016, the government seized on the accusation that a handful of JNU students had gathered to take a pledge to break India into pieces. Well, if that was the case, the police could have identified them from the available evidence, charged them with sedition. But the police could not establish a case as there was no evidence, as it was a make-believe charge; the motive was to tar the entire university as the tukde-tukde gang and expose them to public ridicule and hatred.

That is a dangerous trend. But Modi’s India is not alone in pursuing it. Several right-wing, authoritarian governments across the world are stridently reshaping the universities as ideological weapons.

For our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Putin, Orban and Erdogan are the role models. Our Prime Minister also believes that “national values” rather than liberal secular values should be the cornerstone of the university education. Not surprising that the universities like JNU and Jamia, which uphold and celebrate secular and liberal values, are at the receiving end of this ‘nationalist’ mission.

A shocked former JNUSU President reacts in horror to campus violence and recalls more placid times

Only the ‘Right’ is right?

• Vladimir Putin beat into submission all universities of Russia; he threw out the European University of St. Petersburg because it was outside his control and it fostered liberal inclinations.

• The Hungarian leader Viktor Orban forced the Central European University, arguably the best university in Hungary, to close shop as the university refused to eschew critical research and refused to shape the curriculum as per the nationalistic ends.

• Recep Erdogan of Turkey dismissed 5,000 university teachers for harbouring pro-democratic sentiments

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