When the media descended upon JNU to investigate the attempt by a young student to brutally murder another, it is no surprise that what was reported was predominantly about the ‘changing face of the institution’.

This incident has tarnished the sacrosanct image that JNU holds, and predictably, the institution is now being labelled as ‘different’; a place that has ‘lost its sheen’. It is no longer the campus it used to be, chorus old students. While it is true that this gruesome incident throws up several crucial questions about the safety and culture of campuses and the procedures of recruitment, to say that the university is no longer what it stood for is stretching the argument too far.

What happened in JNU on Thursday is a mere reflection of what society has come to be. Unfortunately the dysfunctional society outside campus, one that is characterised by violent masculinity and skewed notions of sexuality and power, has slowly crept its way into what everyone believed was an oasis in a desert. But how long can even a liberal institution, enlightened as it may be in discourses about society, remain cocooned from reality?

As an example, the gang-rape of the 23-year-old paramedical student in December in Delhi, took place in a bus slowly circling Munirka, a locality facing the extensive JNU campus and housing a large number of its students. How secure then can even a haven be when the most widely-reported rape case in recent times has just brushed against its doorstep?

Others lament the changes in the institution. But which institution has remained static, maintaining the same values, charm and principles through the course of history? JNU, despite changing times, strives to do all this even now. In no other institution in the country can one see students from different classes and castes mingling together so freely and so accepting of each other’s differences.

The efforts to engage in debates while seeking to dissolve prejudices, the ability to be shocked over and over again by injustice and to voice out dissent without fear, to always remain informed, and to stand up to authority are characteristics that have made JNU stand out. But, like any other institution, it too grapples with problems that are products of changing values and a dented social fabric.

As this incident highlights yet another case of the classic male “bruised ego”, I cannot help but think how incongruously it is in a place where a committee to address harassment cases has outdone itself many times since its inception. The Gender Sensitization Committee against Sexual harassment (GSCASH), set up to conduct formal enquiries into complaints of sexual harassment and mediate between parties, has been a blueprint for other universities.

One of GSCASH’s most recent accomplishments was in April this year when a professor with more than 25 years of teaching experience was suspended on charges of sexual harassment. GSCASH’s pamphlets and detailed instructions on the procedures to report cases of harassment are vital and laudable. It’s because of GSCASH and the unrestricted freedom given to students on campus that girls, even at 3 in the night, in the middle of an otherwise unsafe city, can walk around in shorts.

Yet, despite such measures, a 23-year-old boy has still walked calmly into a classroom in broad daylight, managed to terrorize his classmates by fishing out assorted weapons and shooting at them, and mercilessly hacked a 20-year-old girl with an axe before proceeding to kill himself. Questions about how such a ghastly attack could take place in a campus like this have been tirelessly asked for the past two days with answers even stretching to the bizarre – ‘It’s because the Left ideology is not practised properly’. But what this incident begs for is some serious introspection.

For a campus with more than 8,000 people, JNU still does not have one counsellor or therapist. GSCASH can handle cases of harassment but is it equipped with skills to address individual problems of insecurities and fears? Nor does the campus have sufficient medical facilities. One health centre can be seen tucked into a corner somewhere but when I studied there, not very long ago, it was most often deserted. Most students catch a bus to go to AIIMS or Safdarjung hospitals for both minor and major cases. On several occasions, demands have been made to the administration to probe into these issues, but somehow they have never been dealt with.

What has happened in JNU is an unfortunate aberration. To restrict freedom or to impose rules upon students will both destroy the foundation of the institution as well as reduce the problem to a mere cause-effect relation. What JNU urgently requires is a provision of basic infrastructural facilities.

But what it also requires is the ability to reach out to students with its discourses on gender relations as this incident only highlights the yawning gap between theory and practice. If the institution has to live up to the image it has held until now, and if its ‘changing face’ is not to be viewed negatively, it must strive to achieve the ethos that it has always propagated. Only then will it always remain the charming place that its alumni remember it to be.

(The writer is a former JNU student)

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