Equality, liberty and fraternity – ideas of citizenship from the French revolution – have always been followed in their true spirit at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where every student is a citizen. However, these citizens confront the reality of “citizenship” only once they step outside the university. Some may succumb to this reality, but most never let go of the lessons learnt as a student and as a citizen. This was a notion shared by Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat, party politburo member Sitaram Yechury, Professor Anand Kumar and many others who gathered at the University on Sunday for a day-long discussion on “Life beyond JNUSU”.

“On leaving JNU, the students confront the reality that there is no fraternity in citizenship and all the other ills of society, like the power of capital in politics. While some succumb to all this, JNU equips most to confront these challenges in a better fashion. I meet police officers, journalists and administrators from JNU who have carried forward the values they learnt here,” said Mr. Karat, who was JNU Students’ Union president in 1973-74.

The “comrade”, as he was repeatedly referred to during the meet, also talked about the history of the students’ union and its initial struggles, especially when a past president was put into jail during the Emergency, the achievements of the union and their agitations.

The ban of students’ union elections by the Supreme Court, which was lifted after almost a four-year gap, Mr. Karat said had given rise to certain despair but the recent protests demanding justice for the 23-year-old gang-rape victim in which the JNUSU was the first to take to the streets had gladdened him and ensured that the activism and political atmosphere in JNU will continue to thrive.

Professor Anand Kumar, global studies programme coordinator at JNU and JNUSU president in 1974-75, remembered the conversations and spoke about the power of ideas that student politics yielded. “The dining hall discourses, where everything from the Vietnam War to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was discussed, our professors had unconventional ways of teaching, they were passionate about making new minds, and they were not just there to teach in front of the blackboard and leave. Their sudden presence did not make you throw away your cigarette and they were politically active,” he said, adding that he got involved in the J.P. movement only because of his professors.

Prof. Kumar also spoke about the agitations, hunger strikes and the many number of times they had taken on the institution. He also reiterated the idea of citizenship that everyone counts on. “In the JNUSU, if your facts are correct and your purpose is good, then you are second to none, not even the president with all his support,” he said, adding that like the old days, these days too, students in politics were in a trance. “You see what is wrong, but you also see how it can be made right.”

His final advice was to avoid becoming individualistic and try to always be alert and committed to the greater good. There were many other past presidents who had travelled around the world, achieving success year after year. “Study and struggle were the ideals that one followed as a member of the Students’ Federation of India, and I follow this every day of my life. There are very few challenges in life that you cannot handle after being a JNUSU president,” said D. Raghunandan, an engineer, sociologist and union president in 1979-80.

Another former JNUSU president spoke about the changes that the university had brought about within him and another spoke about how he had never shied away from activism, which he had acquired during his student days in JNU.

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