Jawaharlal Nehru University seen as centre of Indian Left soft power

Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi is seen by the Americans as a place to watch for a “new generation” of Left leaders who “will use relations with the US, Indian foreign policy, and growing conflict over globalization to solidify Left party gains.”

Cheekily dubbed “The Kremlin on the Jumna,'' JNU gets prominent billing in leaked internal American diplomatic communications as a centre of the Indian Left's soft power with a “politically and intellectually charged” student body.

Gets thumbs up

Giving it the thumbs up as “one of the country's pre-eminent graduate institutions'' where “the Left remains firmly in control” despite occasional challenges from the right and the centre-right, one cable dated October 14, 2005 (42679: unclassified), accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, says: “The University's intellectually dynamic students have produced influential leaders of national politics, journalism, and the civil service by virtue of their talent, rather than their close proximity to national politicians. A disproportionate number of Indian diplomats are JNU graduates, giving the University a lasting impact on the country's foreign policy.”

Charting its history since its inception in 1969, the cable makes the contentious claim that “Indira Gandhi hoped JNU would become the haven of intellectuals bent on countering right and left extremism and encouraging democratic expression.”

“JNU failed to fulfil its stated purpose, however, as the University came quickly to be dominated by the Indian Left, which has remained in control ever since.”

What old students say

The cable goes on to say how old students “nostalgically described their alma mater as a utopia, where politically and intellectually charged students rarely wished to leave for the real world, a haven from traditional India, where women mingled with men until the wee hours of the morning, and students from depressed rural backgrounds were provided opportunities to come into their own.”

One former student, K.P. Vijayalakshmi, who is now a Professor of American studies, recalls the heady days when “politics was our socialization, and that socialization bridged acute socio-economic divisions.”

Another old student, Swaran Singh, now a Professor at the university's School for International Studies, highlights the fact that JNU is “the only Indian university in which the university ‘establishment' has no involvement with (student union) elections.”

“Singh explained that rather than focusing on the quality of university facilities and campus store offerings, JNU student union leaders campaign on international issues, such as the war in Iraq or Indian support of Palestine. JNU influences the national agenda, he contended, in that other universities seek to mirror JNU's democratic structure,” the cable says.

And where does it go from where?

“While growing acceptance of centrist and right wing student unions at JNU mirrors a countrywide shift towards more pragmatism and less idealism, the Left will continue to dominate student politics,” the cable predicts.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)