The ethos of JNU: a former ABVP leader speaks

Students on the JNU campus. File photo: Meeta Ahlawat   | Photo Credit: MEETA AHLAWAT

Sixteen years ago, when the Vajpayee government set out to rewrite history textbooks, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) organised a talk in which veteran historian Sumit Sarkar questioned the government’s move.

I was then an activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh student affiliate body Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and I went there with another student to question the scholar. We got our chance when the then JNUSU president Syed Nassir Hussain permitted us to ask questions and counter-questions. There were giggles from the largely left-wing audience. But we tried our best as 23-year-olds to score a point over the scholar, who answered with a smile and a touch of paternalism.

The next day, we decided to escalate our protest by writing a signed rejoinder against Prof. Sarkar’s arguments. It felt like an act of bravery; a direct ‘defiance’ of the establishment, which was left-of-centre. That day, I met an eminent Left-leaning professor just outside the School of Social Sciences building. And he said something like this: “I have some problems with your article, but this is the way debates are conducted.”

This was the ethos JNU introduced me to, something worth recalling when the university’s students are being accused of being “anti-national”. Our world was one of battles of ideas; of contestations and rejoinders. A point scored was an intellectual leap. A point lost would leave us bitter.

Did it continue for long? For a few of us, who pursued politics after campus, yes. For many others, the stay on campus was a romance of ideologies, aligning with one and thinking it through, feeling intellectually empowered. And learning in the process.

The political positions one takes at JNU often fade away after a few years. Some Left-leaning students become civil servants, others go on to teach in the U.S. or Europe, some become bankers. ABVP activists also move on, taking up different professions, recalling the past as a phase of passionate ideas and a process of learning.

As students, we all somehow thought of JNU as a sanctuary where the world of ideas could be negotiated; where we could figure out how the world was to be made sense of and somehow leave an imprint. Where we felt we could think radically and push the frontiers of knowledge.

At the height of the Kargil war, I attended a public meeting addressed by academic Achin Vanaik at the Periyar hostel even though I was nursing a fractured leg. Prof. Vanaik passionately proclaimed that Pokharan II was an “insult to the intelligence of the Indian people”. The Leftist students nodded but the faces of the ABVP activists went red with indignation.

I again took up the challenge, seeing my protest as a necessary tribute to the soldiers being killed in Kargil. “Your speech is an insult to the spirit of the Indian people,” I said, as ABVP members clapped in approval and the hostel warden, chairing the meet, gestured to me to take it easy. I quietly sat down but felt I had done my bit “for the nation”.

The next day, the warden walked into my room in the afternoon and sat on a chair. Saying he appreciated my nationalist zeal, he went on to defend Prof. Vanaik: “Achin is a good man who has been consistently anti-nuclearisation,” he said. The warden’s gesture to reach out to me touched me. I nodded and the warden, a doyen of international studies, walked out with a smile.

Many left wing students were passionate about their views, some even taking up the cause of campus workers. I recalled those heady days when I revisited the campus a few years ago as a journalist, to report on a very JNU incident: a staunch Marxist student was on a hunger strike against her hostel warden who, she said, had not paid the dues of the woman who cleaned the hostel. The student received eviction notices but stuck to her guns, with the Student Federation of India (SFI) backing her. She wanted to do her bit for the cleaning woman.

For many of us, JNU was not just a place where the best of professors taught us, but also where we learned lessons in citizenship. We would align with some visions, convinced our ideas were better. But this would make us read about our vision vis-à-vis the Other, educating us in the process. All-night conversations on ideology were not uncommon — on nationalism or its modern versions, on the possibility of global alliances among the working classes. We considered it important to befriend freshers through gestures like allowing them to stay in our rooms if they had not found hostel space. Of course, the hope was to convert them to our own vision!

Our debates would also form the stuff of pamphlets, where the Left and Right would respond to each other. I headed the ABVP’s pamphlet committee for some years. The pamphleteering would reach fever pitch just before the polls, which the students conducted through an Election Committee.

Posters would be handmade to avoid expenses. Student panels would canvass for votes covering the campus on foot, with various organisations paying only for the candidate’s subsidised tea and lunch. To splurge money was a sure way of losing — JNUites looked down on any show of wealth!

As elections neared, there would be general body meetings and finally the Presidential debate at night with a Q&A session. Here, students would passionately espouse their cause, with their supporters cheering and beating drums and their opponents booing and heckling. Some speeches would be extremely articulate and erudite, an example of how intellectual student politics can be when conducted in an atmosphere free of money and muscle.

There would also be moments of humour. A Muslim candidate of ABVP was asked to name one Muslim in the RSS. He paused for a while and then replied: “Me!” There would always be one independent candidate every year who would just disagree with everybody else and draw much laughter from across the spectrum.

Some questions would be show-stoppers. A candidate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist)-backed All India Students’ Association in the early 2000s asked the ABVP presidential candidate why Bhai Parmanand, later the Hindu Mahasabha president, in his diary in 1907 had suggested the partition of Punjab to solve the Hindu-Muslim problem. Nobody knew this bit of arcane information and it created much noise in the crowd.

But the world of ideas would sometimes be jolted by scuffles. For instance, when the Left backed and the Right attacked the Progressive Admission Policy to increase the quantum of reservation in 1999. Some Leftists also turned against the policy, with Dalit students accusing them of being “Brahminical”. Finally, there was some violence between the Right and Left, leading to a handful of ABVP activists being expelled or rusticated and the most prominent activist of the SFI also being rusticated. The students later got relief from the court.

JNU’s world of ideas had a flipside too. These battles of ideas harmed relations between activists. ABVP and SFI activists would hardly talk to each other. There would also be frequent complaints against one another, sometimes frivolous. “Can we really be democratic without being democratic in our personal lives?” a National Students’ Union of India activist once asked, making me think.

These student politics do not change the nation or hurt it in any immediate way. But they do lead to one significant long-term gain: they provide society with a generation of citizens who have learned to engage with the world of politics, with history, society, economy and concepts.

It is for this that university politics exist. To produce people who ideate and think. This does not hurt the nation: a society that debates is a healthy and vibrant society.

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 7:04:13 AM |

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