The >Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) imbroglio has produced two important issues for public discussion. The first focuses on the limits that sedition (patriotism?) places on freedom of speech. It asks, for example, whether shouting anti-India slogans, by unknown persons as the First Information Report says, constitutes a ground for booking the students’ union president under sedition laws. If fine distinctions were to be made between slogans, protests, speeches, dissent, and incitement, and further between fuzzy and definite consequences of such actions, would not only some (very few) free speech expressions be considered seditious? These are crucial issues for our constitutional democracy today, and the JNU case has presented our courts with a great opportunity to give us a doctrine on the limits to free speech in India. Will we see in the court’s judgment its finest hour, as when, in the > Kesavananda Bharati case , it set out the Basic Structure doctrine which places limits on the amending power of Parliament, or will it be its darkest hour, as in the Habeas Corpus case where unrestricted powers of detention under the Emergency were permitted? Will Justice H.R. Khanna be the court’s guide, or will it be Justice P.N. Bhagwati?
The second issue, entangled in the first, is with respect to the place of JNU in the postcolonial nation’s public life as the university nears its 50th year. I belong to the first decade of JNU, a magical period during which we gained perspective and learned the power of ideas and of democratic deliberation. It was a time when we became passionate about causes and when no tyranny was fearful enough to suppress our dissent. It covered the period of the Emergency and of the years immediately after, when a traumatised nation delved deep into its inner resources to discover what it stood for and what it stood against. It was a time for serious reflection.
Campus life in the heady 1970s The 1970s was a period of ferment both globally and in India. The students’ movement was shaking up the Western world as was the peace movement and the challenges to orthodoxy in the form of music, fashion, poetry, and films. Demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) were being made. ‘Make love, not war’ was the slogan of the young who wanted to be unshackled from social conservatism. At this time the women’s movement was being seeded in JNU, as were many non-party political formations. >The Emergency was on and JNU students had been picked up, including the students’ union president, and were languishing in jail. Yet the university was a magnet for students from across the country, from different backgrounds, and from different disciplines. Students who had graduated in the natural and applied sciences were flocking to the social sciences to understand what was happening to the nation.
In this turmoil JNU was able to give its education a national character by the points system it had developed, and by the examinations held across the country, to produce a level playing field. Students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and regions, would be compensated for their disadvantage and thereby could face the competition. Soon after my joining in 1976, I recall taking out morchas to the surrounding areas shouting ‘ Tanashahi nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi (down with despotism)’, and then rushing back into the sanctuary of JNU before the police came. The Emergency was on. We shouted slogans against the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in the Mavalankar auditorium. We debated the articles of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) constitution on the lawns of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. We deliberated on an Agenda for India at the India International Centre. We collected funds for national tragedies such as the supercyclone in Orissa (now Odisha) and the Yamuna floods in Delhi.
But India alone was not our theatre of politics. The world was. Looking back I find it funny that we had to face the lathis of Delhi Police for protesting against the regime of the Shah of Iran or the sell-out of Palestinian interests by the Camp David accords. We campaigned for India to send foodgrain to Cambodia (then Kampuchea) which was just emerging from the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot. In these heady days of politics we also saw art films from across the world and learnt to perform street plays. We were the earliest supporters of the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY). In JNU we discovered voice and what it meant to stand up against tyranny. We became political.
Steady stream of who’s who But this article is not about nostalgia. It is about the public legacy of this great university. It is about the place of JNU in the national imagination. JNU gave the students who entered it many things. It gave them opportunity. If we were to do a roll call of bureaucrats, journalists, artists, translators, writers, activists, professors, vice chancellors, heads of important institutions, and politicians, >JNU would have a fair share of the leading members of these groups. It is not for nothing that in the last two years the heads of the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing, Central Bureau of Investigation, and the Foreign and Cabinet Secretaries have been from JNU. They do not look like anti-nationals to me. So where does all this ‘anti-national university’ stuff come from? What I have presented are the facts. Will those who have benefited from JNU please speak up in its defence?
Ask any of them what JNU gave them, and they will tell you it broadened their perspective, introduced them to ideas, even dissenting ones, prepared them for competition, gave them self-confidence, and fired them up with the making of a just India. It made them realise that dissent could be a virtue. In addition, JNU gave them networks. Anyone who understands success will know that networks are as important for success as merit and scholarship. That is why the Ivy League universities in the U.S., and Oxbridge in the U.K., and the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology in India have the reach they enjoy within state and society.
Crucible of the alternative In addition to opportunity, self-confidence, personality development, and networks, JNU also gave a student perspective about the nature of the world, not just in terms of the global order, but also in terms of the structures of power, dynamics of society, drivers of change, and aspirations of citizens. We learnt how peasants became citizens. We learnt how elite capture was a problem for democracy. These ideas enriched our public discourse. At JNU we produced and reproduced the idea of an India that was inclusive, anti-discriminatory, gender-just, environmentally sustainable, artistically creative, cosmopolitan and socially redistributive.
There were many things wrong with JNU. For example, the liberal persuasion was not allowed the space it should have been given by the Stalinist Left. The political spectrum was wide but it could have been wider. Analytical thinking was feeble, and ideological camps gave protection to the less capable. But it was possible to question these ideological hegemonies. To dissent, experiment, collaborate, this is the signature of JNU. Debate was polemical but it was peaceful. There was no violence. By providing personnel to the civil services, academic institutions, civil society organisations, and media, JNU has been a significant incubator for the task of nation-building.
In addition to being an incubator of personnel to the state and civil society, JNU has also been an incubator of dissenting ideas. For a nation to cope with the pressures of modernity and the challenges of globalisation it needs to have an army of intellectuals who can prepare the nation for this new world that is upon us. It needs to engage with these new ideas. Go to a seminar in JNU, and you will be delighted by the intensity of the questions and the earnestness of the search for answers. It is one of the few places in the country where interdisciplinarity is a habit and where conversations between aestheticians and political scientists do not raise an eyebrow. Nor do dialogues between the cosmologies of the East and of the West.
A cosmopolitan university is a precious resource, for it continuously feeds the public sphere with questions and answers, with challenges to accepted truths and alternative readings of canonical texts. This is under threat today. Censorship of ideas and social relationships is being demanded by outsiders to the idea of JNU. Incidentally, the University of Chicago has issued the following statement on freedom of speech: “It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable and even deeply offensive… Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion about ideas, however offensive.” This represents the idea of JNU. Let us protect it from the hecklers who are knocking at the door.
(Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. He holds the Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Chair of the Rajya Sabha for 2015-2017. Views are personal.)