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JNU’s Identity

JNU’s Identity

A few months ago, I was invited to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) by a group of students from the Northeast to give a sermon. They meet at a common facility every Sunday. The university authorities allow them to worship inside the building only on a rainy day. Otherwise, they bring their own mats and public address system and sit on the floor in the verandah.

I was really touched by the sincerity of the students and the extra mile they went to make their worship really spiritual and meaningful. There were some faculty members, too attending the service. Students from all the Northeastern states were present. They sang melodious hymns and prayed for peace, not just on the campus but all over the country, nay world.

I could find that they were making arrangements for the Christmas celebration a few weeks later to which I was also invited. I am not good at interpreting the Word but I spoke more from the heart than from the Book. Their only source of income was the offertory.

Yet, they gave me an envelope which I politely returned. In fact, I wished I had some money to give them to make their Christmas celebrations better. After the event, some of the students expressed an interest to have a deeper conversation with me. They invited me to their hostel room for lunch. I readily accepted their invitation.

I recalled my visits to the hostel in the early seventies as guests of some students. I also remembered visiting a Ph.D student’s room. It was a little cosy room with a bed, two or three chairs, a book shelf and a table with table lamp. I found the hostel and the facilities absolutely fabulous. My friend obtained a special coupon so that I could dine at the mess along with the students.

The food was sumptuous and it was served with as many helping as needed, except for the chicken curry which was rationed. It was a Sunday when they were given a “bada khana” (feast). It is not that there were no complaints. Students complained that the lentil dish was watery and the menu was monotonous. It is human nature. 

I get fed up with even seven-star hotel food after a day or two of having it, while I am never tired of the food at home, however pedestrian it may be. Since I stayed at RK Puram those days, my visits to JNU were not infrequent. What I liked most about the campus was that the students were very friendly, though there were heated debates over Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and the like.

The greatest hero on the campus was Prakash Karat, perhaps, next only to Che Guvera. There was the story, perhaps apocryphal, that he saved a little from his scholarship money and sent it to his mother to keep her hearth burning. He had one of the most beautiful girls on the campus as his friend and, later, partner in life. The story appealed to me because I, too, used to send a money order for Rs 25 to my mother those days.

This time, the students preferred to buy food from the dhaba and bring it to the room for all of us to have it. The hostel was in a run-down condition. It had not received a coat of paint for a long time. The corridor was full of old chappals and the water taps in the common washrooms were leaking. My host complained of foul smell and mosquitoes as he had a corner room.

The room belonged to a Ph.D student from Arunachal Pradesh, who was glad to know that I had been to his state to do a project on the Chakmas, who are settlers from Bangladesh. There was a girl from Kerala, who had completed her Ph.D and was all set to return to her village. We discussed everything under the Sun as we had dhaba delicacies with liberal doses of rice the student secretly cooked in his rice cooker. Any food tastes better when it is eaten together.

They were all worried about the increase in fees the JNU management was contemplating at that time. The student from Arunachal Pradesh said he would not be able to continue his studies if the hostel fee was increased. He said he came to Delhi only because he obtained a scholarship, which would be inadequate to pay the hostel fees, let alone meet his other sundry expenses like on toiletries.

A Malayali student confessed to me that he came from a very poor family and it was beyond his parents’ means to pay the kind of fees the university was demanding. In 2018, I had visited a government high school at San Antonio in Texas, USA. Education there was totally free for the 3,000 students who studied there.

The per capita expenditure on a student there would be much more than what the government spends on a JNU student. One night, early this week, a friend in Kerala alerted me on Facebook Messenger about a group of masked men holding lathis ransacking hostels and attacking students and teachers, one of whom being EMS Namboothiripad’s grandson.

I could do nothing except condemn it on Facebook. The next day, I had to meet an actor who once studied at the university. She told me that she was staying with a friend for a day when the goons descended on the campus under the cover of darkness and in the confidence that no harm would be done to them by the friendly police whose bosses report to Home Minister Amit Shah.

She was horrified by her experience. She knew JNU like the lines on her palm. “Debates always happened on the campus but violence was anathema to the students. They were not prepared for the kind of violence they suffered at the hands of the stormtroopers, the likes of whom burnt the Reichstag during the Third Reich. It so rattled the students that many of them left for their homes the next day”.

Why is the ruling establishment dead against JNU, about which they spread canards, though the Finance and Defence portfolios in the Modi government are handled by JNU alumni? Ever since it was set up in the early seventies in what was once part of the fast-disappearing Aravali ranges, JNU has been a citadel of the Left.

The Congress, whose government set up the university, never found its students wing popular on the campus. It was either the Marxists or the Free Thinkers who led the students right from the days of Karat and Sitaram Yechury to Kanhaiya Kumar and Aishe Ghosh. The NSUI and the ABVP were always bit players in JNU.

Whoever had said that there was something fundamentally wrong with a person if he was not a Leftist in his youth and remained a Leftist in his old age was right. The youth are, generally speaking, idealistic, impressionable and care little about themselves when they get agitated. The agitation against the CAA would have died long ago but for the involvement of students. 

One conspicuous thing that I noticed in the hostel that I visited was the door of the room allotted to an ABVP student leader. It was decorated with an arch-like piece of costly cloth with pierced, hanging lemons to ward off evil spirits. Why is the ABVP not able to find roots in JNU, though the management is totally saffron in character?

JNU is home to students, mostly from poor sections of society. It has a unique admission system, under which students from backward regions, called aspirational regions by the Modi government, get weightage over students from metropolitan areas. So, one can easily find students from tiny villages there. Most of them happen to be poor.

More important, a majority of them belong to lower castes who have suffered for centuries under the rigid caste system as it prevailed in Kerala, where Swami Vivekananda was suspected to be from a lower caste and was not allowed inside a temple at Kodungallur, forcing him to call the state a “lunatic asylum”.

When a BJP leader from Gujarat, Prime Minister’s state, openly takes pride in the fact that a majority of the Nobel Prize winners from India were Brahmins and it was a Brahmin who put together the Indian Constitution by studying other Constitutions — Dr BR Ambedkar merely signed on it — they know what is in store for them.

The Sangh Parivar knows only too well how to destroy an institution if it cannot control it. If it increases the fees, education in JNU will become unaffordable to the poor. I have a relative who did his MS paying a monthly fee of Rs 18 in a Rajasthan Medical College. 

Try getting admission to a private medical college for a postgraduate course. You will have to shell out up to Rs 1 crore as capitation fee, for which you won’t get a receipt, as there is no GST on such payments. With even government medical colleges increasing their fees, the poor simply cannot study in the country. True, the Parivar has a job for them as cadres who would wield the lathi against students who agitate for human rights or against those who eat beef.

In order to achieve their objective, they appoint third-rate academics as Vice-Chancellors. The one who heads JNU is a typical case. When students called for his resignation, they were called anti-nationals. Fortunately, they did not call Murli Manohar Joshi, who headed the HRD Ministry in the Vajpayee Government, an anti-national or an urban Naxal when he called for the removal of the VC.

There are stories of the government lowering qualifications of academics and filling posts with mediocre persons with loyalty to the RSS. The day I visited JNU, I saw a hoarding advertising the presence of a fraudulent Vedic scholar who was to inaugurate a seminar. About two decades ago, he had written a nasty article against me when I headed the editorial page of the Indian Express. He attacked me not for my views but for my religious identity.

The best way to destroy an institution is to let the mediocre govern it. Another way is to water the standards of the examination system. Once both are achieved, the institution will have a premature death as a centre of excellence. 

With BJP leaders spreading canards against JNU that its campus is strewn with used condoms and that it is home to the “thukde thukde” gangs, how many poor parents would encourage their children to apply for admission in the coming years?

When muscle replaces brain as the deciding factor on the campus, only thugs and goons would find the condition congenial to them. That has already happened. The Delhi Police have not been able to identify, let alone arrest, the masked men and women who unleashed violence on the campus.

There was a time when students of Arts saw JNU as their ultimate destination. Anyone who taught there considered it as a mark of their highest academic achievement. The libraries were open till late into the night to let the students read and write in peace without any interruption. 

Now, the security-conscious administration has put restrictions on the use of the library, while the management spends precious public money on seminars like how India gave leadership to science and technology by developing missile-like arms used in the Mahabharata war. 

Wreck it from within is a strategy employed to destroy JNU which has produced brilliant men and women, including the latest recipient of the Nobel from India. 

Very soon, it will be reduced to the status of the school in Karnataka which hit headlines in the Press for the way the students were trained to demolish a replica of the Babri Masjid to the delight of the dignitaries present, including the Governor of Puducherry who was the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in Delhi when the party ended up with three seats in the Assembly. 

The result is the same whether JNU is demolished in the Babri style or wrecked from within as in the case of many institutions, including those believed to have been granted autonomy like the Election Commission of India. Why lament only about JNU when the criminal-minded are bent upon destroying the whole country in the name of religion? 

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 13th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 03)