The Jawaharlal Nehru University, hailed as one of the best in Asia, is also the fortress of left, often radical-left, students and teachers. Ever since the 9 February incident of pro-Afzal Guru groups raising slogans seeking the destruction of India, has become public, the spotlight has been harsh for the university. Many see the recent events as a conflict between the entrenched left and a rising right on the campus. Not unfamiliar to controversy, JNU’s tryst with the left is not an overnight phenomenon. It can be traced back to its inception.
A senior commentator, T.V. Mohandas Pai, chairman of Aarin Capital Partners, explained to The Sunday Guardian the roots of JNU’s leftist inclinations. “(Specifically), Professor S. Nurul Hassan, as Human Resources Development Minister in the 1970s, started the trend of converting JNU into a bastion of the left.” Eventually, left historians such as Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and others carried forward that agenda. The Indira Gandhi government set up the Central university by an Act of Parliament in 1969. At the time, Congress was coping with a split in its ranks, and the left was supporting Indira Gandhi. Giving the left the control of JNU was a “quick-fix reward” of sorts, say some who are aware of the university’s history. According to Saumyajit Ray, Associate Professor of American Studies at the School of International Studies in JNU, the university was envisaged by Indira Gandhi as a bastion of leftist scholars and intellectuals. “She and her father, whose name the university carries, were both socialists and as such more tolerant of Marxists. In fact, the history of Congress rule in India is also a history of Congress-supported communist infiltration of the academic world.” “Indira Gandhi allowed a very classical capture of the educational institutions by the left because she wanted to fight the right,” said an educationist, who did not want to be named. In the process, he said, the left historians re-wrote India’s history in the name of “national integration”, while keeping out the right. Respected historians like R.C. Majumdar were sidelined, because he did not subscribe to their views.
Throwing light on JNU’s past, Pai said that “Anti-India slogans have been a regular feature in JNU, but it’s only now they are catching attention due to the presence of the ABVP (RSS’ student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) in the university.”
“JNU is not a truly liberal university as it is dominated by leftist ideology. There is no healthy debate there, as alternate views are not commonly heard. Student unions owe allegiance to extreme units like CPI-ML (Maoist). The faculty that supports these students and the CPI-ML cannot be liberals by any account. In JNU, they don’t allow outsiders to come and lecture if you don’t share their own ideology,” he added.
In fact, a press conference called by a group of professors on Tuesday confirmed this charge. Professor Ram Nath Jha of the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, described the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) as “an oppressive body which is run by a few people who have their own way of decision-making and use their power to oppress alternative opinions.”
Reiterating this, Amita Singh, Chairperson, Centre for Law Studies, said, “It has been known for long that in this university if you are a teacher with an alternative opinion you will be targeted and labelled as right-wing sympathisers. For this reason, you see very few of us speaking out. But this (Afzal Guru) incident has become too big for us to ignore.”
Singh, who has been teaching at JNU since 2001 said, “The people who control JNUTA have been doing this for a very long time. They face very little resistance from other members of the teaching community because all of us have to live on the same campus. If one subscribes to different opinions there will be demonstrations, posters and candlelight marches outside one’s house. So it is not a happy environment and one has to struggle for identity.”
As Saumyajit Ray put it, “‘Apolitical’ is synonymous with escapism on this campus.” Ray shared experiences from his student days in JNU when he was isolated by the left. “During my student days, the CPI(M)-affiliated Students’ Federation of India (SFI) was the leading left party. Today, it is the radical left organisations like the pro-Maoist All India Students’ Association (AISA) and Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) that are on the rise. During my time as a student, non-left students were identified and hounded. It is the same today.”
According to Professor Mondira Dutta of the School of International Studies, who first came to the university as a student in 1973 and as a teacher in the 1990s, “JNU has always been a politically charged environment to be in, but this is the first time that we have seen such anti-national elements in the university. This is benefiting neither the teachers nor the students. A very small fragment of the student community and the teaching staff is involved in politics. But they disrupt the whole campus and all of us have to suffer because of them.”
“These political camps find ready recruits in the students coming from underprivileged backgrounds, who they manipulate with false hopes,” added Dutta.
This view was shared by many students who said that they were politically neutral. They said that it was only the science stream—but not social sciences—that was somewhat detached from the politics part of the university.
When asked about the arrest of JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, Professor Saumyajit Ray said, “JNU is not an independent entity but a part of this country. The slogans that were raised that night challenged the sovereignty of the nation. That is why the police got involved.”
When asked, Professor Amita Singh said, “Kanhaiya is a very naive person. I have known him personally and we had warned him that he would be manipulated by the bigger left parties. They just could not digest the fact that a guy from AISF (CPI’s students’ wing) won the president’s post. He came here from a poor background, and was given a great platform. It would have been very easy to manipulate him.”
On the other side of the debate, JNUTA refuted accusations of bias and anti-national activities on campus. JNUTA secretary, Bikramaditya Choudhary said, “The JNUTA is a democratic body. There can be differences of opinion in any teaching community. The association is not controlled by a select few. In fact, the last elections saw 93% voting. I can understand that some colleagues have differences with others. But if it is taking place, we condemn personal attacks.”
Responding to allegations of the left’s high-handedness, he added, “In JNU we have six factions of left, then we have the centrist and then we have the right. So it is clear that we have a wide range of voices that can be heard. The JNUTA leadership does not brand anyone anything, at least within the confines of a meeting. Outside that meeting, we cannot issue gag orders upon opinions.”
He also said that the hasty probe of the matter, both by the university bodies and the police, has led to a lot of misinformation. He described the current anger against JNU in the popular discourse as a carefully planned attempt to discredit the public education system for the benefit of large private institutions. “It is clear that a large section of the media is running a smear campaign to malign JNU. There seems to be a careful design to subvert the public educational institutions, so that once these big institutes are taken down, people will flock to private institutions. JNU has given a number of Planning Commission members, bureaucrats. Moreover, the defence academies of the country get degrees from JNU. So those who call us anti-national should keep this in mind.” When commenting on the 9 February incident, he said, “We should let the country decide on our nationalism or lack of it. We must not base our views solely on what we see on news channels. People are normally peaceful, but their national passions are being aroused by a few vested interests. I find it hard to believe that the police or intelligence forces would be unaware if anti-national activities had been going on on this campus for years, as has been alleged.”
The 9 February incident has exposed JNU students, regardless of their political affiliations, to a barrage of criticism by the general public. Students complain that there have been incidents of minor harassment of day scholars by their landlords at their place of lodging, as well as all out attacks on them outside the Supreme Court. One girl student was asked to go to Pakistan by an auto-rickshaw-driver when she asked him to take her to JNU. “Aap Pakistan kyu nahi chale jate (why don’t you go Pakistan)?” he asked. There is also immense anger against the students for “playing politics” while being funded by taxpayers, at times for years.
The fact that many students in JNU end up spending a decade on campus underlines their desire to leave their ideological imprints. “Once in, they never want to leave”, is the public perception about the students in JNU. “Normally, people end their formal education by the age of 25 or maybe take a break after graduation to work and then again go to school for a professional course to improve their job prospects. But in JNU they get in at the undergraduate or the masters level and get out when they are over 30 and some stay on even then,” said a PhD student at the University of Delhi on the condition of anonymity.
Professor Ramnath Jha explained: “A student who gets in at the undergraduate level and wants to stay in the university can stay on for 12 years doing a BA, MA, MPhil, and a PhD back to back. It is not uncommon for students here to do double MAs or MPhils or getting a one-year extension on their PhD, which should be completed in four years.” Jha added that generous facilities provided by the government make students stay for long. “The university provides a lot of facilities at very small costs. Because of this often students do extra courses, sometimes even in two completely different fields. This is also because of the scarcity of jobs in the market and sometimes because they have vested interests in the politics of the university,” Jha said.
JNU, among other things, is famous for its marginal cost of education and lodging. A student at JNU can complete under-graduation or post-graduation degrees in under Rs 500 (minus hostel) with the current subsidies. The university hostels provide a comfortable lodging with the cheapest rates by any standards. A student at JNU is charged Rs 240 annually for a room with one bed and Rs 120 annually for a room with two beds. Apart from this, the miscellaneous charges, according to JNU website, amount to Rs 1,620 of which Rs 800 are refundable. But without the subsidies, the unit cost of educating one student per year at JNU amounts to roughly Rs 3.5 lakh.
LEFT VS RIGHT
The current turmoil in JNU, many believe, is an extension of the right vs left politics that has been simmering ever since ABVP started making inroads in this left fortress. The left students of JNU had recently opposed the appointment of Dr M. Jagadesh Kumar as the vice-chancellor without offering any valid reasons. Kumar was chosen by the Ministry of Human Resources Development on the basis of his academic record and his noticeable career graph as a professor of Electrical Engineering at IIT Delhi. But the left leaning students created a controversy and missed no opportunity to spite Kumar and question his integrity. Professor Amita Singh feels the left is guarding its flanks and is apprehensive of the rising might of the ABVP on campus. “At this point, with Narendra Modi in power, they (the left) really want to have complete control over JNUTA, JNUSU and over the lives of students here,” Singh told this newspaper. “They have been resisting the appointment of this VC since he was directly chosen by the HRD Ministry. I think, to an extent, this incident has been blown out of proportion just to spite him and to show him to be someone who cannot contain such situations,” she added.