February this year marked one year of the relentless turmoil at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, judged as the “best central university” in India by this government itself. Indeed, since the new Vice-chancellor, Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, a professor of electrical engineering at IIT, Delhi, took over the reins early last year, the campus has been stalked by one crisis after another, mostly because of the lack of finesse and nuance, and, rather, a tinpot dictator syndrome, displayed ritualistically by the VC, thereby nastily disrupting the brilliant, time-tested and open-ended academic and political culture of this university.
Clearly, the VC is not only working at the behest of sinister forces in the ruling regime who are out to destroy the enlightened ethos of JNU, he seems clueless about its magnificent inheritance and originality, marked by the dialectic of free debate, heady discussions and open-ended discourse.
In the earlier version of the JNU prospectus, with a Nehruvian ‘rose’ as its simple emblem, there used to be a sublime quote by Jawaharlal Nehru: “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives…” Indeed, those who disagreed with Nehru’s ideas, even they would agree that he was on the spot when he described the trajectory a university should follow, unafraid of the zigzag of contradictions, seeking new windows of enlightenment and doors of perception, grappling with difficult, abstract ideas and empirical evidence, and never hesitant to turn the ‘dialectic upside down” as Karl Marx did so famously with Hegel’s metaphysical doctrine. As a former JNU VC said, perceptively, and with affection for the students, after the May 1983 agitation when hundreds of students were packed off to Tihar jail in Delhi after a commando action ordered by Indira Gandhi, that JNU students are never violent – they are argumentative.
In Paulo Freire's classic ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, the synthesis between theory and praxis are eternally merged across the many rainbows inside and outside the classroom. Students are never a passive and empty receptacle to be bombed by information from the ‘pulpit’; they are located on the threshold of a dynamic and ever-evolving kaleidoscope whereby knowledge is not only liberating, or a medium for social and historical transformation, they also learn the ‘deep suffering’ of entering the tortuous terrain of knowledge. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “An idea can make you ill.”
When ideas make you ill, there are always new doors of perception to heal the wounds. However, under the current dispensation, the simmering wounds have been allowed to fester, turning a beautiful campus of beautiful young minds experimenting with truth, into a volcanic reservoir of everyday bad faith and unhappiness. What is it that petty dictators hate about beauty and knowledge, and why do ageing authorities refuse to accept the inherent freedoms and sublimity of young minds?
In the 1980s, one of the famous posters in the campus used to depict the ‘thinking man’ by Auguste Rodin, ‘The Thinker’, with this quote: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” Without getting into the debate if English writer Beatrice Evelyn Hal was inspired by Voltaire, one can capture the soul of JNU with this poster. There were others too: Give Flowers to the Rebels who Failed, inspired by the May’68 students movement in Sorbonne, France. Or, a critique: “One pleasure has the bourgeoisie, that of degrading all pleasures.”
There used to be one incoherent poster, scrawled in wayward free hand, as if by an eclectic child, almost like Dostoyevsky’s ‘Idiot’, which celebrated a kaleidoscope of icons, etched upside down, like a sing-song poem: Hegel, Gandhi, Freud, Rosa, Lenin, Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Faiz, Engels, Neruda, Che, Nagarjun, Gorky, Lorca, Beethoven, Ritwik Ghatak, Tarkovsky, Godard… among others. It was JNU’s own imagined homeland of imagined communities; it’s Hall of Fame.
In recent times, the walls of JNU have been marked by a certain genius, with art and graffiti celebrating revolutionary poet Gorakh Pandey or Rohith Vemulla’s struggle, as much as Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, or Irom Sharmila and Soni Sori. Undoubtedly, the VC, clearly, lacks any understanding of the ‘embedded enlightenment’ etched on the walls, and, thereby, inside the inherited soul of JNU.
Often, we learnt more from the walls than inside the classroom, though the classes, late night hostel messes and open-air auditoriums, would always be packed in anticipation of a great discourse, from teachers, student leaders, or ‘guests’: from Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali to Arundhati Roy and Govindacharya. The discussions would inevitably follow with a volley of Questions and Answers, in the democratic ecology of free debate.
There were ironic aberrations though: Once a famous politician, known for his comical gimmicks, came to a mess in the early 1980s and declared in his speech: “JNU is a white elephant.” Hence, an enraged PhD scholar from Orissa shot back with a passionate rejoinder: “If JNU is a white elephant, then you are a black elephant.”
If the VC has missed Nehru’s quote on the old prospectus, considering how the Sangh Parivar dislikes Nehru, he has missed crucial paradigms of JNU’s ethos: that this campus has always cherished a progressive world-view and kept its heart open for all forms of people’s struggles, from Latin America to the shores of Narmada and Nandigram. That it always was relentless against xenophobia, dogmatism, racism, sexism, patriarchy, communalism, casteism, and all forms of supremacist and regressive ideologies. That, there was never an iota of hierarchy in the sharing of knowledge systems between students of different generations. Between the old and the new, there were always one hundred flowers blooming, and one hundred new schools of thought, waiting to fly on the wings of desire.
That is why, I say, Dear Mr Vice-chancellor: Learn from JNU. Doubt everything. Open your mind and heart. If winter is going, can spring be far behind?
Amit Sengupta has been a former president of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU).