Avijit Pathak: JNU’s enemy without, within (2016)

First posted November 04, 2016

NB – Thank you Avijit, for this perceptive and timely warning. Those who want to protect democracy and the right to dissent need themselves to uphold dialogue and save higher education campuses from the destructive polemic that has overtaken radical politics over the years. Here is something I wrote on the crisis in JNU this February: What is to be Undone . Sadly, I have thus far been unable to discuss its argument with the people I (primarily) wrote it for, the students of JNU. Thank you once again. DS (2016)

Students suspect teachers, who fear students. Every relationship becomes politically calculated & instrumental. This must change. Saving JNU does not mean merely saving it from an unfriendly government. It also means saving it from the rot within.

Even though Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) exists as one of India’s finest centres for learning, a deep crisis is haunting the university today. This is manifesting itself in many ways; growing unrest among students, an environment increasingly filled with fear and suspicion, the legitimacy crisis the university administration is facing, with its inability to communicate with students and teachers. The crisis and its depiction, particularly by some television channels, seem to have generated a series of stereotypes about the university. Its “unruly” students propagate “anti-national” feelings, its intellectuals are not in tune with the country’s “religious” ethos, its “permissiveness” has caused huge ethical irresponsibility.

But what is the reality around us? First, the emergent politico-economic elite is not in tune with the essential spirit of the university, its liberal education, its urge to see beyond mere techno-managerial perceptions of economic development, and its largely non-hierarchical, inclusive ethos. At a time when there is an unholy alliance of neo-liberal rationality and social conservatism, and education becomes a market commodity, JNU, unlike IITs, IIMs and private universities, tends to acquire “deviant” status. Its critical social sciences, gender studies, art and aesthetics, even its theoretical physics, may be perceived as “wastage”. It is obvious that the ruling elite needs excuses to target the university.

Second, something has gone terribly wrong with the university’s political culture. JNU is still a role model for other universities. Students still fight elections without money or muscle power and there is a culture of debate. However, the decay is noticeable. Politics has lost its substance; rhetoric has replaced thinking. “Competitive radicalism” has reduced protests to predictable rituals. For “radicals”, Gandhi is a taboo, Marx is a residual memory, Ambedkar is God. Whatever you don’t like is a symptom of “patriarchal Brahminism” and hunger strikes are as normal as sunrise every morning. 

The result is, it is no longer possible to distinguish the serious from the trivial. This politics is centred on a new practice of “untouchability”. “Ultra-leftists” don’t talk to “Brahminical” leftists; “Ambedkarites” don’t allow others to appropriate The Annihilation of Caste; ABVP cadres remain perpetually sceptical about “pseudo-secular”, “pro-Kashmiri”, “anti-national” liberals.

This scenario stimulates caste and religion. But we cannot overcome caste through a politics that uses the idiom of caste, even if it looks like a subaltern politics. And a politics based on religious identity intensifies the arrogance of majoritarianism and ghettoises minorities. Such turmoil is destroying the university where, without dialogue, a suspicious, potentially violent environment emerges.

Third, a poverty of imagination tends to characterise the administration. A university is a zone of learning that induces experiments with ideas, modes of resistance and cultural practices. How crude to see it with a purely bureaucratic gaze, with a “law and order” discourse. Often, new administrators, because of a technical mindset, fail to evolve sensitivity to negotiate with this domain of liberal education, its political vibrancy and protest ideologies, which emerge because of an uneven society like ours, with diverse forms of discrimination, violence and inequality. 

No wonder the administration suffers a severe legitimacy crisis.

It is difficult to say whether JNU can overcome all this. But this university must be saved because this is possibly the only university that still retains a culture of critical learning. At a time when either market-oriented technical education or guide books and mass copying with demotivated teachers and students prevails, JNU looks like an oasis in a desert. Here, it is possible for a professor of bio-technology to converse with a political philosopher, for underprivileged students from Jharkhand and Telangana to work with foreign students, for girls to go to their hostels from the library at midnight without fear. This university produces creative teachers and researchers, civil servants, activists, people in diverse creative work.

Here is a university with a spirit. It should not be allowed to die. But what is missing today is trust. Students suspect administrators, who observe, classify and discipline students through multiple surveillance (a campus once beautiful is now becoming a war zone marked by security guards, CCTV cameras, police outside the main gates and television reporters inventing “breaking news”). Students suspect teachers, who fear students. Every relationship becomes politically calculated & instrumental. This must change. Saving JNU does not mean merely saving it from an unfriendly government. It also means saving it from the rot within. We have uttered many slogans: “Down with imperialism”, “Brahminical fascism murdabad”, “Jai Bhim”. It’s time we take a break. We need to look at ourselves and to use Gandhi’s words, fight the enemy within.