Academia Should Reflect on How the JNU Story Played Out

| Updated: 08 February, 2022 3:41 pm IST

Its ironic that JNU Vice-chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar was rewarded this weekend with the chairmanship of the UGC, just when the anniversary of the explosive controversy over anti-national slogans on the JNU campus is round the corner.

One wishes Left and liberal academics would take stock of just how much ground their cherished values have lost since then in public consciousness, and the extent to which bigoted exclusivism has gained ground. Sadly, however, most of them seem stuck in a rut, unable to gauge the mood of the times.

Theyve sat bewildered while right wing academics have taken over JNU, and the institution morphs gradually into more of an engineering university. Across the country, in tandem, war cries roar as nationalism marries Hindutva.

Illiberal new world

Perhaps assessment is required at several levels. The widest of these may require an acknowledgement that the world has changed hugely over the past half-century. I mean the world of ideas, of aspirations, of attitudes. In particular, young people are not by and large the youth of the `60s.

That decade was not only in a different century, but a different age. Over the past half-century, we have gradually moved into the kind of world Samuel Huntingdon described three decades ago. The space for liberalism, especially benevolence towards sociological `others,has shrunk. Indeed, it is increasingly reviled, even stigmatised.

Sadly, academics have not adequately analysed the economic, demographical, technological, ecological, and other reasons for this trend. But its here, and its global, visible in countries as diverse as Hungary and Brazil, Turkey and Russia, France and Egypt, India and the US. Ironically, many of these very countries were once counted as bastions of liberalism, inclusive societal norms, and secular politics.

Post-Modern pitfalls

Academics who hold fast to liberal values may wish to re-examine the extent to which ideological resistance among their ranks to concepts such as patriotism and nationalism have strengthened a backlash.

Of course, one understands the salience of post-Modernist ideas and the importance of studying subaltern groups. These are important academic tools, just like Marxist methods, even for those who reject Marxism as state policy.

However, treating post-Modernism as an exclusively sacred worldview is a pitfall. Interrogating long-accepted meta-narratives, structures of thought, and hidden layers of meaning is all to the good. But one is on a slippery slope if questioning becomes reflexive rejection of widely accepted tropes. It not only smacks of elitist snobbery, it makes one inaccessible to most people.

Indian academics too often seem blinkered by post-Modernism. When I walked into the office of a sociology professor at Berlins Humboldt University a decade ago, he tartly said: `Ah, youre from India. You must be all Foucault, Foucault, Foucault, …’

Those post-Modernists who reject nationalism and patriotism as no more than structures of oppression must remember that they cede to the most illiberal forces, the power to define and reshape those concepts. And those concepts will not go away. Just look at how nationalism has bounced back in Russia after 70 years of Soviet indoctrination on internationalism. Religion too!

I for one find `Bharat ke tukde …’ type slogans unacceptable. It’s one thing to examine the layers of meaning or inherent angst in such utterances in the ivory tower of a seminar hall. But defending such slogans on mass media with quotes from Voltaire comes across as escapist, if not endorsement.

Wrong signals

Introspection is also perhaps needed within the microcosm of the JNU community. It took several days after those slogans were yelled in a corner of the campus (on 9 February 2016) before a Mumbai actor who had grown up on that campus clarified in a brilliant article that those who had organised the event consisted of a minuscule portion of JNU students.

The president of the students union reoriented the meaning of `azadiwhen he emerged from a few days behind barsperhaps inspired by a prominent woman activist who had adopted such slogans. But it was too late. By then, the media had ensured that most of the country believed that JNU stood for the countrys disintegration. The knee-jerk response of organising campus marches and dharnas had cemented that impression.

Teachers then organised a series of public lectures on the meaning of nationalism. Except a few like professors Purshottam Agrawal and Mridula Mukherjee (who they fielded in the dark of night), those public lectures did not communicate with the woman on the street, though they were shared on the internet.

The teachers and students who revelled in those ideas of freedom failed to influence even the adjacent Munirka village, where several JNU students live in rented flats. Instead, they found to their chagrin that many auto drivers refused to take passengers to JNU.

Most of them still seem oblivious to the fact that that event was organised mainly for (and partly by) youth from outside JNU, including many from another university in the city. And one hears of a couple of participants having flown down from Srinagar specifically to attend.

Nor does it seem to strike many among them that the police has not, even six years after the event, nabbed those who actually shouted those slogans. This is a police force that, even with a pandemic around, went with gusto after participants in the Shaheen Bagh agitations. At least one journalist who went to Shaheen Bagh to cover it got a call from the police many months later asking why she had been there. (No doubt they acted on satellite or cell tower records of all cellphones present there.)

Gandhis example

Those who led the JNU communitys responses seemed not to have absorbed lessons from Gandhijis example. That suit-boot wala attorney from London and Johannesburg spent a year in maun (silence) after returning from South Africa, while he travelled the country to understand it. He then developed a language of mass leadership, donning the attire of the man on the street as a first step.

When they first returned to India, his family stayed with the idealist Principal Sushil Rudra of St Stephens College in Delhi. The colleges founder, Rev Allnutt, and Gandhis great fan, former vice-principal Charles Andrews, were present when Gandhi addressed the college assembly in 1915. He spoke in Hindi. He got a 10-minute standing ovationfrom an institution that had begun as a benevolent bastion of the Raj.

Over the next few years, he espoused nationalism and patriotism, reinterpreting both, particularly around Champaran, Khilafat, and Chauri Chaura.

There were nuanced differences in what those terms meant to him, to Nehru, to Bose, to Patel, to Maulana Azad, and certainly Tagore. That they conversed with, and respected, each other is as much a testament to the liberal age as it was a shaper of that age, for India.

This is a far more blinkered time, fuelled by disparagement. Intellectuals urgently need to show us languages and ways to converse fruitfully in it. Conceptual bubbles that reject widely understood and accepted structures and meanings end up blithely ceding ground to those with radical interpretationsa very different sort of radical from that of the long-gone, and not very widely mourned, `60s.


(David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.)

[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by the author are personal.]

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