Speaking at a Special Convocation of the Allahabad University on December 13, 1947, then Interim Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru seemed to place the role, he envisaged, for universities in independent India in such succinct terms where he put what many others in India and across the world had thought of.
He said, “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duty adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people.”
Nehru went on to strike an essential note of caution, in the same speech, about what could happen if things were turned in the opposite direction; that is when such essential attributes were denied in the university system.
He said: “But if the temple of learning itself becomes a home of narrow bigotry and petty objectives, how then will the nation prosper or a people grow in stature?” He then laid it on the hands of those at the helm in the system in so many words. “A vast responsibility, therefore, rests on our universities and educational institutions and those who guide their destinies…Let us be clear about our national objective. We aim at a strong, free and democratic India where every citizen has an equal place and full opportunity of growth and service, where present-day inequalities in wealth and status have ceased to be, where our vital impulses are directed to creative and co-operative endeavour…”
A centre for learning
The Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, founded almost 25 years after Nehru said these in 1947 and over 15 years since he died in May 1964, did live up to this dream and the ideal in its existence during the fifty years since. The University was founded at a time when several public institutions that had, by then celebrated over 100 years of their existence had grown in size; but then, some of them had also suffered considerable erosion in the literal sense – with their buildings losing strength in the struggle against the vagaries of nature – as much in the metaphorical sense for not having updated their curriculum and their syllabi over the years.
History in most of these universities remained a compendium of dates and events rather than a study of the processes; Economics departments were struck in the past without taking in changes that had taken the discipline by storm in universities elsewhere in the world; and this was also the case with almost all social sciences and humanities taught there. Jawaharlal Nehru University, in the early 1970s, was where the advances in these disciplines were taken in and departments such as the Centre for Historical Studies, the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, the Centre for Social Systems, the Centre for Political Studies, etc., wherein the advances were internalised and integrated to teaching and learning these disciplines.
And these Centres, then, turned into places of learning as much were those departments in Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Stanford had grown then. Lest it is mistaken as JNU having born as a clone of these premier institutions, the research that came to be done in the university by the teachers and the students were focused on critiquing colonialism in the historical, political, social, cultural and the economic domains and thus help understand our own problems and evolve solutions from such inputs.
Jawaharlal Nehru University, thus, evolved into the space from where academicians from across the world sought to visit and sharpen their own understanding in the various seminars and one off presentations they would make and profited immensely from the trenchant criticism that the students and the teachers there would make. Jawaharlal Nehru University was also among the few spaces from where Indira Gandhi, who had in fact steered its foundation, faced resistance when she imposed the Emergency in June 1975. The University, in 1975, was a mere five-year-old toddler and at least half a dozen students then were arrested and jailed under MISA.
Among those was DP Tripathi, last seen in the Nationalist Congress Party and Sitaram Yechury, presently the general secretary of the CPI(M). Among them was Prabhir Purkhayastha, a known to this day for his ideas on Science Policy. It is not for the first time that students of JNU have indulged in any agitation. They have been doing this ever since the university was set up, sometimes demanding supply of milk to the hostels and sometimes on demands that those deprived by the unequal access to education be treated with special points while seeking admission to the university.
One such landmark was in 1983 when the students union fought for privileges to the rural and the economically deprived sections of our society while considering such of them for admission in JNU. The union was then led by NR Mohanty, who evolved into a journalist in later years and would edit prominent newspapers; interestingly, Nirmala Sitaraman and S Jaishankar, both ministers in the cabinet while writing this, were known to have campaigned for Mohanty and his panel of candidates in October 1982.
And Abhijeet Banerjee, Nobel laureate, was among those who joined the agitation for deprivation points for the poor and the less privileged in 1983 and ended up in the Tihar Jail where he and over 300 students then were remanded for two weeks.
The point is that JNU students agitated against policies of the state many times in the past and their agitations were to ensure that the university remained whatever Nehru sought them to be in December 1947. They did not learn all these from Nehru alone; they had, in fact, learn about education and its value from the Greek tradition of critical thinking and they were also aware that stifling such thinking, as it happened with the rise of Sparta and the repression that followed landed the Roman Empire into the dark ages.
The students in JNU have, time and again, told themselves that knowledge ought not to be commoditised (as did happen in Sparta) and that access to knowledge ought not to be rendered a privilege to those already wealthy and having arrived. The students, nevertheless were conscious that wealth and privilege shall not be a cause for exclusion neither in case of the wealthy nor in case of the poor and the deprived.
Commoditisation of education
The students in JNU had ensured that the wealthy among them were not singled out and excommunicated as some will mistake and at the same time make sure that the under-privileged were not denied access to quality higher education. JNU thus filled in for the vacuum that was left with several, if not all, of the hundred-odd-years-old institutions falling behind the times in terms of academic advances, a fact that cannot be denied.
As for the present, at a time when higher education is increasingly turning out a pasture for private investors and where commoditisation of higher education has become a new normal, an institution like JNU is perhaps most necessary than any time in the past to secure access to education that is not reduced to learning by rote and where all things held from the pulpit is not held as gospel (and thus lead us into a dark age as did the Spartans when they hounded the Greek critical thinkers) and if democracy ought to be deepened further.
It is not about the quantum of the fee hike proposed as to whether it is meagre or steep. It is about the need to commit ourselves, as a nation, to the stellar idea of public institutions as against commoditisation of education, a fact and a principle that most advanced nations across the world have learnt over time. And at the cost of repeating, it is appropriate to do that with one part of Nehru’s speech at the Allahabad University in December 1947 to stress the need to preserve JNU in its past and its present for the reason that “We aim at a strong, free and democratic India where every citizen has an equal place and full opportunity of growth and service, where present-day inequalities in wealth and status have ceased to be, where our vital impulses are directed to creative and co-operative endeavor…”
Note: This writer happened to have been in JNU between 1985 and 1991 and could afford it only because the fees were low and higher education was subsidised. V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok. Read Krishna Ananth's columns