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This article is more than 3 year old.

When JNU turned from an island to the government's battleground

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It is not that the students in JNU had confronted the Indian state only in recent times. They resisted the emergency in the 1970s, shouted slogans against Indira Gandhi when she visited the campus in early 1980s and as many as three hundred students were picked up and remanded to judicial custody in the Tihar jail in May 1983.

When JNU turned from an island to the government's battleground
It has been long since the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, has been in the news. As the adage -- no news is good news -- goes, the point ought to be made that JNU was not in the news, as much it is now in another time, is also to romanticise a past and seek to live in that imagination rather than see the reality for what it is.
Well, it is not as if elections to the students union are a thing of recent origin. JNU and JNUSU (Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union) are almost the same age; almost all the political outfits, many with the same name and some with new names existed in JNU ever since the university came into existence in 1971. And while many have contested elections to the students union some other used to call elections as the festival of the asses and revolution alone the festival of the masses. The truth is all of them flocked to public meetings during the campaign and thronged the ground around the building where votes were counted and render a festive context to the process.
It was Priya Cinema then, where PVR stands at Vasant Vihar and Bollywood ruled the roost. The night after the counting was over and the winners and the losers in the elections were all there at Priya for the night show. There was no rancor and violence that has been witnessed in the past couple of days during and after the counting was not even conceived of then.
This, indeed, was JNU in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. One could ask Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman or Prabhakar Parakhala to check the veracity of this for the 1980s; NCP leader D.P. Tripathi, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury about the 1970s; and browse through the newspapers during September-October 1990s to find there was no such news as now of violence in the campus.
It is not that the students in JNU had confronted the Indian state only in recent times. They resisted the emergency in the 1970s, shouted slogans against Indira Gandhi when she visited the campus in early 1980s and as many as three hundred students were picked up and remanded to judicial custody in the Tihar jail in May 1983. And one of those who resisted the Indian state then – Digvijay Singh – had become Union Minister in 1990; long before Nirmala Sitaraman would become a minister in the Union Cabinet in 2014. None of them were physically accosted in the campus by fellow students who held views that were different to what they believed. They, however, were subjected to sharp questioning and debates which they thought they won at times and also lost on other occasions.
I must add that JNU then was an island in New Delhi. Politics in the Delhi University, even then, was different. Those of us who were in JNU in the 1980s recall how H.K.L.Bhagat and B.L.Sharma ‘Prem’, both known for the violent private armies they commanded calling the shots in the students union elections in Delhi University.
While Bhagat would do everything to ensure the NSUI won elections, B.L.Sharma played it for the ABVP. A section of the students then in Delhi University will also recall a movement christened GVA, an acronym for opposing goondaism in their campuses. Arun Jaitley and the late Rangarajan Kumaramangalam were student leaders from Delhi University then the former will vouch for what Bhagat was known for then!
University campuses across the country were affected by the culture of organised violence thus. JNU, however, remained an island and there were instances where a mere incident of one student heckling another – where the two belonged to different outfits – was met with universal condemnation by all political organisations through pamphlets the same evening; and the heckler was invariably expelled from his organisation within hours.
That was when the Hon’ble Supreme Court intervened, in December 2005 with orders that a committee be appointed to study this canker and recommend measures to ensure that universities remained the terrain for political contests and yet disinfect the political culture there from violence and other things dirty. The Lyndoh committee was given birth, its recommendations accepted by the apex court in September 2006 and the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development ordered its implementation.
The long and short of it was to ensure that the universities emulated the political culture that prevailed in JNU – leaving politics in campuses to the students and close the university gates to all the dirty things, including violence and big money – rather than ban politics in universities.
It is hence that news from JNU is bad news for the future of our democracy. And rather than leaving it with a statement and lamenting about things that have gone wrong, slide back into nostalgia and sing (or hum) Mukesh’s rendering, Jaane Kahan Gaye Who Din… from the 1970 Raj Kapur film, Mera Naam Joker, it is necessary now to identify the cause for things going wrong. To stop with saying that a small Island that JNU was in the past could not have been preserved for long from the dominant culture outside is also too mechanistic and hence insufficient.
The key to the answer then is to locate JNU of the present in the wake of the government of the day having decided to wage a war against the institution and a section of its teachers and the students deciding to fight back. This new phase began sometimes after May 2014 and the older battles involving cuts in fellowships and restricting the numbers of research scholars (decisions that were taken by the government before Narendra Modi came in) assumed new shades. February 9, 2016 and the days later when students from the university were picked up on charges of sedition and painted anti-national conspirators marked the beginning of this phase when JNU was chosen by the government as the battleground.
Well, when the political leadership of the state declared war against a section of its people, the followers of that party seem to have taken it their duty to participate in the battle just like vassals and lords were drafted into battles that the kings waged in feudal times. The violence, hence, in JNU is rooted in the ideological onslaught that marks the larger political context. It is not that violence that was central to student politics in universities other than JNU and elsewhere in Munirka and Chattarpur, the villages adjacent to the campus permeating into the campus seeping in through the porous walls of the university.
It did not happen in the four decades after 1970, when JNU was brought into existence. The walls were more porous then. It did not happen then because regimes then did not launch a war against a university then. It is happening now and the reason is obvious.
V. Krishna Ananth is a Professor of History at SRM University, AP.
 
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