The JNU controversy: a student’s perspective

Shivangi Kaushik

Shivangi is a 3rd Year Lady Shri Ram College For Women in New Delhi

Since the 9th of February, I have been closely following the events unfolding in the JNU campus. What actually interested me was the widespread national and international attention this particular incident garnered. The JNU hullabaloo was not only a trending matter in the social media but also a highly politicized issue as different political parties fought over ideological differences arising out of their own subjective interpretations of the controversy. However one of the problematic questions that this particular problem highlighted was the role of students today. I would like to explore what actually is the space of the university meant to signify? Is it only supposed to be the sacred space meant for neutral academics or should the people who occupy this space also be allowed to nurture their own political and social opinions?

The centers of learning:

Most of the universities in India through their progressive syllabi have taught students to question the status quo prevailing in their respective societies. These public funded institutions are intellectual sanctuaries to the scholarly nomads of the country. They are the temples of research work and have produced a rich body of literature that dwell on social issues and problems that confront India today. Research based scholarship contain both quantitative and qualitative suggestions on policy implementation and also question the concealed structural violence in an unequal society like that of India that denies basic opportunities to the under privileged. In sum it helps students and researchers approach the world around them with a critical insight.

However a lot of this work gets limited to the academic sphere that can read, write and understand such articles with profound intellectual insights. For instance, a lot of work on the plight of the Dalits gets published in educational journals that get circulated in university or other institutes. However these works can never reach the Dalits themselves living in a remote village even though they contain the detailed analysis of the causes of his oppression. Why is this so? Is it only because Dalits are illiterate and are not able to understand these works?

Nope I don’t think so.

Politics of academic dissent:

There is a secretive political agenda at work to restrict the readership of the critical work published by the universities to the academic sphere only. After the JNU controversy, it has been clear that Sedition in India is really contested. Owing to the fact that a fictional book can hurt the sentiments of a minority group, hence it is better that critical works on social issues at best be restricted to the academic sphere. India is a country where democracy and freedom of expression are monopolized by the whims and fancies of highly intolerant groups, so won’t it be wise to make these articles inaccessible to the opinionated common man? Why is it that a lot of articles and papers which dwell on critical matters are published in highly complex English rather than vernacular languages (it is the latter which can only in fact garner the majority readership in India)?

Publishing dissent is indeed a risky business in the country.

I think that it is safe for students and faculty who sow revolutionary ideologies to be critical and to have radical discussions inside the gates of these campuses. Dissent can never tread beyond the critical gates of the academic sphere. Once outside it gets sensationalized by the media and the intolerant groups punish the ones who are brave enough to merely utter words against the establishment. So in sum you can discuss any issue over multiple cups of tea and cigarettes within the campus but outside it is really risky as you might be persecuted….thanks to archaic laws like that of sedition. Unfortunately after Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech, it is apparent that sedition is also being extended to legally encompass views that are ‘anti-national’ in nature. The problem is further deepened as we still don’t know what anti-nationalism actually is and what the crimes that come under it are. Also who decides what who are not nationalists?

Keeping aside the ideological conflicts, I was deeply affected by the fact these spaces where students and faculty alike are free to discuss anything under the sun; was violated as police forces tried to prevent students from voicing their opinions and protesting.

Role expectations of students:

Students are the largest community of knowledge seekers in the country. They are the people who after acquiring education in these universities would contribute to the nation’s development through their skills.

In India since the beginning of the independence movement, it is the students who in their large numbers have led various movements against oppressive regimes.

However what I really believe has changed is the way students perceive and think about issues that become a part of their respective milieus. Today there is a subjective as well as a temporal dimension to the way social issues are experienced and interpreted by students across institutes. The issues confronting them were different and so were the times in which they lived. Hence the temporal aspect and the generational divides in the way issues affect us also leads to the subjective experiences of crises.

Adding to that India at the moment is experiencing a demographic dividend in which the majority is the youth who are seeking answers to economic deprivation and unemployment which was not so in the times of Bhagat Singh.

Bhagat Singh and his followers were fighting against the undue regime of the British whereas Kanhaiya Kumar and the so called students union are fighting against the repressive regimes of their own government that promote structural inequality i.e. privilege given to a section of people at the cost of others.

When I used the word Role expectations, I of course meant that nowadays students are not really expected to sit in dharnas or protests. They are meant to enter these universities, earn their degrees in two years and then once when they get a job, they are expected to leave these campuses with the tag of being the alumnus of a prestigious institute. Moreover students especially in the Delhi University are so bogged down by an extensive syllabus and unlimited assignments; that they rarely have the time to think about anything else but their studies.

Somehow I feel that academic institutions like that of JNU now resemble gated communities like that of the Kibbutz and students inside are expected to conform to being the ultimate bookworm.

Everyone has a opinion:

Just a couple of days after the events unfolded in JNU, I had a discussion about it with my maid. She tells me that she checks the news in her smart phones. Almost all news channels nowadays have apps (applications) that provide hourly updates and that can now be read in Hindi. She promptly shows it on her smartphone the numerous updates she receives everyday from the various news channels’ apps she has downloaded. After working in two shifts at around 10 households, I was actually impressed that she was keen on knowing what was happening in the world. On the whole JNU fiasco; she tells me that her brother works at a canteen in the JNU campus. She is scared that in the tussle between the police forces and the students in the JNU campus it might somehow affect her brother working there. Hence she feels that the whole matter should have been left to the university administration; the police should have been never involved.
In her opinion my maid is clear that the police should have never interfered. Not because she cared a lot for the institutional autonomy of the university but because she hoped her brother would be left unhurt. So does it mean we are to form an opinion about something only when it affects us?

All of us believe that people who work in offices or people who churn out scholarly articles in the newspapers are the only ones who have the resources as well as the right to form an opinion. Well there might be exceptions.

Bimol from Manipur runs the momo counter at the corner of the road. During a casual discussion over momos with him; he asked me if I was studying in JNU. When I replied in the negative, he asked me whether the protests and the other ‘tam jhams’in the campus died down. I replied by saying that the police are still trying to control the situation and the media is trying its best to give us update on the situation inside the campus.

Hearing the word ‘ media’, Bimol asked me if I was aware about the protests carried out by a group of women in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in the year 2004. Indeed a group of women staged a naked dharna in Imphal, Manipur to protest against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama who was allegedly raped and murdered by the Assam Rifles paramilitary. Taking cue from the crisis in JNU, he tells me that a doctored video is getting so much attention however something imminent like that of AFSPA is getting a corner page attention in the national newspapers.

The issues of social conflict faced by the women of North East are often termed as issues of national security and are ignored by the government as well as national media.

In fact a lot of students from the North East in the university campuses face a lot of racial discrimination from their fellow students; however it remains to be seen if these unions who are so proactive on matters of strategic importance like that of Kashmir can also think for the welfare for the ones who live and suffer in their own campuses.

From a students’ perspective, the JNU controversy was turned into a more government vs opposition debate that gained attention as it happened in the heart of the capital. It was even more interesting how the different politicians and stakeholders in the conflict tried to interpret this controversy as per the ideologies and interests of their parties. What Rahul Gandhi termed as restrictions on freedom of speech was termed by the ruling government as ‘anti-national’.

What could have been a vibrant dialectical discourse of nationalism vs anti nationalistic was unnecessarily sensationalized by both the media and the political parties at the national as well as the students levels (ABVP).

As a part of the student’s community, I feel that I should write about this issue as after all students’ opinions do matter. I also hope that the academic space will not be violated anymore. An academic space is the only space in India today where I feel people can be allowed to choose sides; it does not matter whether they are right or wrong. The essence of a democracy is of course in the conflict of opposing ideologies.

However coming back to the question of the academic space, I feel there is a need to define the academic as well as the political activities of a university. Of course we cannot separate them, they are interdependent of each other and I believe universities are a healthy synthesis of both of these activities.

These activities are the new experiences that define our role as well as position in the society today. In a time when the academic, the government and public spheres are getting connected and intermixed, it on us to choose on which side we actually are.

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