Shock and Awe!

Roshni Sengupta

Shock and awe! That’s what it initially was. But then, should I be shocked and must I be awed by the filth being traded around by the powers-that-be and their pet mice about an institution that has weathered the test of time. My institution, my university, part of my life for most part of my youth. I remember the day I entered JNU through the North Gate for admission to the Master’s programme at Centre for Political Studies. Since that day, JNU remains irreplaceably and irrevocably seared into a part of me, my politics, ideology and personality. Saying this today might be construed as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘anti-national’ but ask any current or former JNUite and snide slurs and remarks have been the hallmark of our existence since we decided to hone our academic skills at one of the best institutions of higher learning in India. In fact, matrimonial advertisements carry express notes about the ineligibility of ‘girls from JNU’ marking us as unsuitable brides! The joy we – ‘girls from JNU’ – derive from such derision remains unfathomable for anyone who hasn’t been in JNU. I am not the least bit surprised by the comments made by a misinformed, misogynist, gender-insensitive and sexist Haryana bureaucrat about girls from JNU being worse that prostitutes. Can we expect anything better from an official from a state that tops the list in female foeticide and infanticide?

Then there is this matter of JNU being a breeding ground for Leftists. Fair enough. The university is made up of 14 major academic schools and a number of research centres out of which the political and intellectual thought of Marx, Engels and Lenin are taught at the School of Social Sciences and as parts of more extensive syllabi at the School of Arts and Aesthetics. Statistically therefore the charge against JNU being a ‘Leftist’ institution is banal and empty. Even if, let’s say, the predominant ideological disposition of the campus is left-of-centre or far Left, does that make the institution prone to illegality or anti-social behavior? As a student in JNU I was exposed to ideas, debates and writings. I was able to articulate my thoughts and engage with the ideology primarily because of the open and inclusive platform provided by the student body at JNU. If I was a member of the SFI, it was my choice. Because at JNU, if nothing else, one learns to choose – from an ideological persuasion to a way of life. I was not wooed by anyone, nor did anyone indoctrinate me or put me through rounds of brainwashing. I ‘chose’ to live by and profess a politics that pseudo-nationalists are today denouncing as ‘Leftist’. It is but a matter of conjecture that RSS shakhas are being conducted inside the BHU campus, an openly pro-BJP man with a questionable film career now heads the Film and Television Institute of India, and the Indian Council for Historical Research is managed by academicians whose backgrounds remain rather suspicious, having eased out renowned historians and scholars.

Further, the basis of categorising people – more importantly students – as ‘patriotic and unpatriotic’ and ‘nationalist and anti-national’ remains dubious and problematic. The post-colonial milieu in India was raised on a staple of choices that the nascent and fledgling state made at the start, particular among them being the choice of Hindi over Urdu as the preferred language for national broadcasting (both radio and TV) and the adoption of Hindi as the national language, much to the chagrin of non-Hindi speakers. While Hindi became synonymous with the Hindus, Urdu became known as the language of the Muslims. Needless to say, the fact that a majority of Indians particularly from the North spoke a language which was a combination of Hindi and Urdu with a smattering of Persian and Arabic and influences from Khadi Boli was conveniently ignored. Hence, it was propagated that only Muslims spoke Urdu.

Then as relations with the newly-created Pakistan continued to sour the outpourings of hatred and ‘nationalism’ moved from the battlefield to the cricket field. Anyone who did not spew venom at the Pakistani cricket team was considered a traitor and anti-national. The category of ‘nationalists’ therefore included all those Indians who abused Pakistan and Pakistani cricketers in public, those who threatened to dig up cricket pitches and those who wrote vitriolic pieces in ‘nationalist’ newspapers about the ‘impending war’. To this list was also added those who opposed Pakistani artists from performing in India with enough vehemence to overwhelm an entire concert hall. The category grew and developed and tended to exclude everyone who reasoned outside the pea-pod scope of anti-Pakistanism. The ‘others’ were grouped together as ‘pseudo-secularists’ and ‘Pakistan lovers’. This group included academics, journalists, intellectuals, writers, columnists, artists, sportspersons and their ilk.

But we did not stop here. More categories have made their presence felt with the passage of time and as political dispensations have been periodically replaced. Today we hear of ‘Maoists’, ‘Naxalites’, ‘Leftists’ and ‘Jihadists’ being churned out by JNU. That the three categories are conceptually and ideologically as different and divergent as chalk is from cheese remains an academic matter not to be discussed in the open lest you be branded, oh yes, ‘anti-national’! The terms Maoist and Naxalite are routinely used as one, in complete disregard of the fact that the locations and cultural contexts of both the revolutions were diametrically different. While Communism in China was a result of the revolution initiated by Mao Tse Tung, the Naxalbari Movement in West Bengal was the culmination of faulty and oppressive land redistribution laws and the exploitation of the poor and underprivileged farmers.

The political influence of the Indian Left unfortunately remains a mere shadow of itself supported to a great extent by the radical politics still in evidence in democratic and free spaces like JNU. Interestingly, the ‘Leftist’ revolutionary Bhagat Singh whom the saffronites are hell bent on appropriating for their own political machinations, remained a staunch Communist till his hanging in 1931. He was the product of a strong socialist sentiment in Punjab in the early 1900s which disappeared gradually in the post-Independence era leaving West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura as the only three remaining states with significant support for Left ideology.

North India – much of what is known as the cow belt – has, for all practical purposes, degenerated into a communal cauldron overseen by the Sangh Parivar, seeds of which were sown in the early 1990s with the demolition of the disputed structure and the Ramjanmabhoomi Movement. The only other state that could rival the northern states in their blinkered backing of the BJP – the political face of the RSS – remains Gujarat, the site of the some of the worst communal killings in the history of India. In a strange way, therefore, JNU has through the violent history of politics in North India protected and maintained its ethos of inclusiveness and radical thought. That is so because a large number of students in JNU belong to states which have strong Left leanings, ‘nationalist’ critics might want to argue.

Not so long ago, another category was added to the list of marauding and flagrant individuals being allegedly produced by the university. A few years back, Praveen Togadia, the acid-tongued, venomous leader of the rabid Bajrang Dal – another prominent member of the sacred Parivar – accused JNU of teaching ‘jihadi literature’ and producing anti-nationals. Nothing to me is as jocular and amusing as a poisonous man like Togadia talking of dangerous literature being taught to impressionable young minds. For starters, it might be helpful to take a look at the literature being produced by Sangh affiliates, an example being a small, historically spurious booklet titled ‘Ramjanmabhoomi ka Raktaranjit Itihas’ which was in circulation during the Janmabhoomi movement. More recent examples come from the Hindutva laboratory Gujarat where school students are taught to refer to Muslims as ‘mian bhai’ or ‘mulla’, entire historical periods go missing from textbooks, examinations are scheduled on Muslim holidays, and question papers are replete with mathematical problems around dead Muslims.

Throughout my tenure as a student at JNU, I never once came across any incendiary piece of literature being referred to either in course of lectures or recommended to us for further reading. Yes, there was Marx and yes, there was Lenin. And there was Mao too. But there was also Bentham, and Locke and Hobbes. And Hegel, Kant and Rousseau, John Rawls and Robert Putnam. There were also Ram Mohun Roy, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mohandas Karanchand Gandhi and Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar. Since when did the writings of these gentlemen become ‘jihadi literature’? Since I did not magically transform into a jihadi by reading the political thoughts of leading political theorists and philosophers, I completely fail to comprehend how anyone could metamorphose into a jihadi by being exposed to political writings or philosophy.

india stands with jnu

By categorizing people into binaries like ‘nationalist’ and ‘anti-national’, we are unflinchingly playing into the hands of the Parivar which has been eyeing JNU as some kind of a site for conquest for quite some time. The right-wing, conservative, virulent and subversive ideology of ‘either you are with us or with them’ again divides people in unhinged, ubiquitous groups, mitigating any scope for diverse thought and action. That a particular strain of thought might be a rational choice for someone while for another it might be quite the opposite does not register with the proponents of such binary vision. Institutions like JNU have over the years produced rational individuals who value human freedom more than anything else and the seeds of it are sown in an atmosphere of independence and creative freedom that the campus fosters. This is what remains the primary task of universities – to encourage free thinking individuals – however radical, however political. But, alas, what good can come of preaching to the converted.

Roshni Sengupta is a post-doctoral scholar at Leiden University, The Netherlands. She is a former student of JNU, completing MA, MPhil and PhD degrees from the esteemed institution.