An open class on nationalism in JNU
"What dangerous times we are living in!" I am regularly told nowadays. "Desh drohis are proliferating and rearing their anti-national heads everywhere -- on websites, movies, TV channels, street corners and now, university campuses! Imagine! Anti-nationals have been studying in universities under our very noses and we, the taxpayers, have been subsidizing their room, board and tuition with our hard-earned tax money!"
To which I usually respond, "But we have those who have taken it upon themselves to protect the maan maryada of Mother India in this time of ghor kalyug, right? Lawyers and lawmakers who thrash teachers and journalists inside courthouses, news anchors who bravely shout down panellists on their own shows and pronounce unequivocal judgment on them before they can pollute the airwaves with their seditious views."
OB vans were broadcasting scenes of a screaming mob calling for the lynching of Afzal's supporters and also for the deaths of JNU students and Rahul Gandhi.
The sarcasm is usually lost on the person railing and what invariably follows is another rant on 'anti nationals'.
I, like the rest of the nation, have been following the events at JNU with great interest. I was watching Patiala High Court lawyers beat 'Kingpin Kanhaiya', the 'President of the Pernicious', live on TV when my phone rang. A friend of mine had just received an email invitation to attend an 'open class' at 5pm that evening at Jawaharlal Nehru University on the subject of 'nationalism' and wanted to know if I would like to go along as well.
Whoa! A lecture on nationalism? At JNU? I jumped at the opportunity, though not without some anxiety, considering the high tension surrounding the place. One Professor Gopal Guru (no relation of Afzal, I was assured) was going to address a gathering at the steps of the Administrative Block and though I realized this was probably going to be risky business -- police, protestors, et al -- I decided to go.
Because at some point, you just have to check things out for yourself.
The traffic slowed as our cab turned the corner to go up the incline that leads to the main gate of JNU. OB vans were broadcasting scenes of a screaming mob calling for the lynching of Afzal's supporters and also for the deaths of JNU students and Rahul Gandhi. It was an ugly scene and the first thing that struck me about the mob was the Indian tricolour they were waving. It looked completely out of place with the venom and vitriol of the people waving it.
A heavy police barricade protected the gate. We managed to make our way into the campus through a little side entrance and then proceeded towards the Administrative Block. A family heading to the same event gave us a lift in their car. For those who haven't been to JNU, it is a sprawling campus built on hilly terrain. Bougainvillea bushes flank the road. One has to walk quite a bit to get from one building to another and I was happy for the ride.
This was not the gathering of wild-eyed Commies I was expecting. No one had raised any slogans. I had actually learned something new.
But I was not prepared for what I saw next.
Imagine two thousand people sitting wherever they could find a place, and listening quietly and attentively to professors talk. The contrast between the calm here and the hate and hysteria outside was too stark to ignore.
One of the speakers began with the words, "We have been told that we spend too much time on activism and do not teach, so we decided to hold an extra lecture after a full day of teaching and since we have been branded 'anti-national', we thought we would teach on the subject of nationalism." A wave of laughter rippled through the audience. I found a place to sit and made myself comfortable.
The speakers spoke expansively on the origins of nations, the theories of nationhood and the nuances of nationalism. Their talks were erudite, informed and witty. Interspersed with intermittent laughter and applause, they continued till the sun finally went down. This was not the gathering of wild-eyed Commies I was expecting. No one had raised any slogans. I had actually learned something new.
I then decided to talk to as many students as I could and ended up speaking with at least a dozen of them. Some were doing their PhDs in International Relations, some were doing MAs in Language Studies and some were doing MPhils in Sociology. I wanted to get their views firsthand on what had actually happened. None of them were proud of the fringe who had shouted the objectionable slogans.
They were polite, articulate, well-read, balanced and had an in-depth understanding of their subjects. After talking to them for a while, I realized that far from being "anti national", these young people were actually trying to figure out how to help build a progressive and inclusive India. They had learned to look past clichés, pat answers and oversimplifications, unlike, I might add, the goons shouting ugly slogans at the main gate. It made me wonder who the real anti-nationals are!
If you are wondering what to make of the lurid accusations being hurled at the institution, go to JNU and talk to the students...
One of the students I spoke to introduced me to several others, including a German student who had written a song on JNU and the values that it -- and India -- stands for. I was moved. These young people had the quiet confidence of those who know what they are talking about. None of them tried to convince me to come over to "their side" but they answered my questions with clarity and, I might add, humility.
So here is my suggestion. If you are wondering what to make of the lurid accusations being hurled at the institution, go to JNU and talk to the students and see for yourself whether they are indeed the country-breakers they are being made out to be. (Unless, of course, your mind is already made up and you don't want to be confused by the facts.)
Unlike many other students their age whose ultimate goal is securing a fat pay package, these students are actually studying courses in sociology, political science, economics and yes, even Sanskrit in an endeavour to understand a complex and nuanced country like India in order to serve it better.
In fact, I would say that the students of this university are amongst the finest I have ever met. And I have met many.
I look forward to going back and chatting with them some more.
Also see on HuffPost: