Everyone has their own take on the ongoing crisis in JNU, hotly debating the line between free speech and sedition. For liberals it feels like the latest round of an ongoing government campaign to stamp out dissent in an academic institution that questions everything and everybody. Conservatives, meanwhile, are rejoicing over the state acting within the framework of the law against the 'seditious' students. Even apolitical, neutral people are appalled by the students and their "treacherous" sloganeering.
Amid the frenzied commentary about legality, let's take a closer look at the site of dissent, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and what it means in the larger context of the nation. I spoke to a friend of mine Vikas Pathak to better understand the role that JNU plays in a societal sense.
JNU is a melting pot for people from different classes, castes and income backgrounds. Students from Delhi University's elite colleges mix with those from Jharkhand, Bihar and Rajasthan.
Vikas studied history in JNU and participated vigorously in the intellectual cut and thrust of student life in the university for seven years. He came to the university from a tier II city and held right-of-centre views on the nation and what it means. His time was spent in impassioned debate with opponents about the nature of politics, citizenship, belonging and democracy, which enriched him. You had to convince people with the strength of your ideas, not by a show of force. This compelled people to read and sharpen their debating skills.
This seems to me one of the most important things about JNU -- the freedom it allows to change one's convictions through rational debate and discussion fostered by the vigorous intellectual climate inside and outside the classroom.
But how have Vikas's views evolved? When he was in JNU he had a primarily territorial concept of the nation. In this view the symbols of the state (government, police, and laws) are meant to be deployed for protecting the territorial integrity of India. Isn't this what the government's actions are about? Sending in the police to arrest students is seen as defending India's integrity against those intent on subverting it.
However, his seven-year stint in JNU led to a considerable shift in Vikas views. Today Vikas describes himself as a liberal with a nuanced and humanistic understanding of the nation. "The idea of the nation has to be linked to the needs of various classes of people," he told me over a phone conversation.
JNU is a melting pot for people from different classes, castes and income backgrounds. Students from Delhi University's elite St Stephens, Hindu and LSR colleges mix with those from Jharkhand, Bihar and Rajasthan. A grading system which awarded extra points to deprived candidates in the entrance exam ensured that those with less opportunity to access quality education got through.
JNU produces people who work in the top positions of the nation while the IITs and IIMs produce people who work in top positions in multinationals.
Another JNU alumnus I spoke to said that the first time he encountered English was when he enrolled. The medium of education in his village school in Bihar was Hindi and he moved to JNU for "opportunity". The university gave him an exposure and an upward mobility that is otherwise difficult in India's stratified higher education system.
Vikas is not in favour of the anti-India slogans raised in JNU ("India ki Barbadi" according to reports), and says such views on campus are held by a "fringe of a fringe", which even the vice-chancellor has acknowledged. Most JNU students would not support such views and it seems unfair to tarnish them all based on the actions of a few.
JNU is being treated as a security threat. The police have entered the campus and arrested the president of the Students' Union, charging him with sedition. Outraged Indians have demanded that taxpayer money be stopped from subsidizing education that produces "terrorists".
Interestingly, the same tax payer money also subsidizes the IITs and IIMs.
But while IIT and IIM graduates opt mostly for corporate jobs, JNU alumni go on to become teachers, professors, bureaucrats, diplomats and police officers. As Vikas put it: JNU produces people who work in the top positions of the nation while the IITs and IIMs produce people who work in top positions in multinationals. The subsidized education allows students from disadvantaged groups to access quality education, expand their potential, and contribute to society.
In fact most of the students who study in JNU aspire to join the IAS, IPS, IFS or any of the numerous professional cadres, a far cry from the "anti-national" tag that is being foisted on them. The roll call of JNU's alumni is long, from current Commerce Minister of State Nirmala Sitharaman to former Intelligence Bureau chief Syed Asif Ibrahim to the current foreign secretary S Jaishankar.
A certain level of critical engagement with society is needed, all the more on a university campus whose students go on to populate academia, bureaucracy and politics. Sure, students from JNU can be obnoxious and I've met some who are smug to the point of arrogance. However, that doesn't mean all students are alike and that the university is a hotbed of anti-national, terrorist activity.
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