The Lynching of JNU

Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it is known in Delhi and beyond, has once again been in the news for the last three weeks.  Its students have been protesting not only against large hikes in hostel fees, but against other features of the draft hostel manual which imposes a dress code and sets a curfew for students.  The university and nearby residential colonies have been swarming with police, but the students have been successful in taking their demonstrations to many parts of central Delhi and the area around Parliament.  There are reliable reports, and video footage, of students, including some who are disabled, who have been beaten by the police.  Students have been lathi charged, and many have been detained.  The Delhi Police has, predictably, denied all charges of police brutality, and rests its case upon the fact that the imposition of Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws public assemblies of more than five people, means that the protestors are in violation of the law.

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JNU has long been one of the country’s most distinguished universities.  That, some might argue, says little considering that no Indian university, going by the Times’ Higher Education World University Rankings (2020), ranks within the world’s top 300 institutions of higher education, and JNU falls within the 601-800 rankings.  Even within Asia alone, JNU is ranked a measly 95th.  Nevertheless, the university has exercised an outsized influence in Indian public and intellectual life, and some of its graduates have gone on to gain global renown.  JNU justly celebrated the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to one of its graduates, Abhijit Banerjee, and a number of its graduates now occupy very high positions in the present government and the civil services.

Such rankings should, in any case, be treated be severe skepticism if not dismissed outright.  JNU has much else to its credit, all of which has made it the target of the present government and the university administration headed by a Vice Chancellor who has shown himself utterly incapable of exercising independent judgment.  More than any other university in the country, JNU remains a site of dissent.  Whatever distinctions its graduates and faculty have earned in the academic sphere, in scientific research, or in public life, many of them have shown that in a modern civilized society it is imperative that the university be safeguarded as one of the last bastions of free speech and dissent.  Four years ago, the government attempted to silence some PhD students—among them, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya—by charging them with sedition and criminal conspiracy, for no better reason than they had held a demonstration against the sentence of capital punishment that had been handed out to Afzal Guru, convicted of an attack on the Indian Parliament.

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Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU Student Union leader. Source: Hindustan Times, 7 March 2016.

The culture of dissent, and independent thinking, cannot however by gauged only by an occasional show of protest, and what makes JNU stand out is the spirit of inquiry which informs intellectual and cultural life on campus.  This was demonstrated, in the aftermath of the government’s heavy-handed and much critiqued handling of the sedition case, by an extraordinary series of lectures on nationalism that were held outside the administration building.  The BJP government has sought, since it came to power in 2014, to capture nearly every state institution, and its inability to silence students at JNU has doubled its resolve to bring the university to heel.  JNU’s students are similarly emboldened to stand their ground, indeed for reasons that the government fears and cannot dare to acknowledge.  JNU is unique in that it draws half of its student body from families that live at the edge of poverty, living on Rs 12,000 or less a month. There are students whose fathers work as hawkers and landless laborers, and in hazardous industries as daily wage laborers.  The supposition of the government, of course, is that such students have no reason to study; they certainly have no right to dream of a better livelihood than their parents.

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If all of this were not enough to bring distinction to JNU, there is yet something more that makes the university absolutely singular in India. It is doubtless the first university to be publicly lynched.  The country has been witness for the last several years to many lynchings of Muslims and Dalits. Make hay while the sun shines, so goes the proverb, and some Hindu nationalists have been on the rampage knowing fully well that that they can commit, with full impunity, heinous crimes.  The idea of an institution being “lynched” may strike some as bizarre, but I doubt very much that the public lynching of JNU has any parallels in modern Indian history.  It may well be JNU’s misfortune that, being named after Jawaharlal Nehru, and having, on top of that, something of a reputation (deservedly or otherwise) as a left-wing institution, it was bound to exercise the attention of the present government, which absolutely loathes the name of Nehru and has lost no opportunity to ridicule the achievements and legacy of India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister.  Most recently, BJP Vice President Shivraj Singh Chouhan has charged Nehru with the “crime” of introducing Article 370 and “announcing ceasefire in war with Pakistan”, a view at once endorsed by Bhopal BJP MP Pragya Thakur who agrees that Nehru, having hurt “our motherland”, was “surely” a “criminal”. Thakur, we should remember, spent nearly a decade in jail on charges of being a terrorist and is technically still out on bail. One might speak of the pot calling the kettle black, but such proverbs would be lost on the illiterates who now command India’s destiny.

The government, having done whatever it deemed necessary to tame JNU, has now left the shaming and lynching of the university to the country’s middle class.  We all know of the television anchor whose trademark harangue, which would be comical if it were not so incendiary, begins with this line:  “The country wants to know . . .”  JNU students are now routinely accused of being anti-national, an allegation which makes a traitor of anyone who does not subscribe to the idea of Hindu supremacy.  But the demonization of JNU students has many other, equally disturbing, features.  A BJP MLA from Rajasthan’s Alwar District had claimed, following the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, that “3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette pieces, among other things,” are found at JNU “daily”, and that “girls and boys dance naked in cultural programmes” at the university.

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Cartoon by R. Prasad, Mail Today.

What he claimed then is now claimed by thousands of middle class Indians posturing as guardians of public morals who are convinced that JNU is a den of vice:  here girls dance naked and they are shameless in flaunting their bodies, both girls and boys are hooked on drugs, and university hostels are little better than places where sex can be had for the cheap.  JNU students, it is being said, are generally engaged in worthless research and are, in any case, much too old to be students.  Social media is awash with such stories.  One story doing the rounds on Facebook, shared 1,400 times within hours of it being posted, represented a 43-year old woman as a student whose daughter was also a student at JNU!  The story circulated with the hashtag, #ShutDownJNU.  The 43-year old woman was a figment of the imagination.

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An illustration of the stories circulating about JNU in social media: this one has the endorsement of IIT Madras Junta Against Leftist APSC [Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle] and bears the hashtag #ShutDownJNU. Source: https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/jnu-protest-fake-news-pictures-of-student-protesters-fact-check

Those agitating for the closure of JNU, or stern disciplinary action against students, are pathetic for yet other reasons.  Some of them have taken recourse to the argument, drawn entirely from the playbook of American populism, that JNU is a drain on public resources and that “tax-payers” should not have to subsidize lazy, old, and left-inclined students so that they can write on worthless topics which do nothing for the country’s economy.  The sheer poverty of such thinking is what should alarm the country.  This is apart from the fact that India’s middle class is notorious for tax evasion, and it can be safely said that many objecting to the waste of tax-payers’ money are evading the payment of their own taxes.  India has a seriously ailing economy.  As the loud shouting against JNU shows, what ails the imagination in India is equally frightening.

 

The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

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There has been much outrage expressed, and quite rightly so, over the action taken some days ago by the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to ask Professor Emerita Romila Thapar for her CV to determine if she was still fit to hold that distinguished title which was conferred on her more than 25 years ago.  JNU has, since its inception, easily been one the country’s leading universities; and Professor Thapar, one can say with even greater certitude, has added more lustre to JNU than nearly anyone else in the humanities and social sciences, and that too over the course of half a century, including the 21 years that she was on its faculty from 1970-91.  Professor Thapar is recognized the world over for her scholarship on ancient Indian history, having earned accolades that most academics can only dream of, but in India she has also had an outsized presence as a prolific public intellectual.

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As a Professor Emerita, Thapar receives no salary from the university:  though she may gain something from this affiliation, it is the university that stands to profit from a continuing association with one of India’s most widely recognized scholars.  Emeritus Professors are not typically “evaluated” once they have been accorded that honor, though the JNU administration claims, quite falsely, that leading American universities subject Emeritus Professors to such reviews.  It is transparent to everyone that Thapar is being subjected to such an ignominious demand to punish her for her principled and fearless critiques of the Hindu nationalists who have run the country since the last five years and whose minions have been installed in many of the country’s leading educational and research institutions.  The JNU administration, in its defense, has pointed out that other Emeritus Professors have likewise been asked to submit their CVs for review by a committee appointed by the Academic Council, but these new “regulations” were put into place just weeks ago.  It is, of course, wholly disingenuous of the administration to camouflage its intense dislike of Thapar with the pretense that she was not being singled out for retribution.

It should be wholly unnecessary to come to the defense of Professor Thapar.  One might have some intellectual differences with her, as the present writer does, but nothing can even remotely justify the utterly shameless and wretched conduct of the university administration. It would be a considerable understatement to say that JNU has seen better days.  Its decline in recent years, more precisely since the administration was packed with people who are virtually illiterates, insofar as they are wholly clueless about what constitutes a university and what makes for something called “the life of the mind”, has been precipitous.  It speaks volumes for the senility of those charged with the administration of the university that its Vice Chancellor two years ago suggested that a battle tank be placed on the campus to instill “love for the army” among its students.  Faculty are increasingly being treated as children, subjected to roll-calls and being marked for “attendance”. Those among the faculty who are known to be critical of the university administration, or who have expressed misgivings about the ominous directions into which the country is being taken, are having their petitions for leave to attend conferences or deliver lectures denied.

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While it would be idle to pretend that public institutions such as JNU were ever free of politics, or that patronage systems did not flourish under previous administrations, leading public universities today face threats unlike any witnessed in the past.  The culture of vindictiveness, openly on display in the insult to Professor Thapar, is deplorable just as it is alarming.  But far more is at stake than a petty meanness on the part of the administration, and it is instructive to understand what makes the university a different kind of battlefield in the attempt of the Indian government to stifle all intellectual dissent.  If the assaults on the freedom of speech and expression are being experienced in other domains—in the literary world, in the attempts to induce conformity and patriotism in the film industry, in the vicious trolling of those few journalists who have dared to adopt a critical stance—then one might what ask what makes the assaults on public universities even more objectionable?

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“When I hear the word culture,” the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels is reported to have said, “I reach for my gun.”  (It is immaterial, I may add, whether the story is apocryphal; that Goebbels and his ilk were philistines is well-established.)  The contempt for intellectuals in the present Indian government runs very high, and those in public universities are especially vulnerable. What may be described as an unprecedented assault on universities such as JNU, which are all too easily seen (and accordingly punished) as bastions of “anti-national” activity, stems from something more than a virulent Hindu nationalism and the intolerance for dissent.  It is no surprise, for example, that the country’s educational administrators are people of intensely bureaucratic disposition and most often engineers and scientists by training, utterly lacking in humanistic education.  They reflect the values, too, of India’s burgeoning middle class, which generally sees education merely as an avenue to job procurement and as an investment that is likely to yield social and financial dividends, rather than as a social process leading to ethical thinking, self-reflexivity, intellectual growth, and an appetite for inquiry into the human condition.  It is not only the staff at Indian universities who do not understand what is meant by a “university”:  many of the administrators who run our universities, and who are willing to do the bidding of their political patrons, are singularly lacking in any understanding of the nature of intellectual work.  Thinking is alien to them.

What remains to be said at this juncture is that, whatever the sins of previous governments, and there are many, the present BJP-led government is driven by the ambition to gut the public university in India.  The two finest public universities in India, Delhi University and JNU, are being strangulated. The government is not unaware that public universities the world over have often been the sites of dissent, and l’affaire Romila Thapar, it is useful to recall, follows the strident and calumnious attacks three years ago on Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya for alleged anti-national activities. Though the administrators who run JNU will not say so openly, they evidently think that Professor Romila Thapar, who has brought more distinction to the study of Indian history than nearly any other historian, is also anti-national.  What could be more pathetic?  The decimation of public universities furnishes, as well, an opening to even greater privatization of higher education.  And what could be more desirable for a government that, notwithstanding all the noise about “swadeshi”, is openly in cahoots with the most self-aggrandizing capitalists that India has ever seen?  But that is another story.

(This is a very slightly modified version of what was published under the same title at ABP on 9 September 2019).

Also translated into Hindi as रोमिला थापर प्रकरण और सार्वजनिक विश्वविद्यालयों पर हमला, online here: https://www.abplive.com/blog/blog-the-assault-on-public-universities-and-l-affaire-romila-thapar-1197941