JNU: What a university should be

Understanding JNU
Last Updated 12 December 2019, 01:43 IST

Amidst the partisan passions, positions and emotions surrounding the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) fracas, the wholly unwarranted concern on its credentials as a predominantly ‘liberal arts’ and ‘international studies’ institution is unfathomable for a 5,000-year-old civilisation. Named after the scholar-statesman Jawaharlal Nehru, who had sowed the seeds of educational institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Lalit Kala Academy, Sahitya Akademi, etc., JNU came into existence five years after his death. While Nehru had famously coined the term ‘scientific temper’ in Discovery of India, his Tryst with Destiny speech had portents of societal suppressions that needed vent, “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman,” herein lies the soul of JNU’s relevance as a lodestar of India’s aspirations and injuries that needs a prominent spot in its capital city.

India, which lives in many centuries at the same time, needs to be conversant with its own multitudes, angsts and repressions, else it will never awaken to its immense potential. JNU set its unique character and destiny for itself in 1969, in the year that mankind landed on the moon, but India was still gripped by inequities, was gasping for democratic empowerment and, above all, learning to shed the rigidities of its past. In such circumstances, JNU aimed to impart “frontier disciplines and newer perspectives for old disciplines to the Indian university system.”

The DNA of disruption was deliberate, and it soon manifested into a noisy tinderbox of academic excellence and utopian hopes that stood out amidst the unplanned concreteness of Delhi and the manipulations of the neighbouring Lutyens zone. The scraggy Aravalli landscape of the campus afforded an intemperate visual that was backed by an equally unforgiving culture that seemed to “protest too much” – issues ranging from LGBT, women’s rights, Naxalism, North-Eastern sensitivities, Kashmir, etc. Somehow, someone was always offended by the “over-entitled” JNU students who were pursuing ostensibly “meaningless” courses that gave the nation no technological, managerial or medical patent!

India is a restive cauldron that needs healing, assimilation and creative solutions that are imperative to unburden and unleash itself. The productive man-hours lost to societal unrest, strife and insurgencies are simply incalculable. Herein lies the absolute necessity for deeper comprehension of our social sciences (sociology, psychology, history, politics, gender studies etc), humanities (philosophy, religion, art, literature, ethics, etc) and natural sciences (archaeology, botany, astronomy, etc). To think that ‘hard sciences’ are either sufficient by themselves or oblivious of the ‘liberal arts’ infusion, is a fallacy. Steve Jobs had stated, “It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

For India, it is not a question of importance in the realm of ‘either-or’ but of ‘and’ when it comes to the absolute criticality of ‘liberal arts’ vis-à-vis the ‘hard sciences’. Scandinavian countries have been able to get the twain of the two broad axes of arts and sciences to meet and generate what is arguably the most progressive and future-ready societies. In a nation that in its infancy had uniquely postulated the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), spoken against the discriminatory nature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT), or is on the cusp of securing a permanent place in the UN Security Council, questioning the relevance of ‘international studies’ is absurd. In the global village, understanding the dynamics of ‘blocs’, multilateral institutions, bilateral opportunities or, indeed, imagining the heft from Papua New Guinea to Bolivia is not a luxury but a necessity.

If India prides itself on its ‘soft power’, then an institution that is at the forefront of shaping the sensibilities of tomorrow domestically and the opinion of the world, cannot be lampooned. The over-simplistic narrative of ‘meaningless’ education is perhaps rooted in the more partisan considerations that JNU automatically generates, given its activist and decidedly liberal moorings that can run contrary to walls of fixated, antithetical and dominant politics of the day.

Diversity and accommodation are at the heart of the JNU composition and expression that often gives rise to voices that are either unheard or uncomfortable, but tabling such voices that bring alive the raw emotions of a Aizwal, Bastar, Warrangal or Sopore is necessary to assuage the perceptions, both right and wrong ones. It is not necessary to accept these contrarian voices as fair at all times, but it is only dialogue, engagement and reconciliation that has helped India overcome its open wounds in places like Punjab and Mizoram.

Somewhere in all this, the shadows of subliminal fears lurk that point toward a more insidious spirit at work beyond just the case of a fee hike. There is an overall diminishment of spirit at play that is generating other peripheral concerns. The contours of the Indian Constitution are liberal enough, to tolerate and even encourage dissent over ideas. Only when those very liberal red lines of constitutional propriety are breached must the State take punitive action. A fair, transparent and specific action against those culpable of genuinely seditious actions may not even generate the sort of reaction that is attributed to the entire institution.

JNU facilitates opinions that can be both extremely leftist or rightist on the political spectrum, but to profess one as the legitimate and not the other is to short-sell our pluralism and tolerance that defines India. Democracy is a constant experiment and it disdains conformity at all times, and Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s immortal lines “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it” offers the best approach to appreciate the vibrancy of JNU.

(Published 11 December 2019, 16:52 IST)

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