Over the past few days, we have been trying to untangle the different concerns that have governed the public discourse on Jawaharlal Nehru University. These have ranged from concerns around basic liberties, university autonomy, and the right environment for scholarship and academic discussions, to concerns regarding the targeting of students based on their identities, disciplining of democratic spaces, suppressing and criminalizing dissent, a breakdown of public institutions like the police and courts to ensure the rule of law in the capital city, the kangaroo courts of the media, and the maligning of one of the best educational institutions of the country. Each of these concerns appeal to different concepts, and they seem so tangled with each other that a coherent assessment of each question in a short article might be a tough task. However, at a time when our public discourse has grown so tangled over a few slogans given out in a University, the best one can do is dive into the tangle and make sense of it by asking questions that worry us the most.
When did the word Azaadi become a term that people should not use?
JNU, is one of the beating hearts of social science scholarship (besides having excellent schools in other disciplines as well) in India. It is a place where persons from across classes, castes, regions and genders, can assertively make arguments that matter to them. These arguments are often driven by their own experiences, or the experiences of those they are in solidarity with. Most importantly, it is a place where scholarship and knowledge are held as the highest virtues that form the basis of its deliberation.
Why is such a University a place where Hum kya chaahtey.. Azaadi! (What do we want? Freedom!) become a slogan that is celebrated by a few students? This is not a slogan that was popularly raised on campus earlier. However, at the last meeting I attended inside the JNU campus (before it became a den for Dilli Police and media vans), on 31st January 2016- Rohith Vemula’s birthday, this slogan was given after a range of slogans in the name of Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar. It surprised me initially. Hum kya chaahtey.. Azaadi.., was a slogan generally given in meetings of solidarity with the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir, a cause that many in JNU have been sensitive to, even if some have not wholeheartedly supported it with as much fervor as other causes. And here it was, being sung during a meeting against a systematic and protracted act of institutional humiliation extended to a Dalit student, driving him to his death. The slogan was followed by several others, which in the JNU fashion, expanded on the previous slogan: Manusmriti se azaadi, brahmanvaad se azaadi..! (Freedom from Manusmriti! Freedom from Brahmanism!). I joined these slogans with some enthusiasm. The words just appealed to me for their simplicity, and the clear plea it made to those present to throw off institutions like caste which made someone feel that his birth ‘was a fatal accident’. The slogans of the Kashmiri people for azaadi from repeated conflict and curfew, to have a democratic say in the laws that govern them – especially AFSPA, and for the dignity to conceptualize one’s own way of life, had also appealed to the students of JNU.
The students of JNU were not merely giving out a slogan for liberty for themselves, but for the Dalit students who had been suspended from their hostels and classes in the University of Hyderabad. There are many who, over the past few weeks have asked, why the students from JNU had to carry out marches in solidarity with Rohith Vemula. To these questions, many of us would reply saying that we do not see showing solidarity with Dalit students, nor building a feeling of fraternity among the student community over it, as a waste of time, or a process devoid of study and scholarship. We see it as the process of building the background conditions of care, trust and respect for rights, all necessary for public reason to develop in a free and democratic society.
What happens to the public reason of a free and democratic society, when it denies background principles of care, trust, and respect for rights, in political and academic life to people in its capital city?
After studying for many years in JNU, I have come to understand a democratic culture as one that works best with the background conditions of care, trust, and respect for rights. It works when public political culture is constantly assessed and reworked as it interacts with diverse and dissenting views. In JNU, in particular, it works through scholarly discussions in classrooms and seminars, late evening deliberations over chai or a solidarity march, through plays that are interactively enacted with the audience at the different meeting points of JNU, reading parchas over dinner, endless debates in each other’s rooms, and attending General Body Meetings on campus regularly. The JNU culture is not a myth- it is a culture that trusts each other before questioning each other, which cares for the answers that the other person has to give, which respects that others have different opinions. Most importantly, it is a culture which prides itself in how secure it is in the foundational values that guide these opinions – equality, justice and freedom. This is a culture which confidently says Hum apna adhikaar maanghte hain, Nahin kisi se bheek maanghte hain. (We demand our rights, we do not have to beg anyone for them.)
Over the past one week, questions have been raised over the credibility of the University simply because its students are doing exactly this – asserting their rights in their own way. Third rate news anchors have gained coverage for patronizingly telling the students of JNU to “stop doing politics” and “start studying”, the capacity of JNU students to do their duties before they ask for their rights has become a raging issue on social media. A PhD student, who among other things referred to Afzal Guru’s death as a judicial killing, is being branded by the media of being associated with terrorist organizations. Police reports are being filed against students for holding meetings over when and how Mahishasur is the good guy instead of Durga, and for inviting SAR Geelani to talk on campus. The JNU Students Union President, no small post to hold when you are part of the academic community, has been arrested, and repeatedly mauled outside court rooms, for supposed seditious activity of which there is no proof. The university and its activities have been maligned because some unidentified persons gave out some questionable slogans, supposedly on campus.
What happens to a society where scholarship becomes victim to disciplining by the Government and the majority backing it?
The campaign to malign JNU seems to stem from an idea that universities and students are arenas where thoughts are disciplined, rather than given the dignity to grow on their own. If education in such institutions is being subsidized by the Government, then the ‘consumers’ of this subsidized education must be obedient to the dictates of the majority backing the Government thinking. If they question what the Government does, or how the state apparatus functions, then they should be taught a lesson for employing the ‘privilege’ the majority gives them of talking, by questioning the majority itself. Many of us are aware that this maligning is not extended to JNU alone – it was extended to Rohith, it is regularly extended to the people of Kashmir and North East India, to Muslim citizens who have been detained without any substantive charges against them, to Dalit and Tribal communities who simply want to assert their democratic voice guaranteed to them by law.
JNU seems to have become a test case for a Government that wants to practice suppressive disciplinary methods against those who want to voice their claim as part of the sovereign people of this democracy. Unfortunately for the Government, JNU has a long history of questioning suppression in an informed manner. Our slogans have imbibed this questioning too: Dum hai kitna daman main terey, dekh liya hai, dekhenge (We have seen how much strength your suppression has had in the past. We will see how much strength it has now too!)[i]. This test case will not be validated.
The students of JNU are not consumers of taxpayers money alone. We are producers of research, and based on this research we have stood in solidarity with various movements of the marginalized in this country. We question how the law can be made more sensible to the people of this country. We don’t just use the writings of Marx and Lenin, but are also inspired by the writings of Ambedkar and Periyar, Gandhi and Azad, Ramabai and Bordoloi in doing so. This doesn’t amount to a waste of taxpayers money. It is what taxpayers money is supposed to do: enable the citizenry to think of how their state should be, and what their state should do.
When did it become a wrong thing to say that we want liberty and equality to be the governing principles of our constitutional democracy?
We don’t think that the state should send in the might of its police, led by an inarticulate and deeply imprudent BS Bassi, to interrogate students on the validity of treating Afzal Guru as a martyr, or supporting the claims of the people of Kashmir on their right to self-determination. This is a conversation to be had in a democratic and scholarly space that our university embodies. If there were slogans given for the “Bharat ki barbaadi” then, given that there was no incitement to imminent violence after these calls, there can be no charges of sedition against whoever gave these slogans either. Unlike the Bhakts of ‘BharatMata’, JNU doesn’t expect its Students Union president to admonish fellow students like their mothers would. It expects students, as self-authenticating members of the student body, to responsibly justify to the student body why they felt the need to make these slogans, especially against the criticisms that were immediately posed to them. The Students of JNU certainly do not expect a complete breakdown of the institutional apparatus of the police and courts to take place in the capital of India, they do not expect their Professors and fellow students to get mauled and beaten up by lawyers who still roam free in the name of nationalism.
If we, as a democracy, are to continuously engage with the question of how to extend the principles of social cooperation to all citizens with equal respect, then suppressing those voicing concerns of the marginalized is certainly not the way to go about it. The students of JNU are simply asking if the majority wishes to acknowledge the legitimate claims of the minority. If it does, it cannot put conditions, tested by media trials and preemptive detentions, on these voices. The students of JNU also ask these questions publicly, by engaging with different moral doctrines, and not by throwing up imageries of a Mother India.
Like some of the best universities in the world, the students of JNU dream of a society with ideals that can freely and equally give its citizens unbounded possibilities. These are not unreasonable demands to make of a constitutional democracy. They are the demands of those who want liberty and equality to be the governing principles of our social and political lives.
[i] This is not a completely satisfactory translation of the original slogan in Hindi.