Teachable moments from JNU

Book cover of JNU Stories: The First 50 Years
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I put my hand up to review this book. The apprehension stemmed from not “doing anything” in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in terms of formal academics, despite spending four vital formative years of life during the university’s initial years.

In recent years, scorn has been heaped on JNU for, among other issues, “breeding” numerous “non-achievers” who did nothing but waste state resources by “staying for years and doing nothing but politics” (an interesting description since our current finance and foreign ministers are among its alumni).  As a member of this club, was one “qualified” to review a tome of remarkable essays, personal accounts and edifying analyses mainly written by prominent faculty and alumni members — even though I did not “do” politics except for a brief period?

What changed my mind was the recurring friendship of an alumni that has accomplished much more than I, and the community of faculty members, former and current, who never belittled anyone consciously choosing to opt out of formal academics for personal or other reasons.

The self-assurance also came from what Yogendra Yadav argued in his confessional essay, “On Many Ways of Being a JNUite”. He wrote:  “Just as there is no one way of being an Indian, there is no one way of being a JNUite.” There are other essays too, out of the 75 packed into this volume, that indicate how the university was conceptualised and structured, to enable numerous “names” in today’s world discover paths and beliefs best for them.

From Atiya Kidwai’s account of a panel of interviewers counselling a petrified Ashok Lata (who eventually became an exemplary political activist before her untimely death), convincing her she could indeed reply in Hindi, to Purushottam Agrawal’s confession of his travails with English, numerous essays underscore how JNU ignored handicaps of those who entered its portals and instead, curated their capacities.

This is indeed an extraordinary book. Despite a large number of essays written by people with divergent viewpoints, the volume is a complete whole. The essays are classified into 12 sections starting with Spaces and Places, Imagining the University, Of Schools and Centres and Sites of Learning. In their introductory essay, Neeladri Bhattacharya and Janaki Nair explain that this volume was necessary, because “structures and processes” so painstakingly “nurtured and built up through a process of debate and discussion, trial and revision, are severely strained.”

In a reminder that legislative deliberations are almost a thing of the past, the JNU Bill, although tabled in Parliament in 1964, was enacted in 1969 after due deliberation in a Joint Committee and the two Houses. In his essay, “A University Is Set Up”, Rakesh Batabyal, who wrote the notable book  The Making of a University some years ago, quotes V K R V Rao’s response to  a query by G S Pathak, later India’s Vice President, on how the university would be unique. “It should embody,” Rao replied, three basic principles Nehru believed in: “national integration, establishment of a decent society and a universalistic philosophy.”

JNU Stories: The First 50 Years 
Author: Editors: Neeladri Bhattacharya, Kunal Chakrabarti, S Gunasekaran, Janaki Nair & Joy LK Pachuau
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 544; Price: Rs 999
JNU’s approach to history forms the core of the vilification campaign against the university and “leftist historians”. Romila Thapar’s article on the evolution of the Centre of Historical Studies brings out how it fundamentally changed teaching of history within India. JNU’s history courses, she explains, “focussed on social and economic history”, not being taught elsewhere, and were “structured around problems and perspectives rather than on chronologically arranged narratives.”

Others sections of the book include facets of students’ life: Living and Loving (no, JNU did not set record of dispensing used condoms daily and instead, as Kuldeep Kumar writes, it made respect for women an article of faith), and Politics, Posters and Performances, among others, where Jairus Banaji writes on how the political culture was shaped and the role of faculty in this process. He recalls the late historian Bipan Chandra’s “capacity to learn from history,” convert that into an “instrument of both political and theoretical clarification” while displaying “astonishing flexibility which I later realised stemmed from an absolute lack of dogmatism”.

For any institution, especially politically vibrant ones, reminiscences are steeped in politics. Prabir Purakayastha, infamously arrested in 1975, compares repression during the “declared Emergency” and in the “times of an undeclared Emergency.” Targeting faculty and students was common then as now. But, while previously the attacks were for their viewpoints, now students are also singled out for their identity.

Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee in his delectable piece, “An Accidental Education” displays a hitherto unknown ability to laugh at himself. He confesses that despite having failed to read Das Kapital  as an undergraduate student, he readied to “immerse” himself in Karl Marx who was the “talisman of the JNU economics department.”  But his non-economic education, which came outside the classroom of course, is what possibly made many more like him, more rounded personalities. He writes how his notion of Indian literature widened, as also his understanding of caste evolved, all of which transformed his “entire sense of what it meant to be an Indian.”

Even for those without a “JNU connection”, the book underscores the basic that, as Atiya Kidwai put it: “Students will not walk on paths you make. They make their own path. Let them choose.” When choice is being taken away from most spheres, the book assumes greater importance.

/> The reviewer is an author and journalist who studied Russian language and literature in JNU but opted out before completing the course

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