The JNU revolt: Are they rebels with a cause?
Hiking up fees will have a detrimental effect on this grand inclusive project that made India stand out among nations.
The controversial Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi in India has the uncanny ability to stay in the news, and draws strong reactions from right wingers for its pronounced pro-Left bias. And the occasional bouts of chaos in the campus.
One major grouse against the university and its students has been that they live off freebies and handouts given by the government but lose no opportunity to protest against the very same government that feeds them. The recent barrage of protests by JNU students against the across-the-board increase in tuition and hostel fees had brought out the same familiar reaction that this extended addiction to freebie culture has to end.
As a former student of the university, I tend to look at this line of argument as deeply flawed for its hostility to the equal-opportunity principle. Public-funded education is not an obscene word. In fact, that should be the ruling principle in a society as divided and as unequal as India's.
When I was a student in the early 90s in the university, the hostel fee and tuition fees were negligible. The institution has been conceived as a residential university where students are selected through an all-India entrance examination. Hostel accommodation was given free of charge. The Rs10 fee ($0.14) - often derisively referred to by critics today - was only a token amount. The hostel messes were run on no-loss-no-profit basis by ex-servicemen. So mess charges too were reasonable. I remember even these charges were reimbursed by the Andhra Pradesh government for the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) students of the state. And there were merit-cum-means scholarships too for students of poorer backgrounds.
So students from deprived backgrounds and regions found a safe refuge in the scenic campus envied by outsiders. Many of my contemporaries from the SC and ST communities are now well-placed in universities, civil service, and central security forces. They would not have made it to the positions but for the congenial atmosphere provided by the university.
No wonder. The university proved to be a fertile ground for a strong anti-establishment left-wing culture. It also spawned a lot of frivolous and superficial radical activists. But I see no harm from these guys who do not at least think of lynching people even in their wildest imagination.
A strong view has emerged that the public-funded education is a drain on resources and should be discouraged. As a person who studied right through in government-funded institutions, I find this distasteful. Government interventions in education immediately after independence had made a world of difference. A network of institutes for technology and management such as IITs, NITs, and IIMs and many central research institutions have spawned a generation of professionals and scientists who made their mark in India and abroad. These institutions, which had a minimal fee, made education accessible to all. Hiking up fees indiscriminately will have a detrimental effect on this grand inclusive project that made India stand out in the comity of nations.
The self-financing private model of education, favoured by the present ruling dispensation, is a very costly proposition and is deeply hostile to people from underprivileged backgrounds.
The JNU was conceived by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi as a sort of intellectual think tank to bolster her left-wing credentials. P. N. Haskar, who was her mentor and principal secretary, played an instrumental role in shaping the philosophy of the university.
S. Gopal, son of former president S. Radhakrishnan, who was a history professor and known for his famed biography of India's first PM Jawaharlal Nehru, oversaw the ideological makeup of the university. A whole band of left-wing historians led by Romila Thaper, Harbans Mukhia and others provided depth and meaning to the mission. The connection with left-liberal ideology was part of the DNA of the university.
Student elections were a noisy and boisterous affair marked by intense ideological debates. I recall one of the presidential debates in the first year of my university. A candidate for Free Thinkers, a group of non-left students, used to say during his campaign the university administration was out to lure students to become leftists. He used to cite the colour of bricks of the university which were red. He smelt a rat in the red library cards.
A lot of left-wing leaders and journalists such as Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat, and N. Ram remained committed to the ideology that they picked up during their years in the university. Many others moved on and played important roles in government establishments.
But not all students of the JNU were into politics. During my years, a substantial section was busy preparing for their civil services examinations. They occasionally dabbled in politics and many of them made it to the services. Those who failed moved on to lesser roles in state governments.
The JNU as I knew it was not an unmixed bag. The good, bad, and ugly coexisted. The quality of students and instruction was not always excellent across the board. A substantial section of students and faculty was stuck in vacuous slogan-mongering in the name of left-wing academics. Marxism was given a pride of place in the curriculum to the detriment of other worldviews. In hindsight, now I can say this prevented the emergence of more rounded personalities from the university.