I arrived in JNU on a clear, balmy August afternoon of 1990. The subsequent 4 years I spent there, first as an MA then as an M. Phil student in Linguistics, were one of the most formative for a middle-class next-door guy from Patna. I owe a lot to my JNU education and overall I have a very fond memory of being there. I learned from some of the most outstanding teachers and Acharyas, met some of the brightest young minds of India, and developed lifelong friendship with many. Amidst the cacophony of all those fierce dhaba debates, post-dinner talks in the dining halls, GBMs, and JNUSU presidential debates, etc., JNU helped me carve out my own path for which I am ever indebted to my alma mater.
On that first day, as I walked along the narrow winding streets atop the Aravali hills, I tried to soak in the naturally endowed beauty all around the 1,000-acre sprawl of the JNU campus. I had barely sat down after dinner in my newly commissioned Mahanadi Hostel room at the top of the Poorvanchal Hills, the entire stretch of the valley below me started reverberating with the slogans, which at first sounded like ‘Safai march-on’. A little puzzled, I thought to myself why are the university safai karmcharis taking out a torchlight procession this late in the evening? I made the mistake of posing this question to one of the fellow hostel residents, a Ph.D. scholar. He looked at me with great disgust and said, “Its SFI, not safai”.
That was my first introduction to the politics in JNU. I soon realized, with the motto of ‘Study and Struggle’, how intricately involved politics was in JNU. It was the year of anti Mandal Commission agitations. Many of the new students, who had enrolled in JNU that year were very active in that agitation. These students were soon branded as ‘lumpens’ by the establishment students and were looked at with suspicion and contempt. This was done primarily because of the reason that these new rangroots did not fit in the fold of classical JNU narrative.
So, what was the JNU narrative, you may ask? To answer this question a quick dive into the history of JNU is in order. Ever since its inception in 1969, the university has been a breeding ground for the Left. The process of turning institutions of higher educations into Marxist fiefdom had started under the tutelage of the then education minister and a leftist icon S. Nurul Hasan, and JNU was no exception. JNU was, in fact, well on its way to become a torchbearer of the Marxist ideology. Nurul Hasan’s policy ensured a leftist stranglehold over JNU faculty, which it is yet to overcome. This stranglehold is maintained by, among other methods, by a process of what Arvind Kumar calls ‘Selection Engineering’. The university holds an open national entrance examination for enrollment. Except for a few select streams, a panel interview is also part of the selection process. Arvind Kumar, in his detailed article “Selection Engineering: Political Filters in JNUs Admission Process”, provides evidence regarding how this selection process is rigged to a large extent to suit leftist ideology. The author cites the examples of the kinds of questions asked during the JNU selection process, which forces one to reveal his/her political positions on various issues.
From this leftist/liberal stranglehold developed three predominant narratives in JNU. The first being secular vs. communal, the second being of conflicts and divisions and third being the narrative of a whiner. This trifecta of narratives gets fed to the incoming students both by the leftist student groups and by the teachers in the classrooms. Students are hammered hard from all directions and by all means, some of them not so kosher at all.
Let us first examine the secular-communal narrative. Secularism is a western concept. The western religions have always operated on a different plane from that of other institutions, such as science and government. There has been a constant struggle among these institutions wherein each tries to supersede the other. This struggle of power led to the rise of a concept called ‘Secularism’. Over time, religion represented by the Church became the most dominant institution. This power equation left little or no room for any meaningful discourse, intellectual or otherwise, outside the gambit of religion and the Church. Thus, there was a need and desire for promoting a general social framework that would be separate from religion and the church. The idea of a secular state was born out of such a desire. A secular state does not have a state religion and it does not favor one religion over others in matters of state policy.
The left intellectuals and politicians of all hue have tried to inaccurately apply the concept of secularism in India. India historically has been a pluralistic Dharmic society. Dharma has been the foundation of Indian life and culture, both in the sacred and the profane sphere. Dharma, however, does not threaten nor is it in conflict with the State. Thus secularism, in Indian context, seeks to separate the culture and foundation of the nation from its people.
The opposite of secular is religious. However, in JNU context (for that matter, in the Indian left-liberal parlance) opposite of secular is considered communal – one that creates a conflict between different communities. In JNU, every argument on secularism ends up in a binary of secular vs. communal. But there is an additional element to this binary – it is reserved primarily for the Hindus. This effectively means that any Hindu, who has a penchant for his/her faith, culture, history and traditions becomes communal, and hence, contemptuously hate-worthy.
On the other hand, the conflict between religion and science in the West was because of the ‘revealed’ nature of the religion. In a ‘revealed’ religion, since, the truth has already been revealed, which the messiah makes universal, there is no room for inquiry and investigation. But as we all know, the human mind is extremely inquisitive and asks questions all the time. Hence, the concept of secular discipline was developed to facilitate questioning. The Scientific revolution, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment were all made possible by this separation.
Contrary to the western set up, the Dharmic or the Indic tradition, is based on Jigyasa, the unending curiosity about anything and everything around, including what may even be considered sacred and divine. In this tradition, the emphasis has always been on seeking individual truth, spiritual or otherwise. If you look through the history, one can find numerous examples of Rishis and Acharyas spending years after years wandering around seeking their own ‘truth’. Buddha is one example where he set out to find his ‘truth’. The important aspect of this exercise, which sets it apart from other traditions, is that this truth seeking is a never-ending enterprise. It does not end with someone finding the truth, which may in turn become the universal truth ceasing all other truth seeking enterprises. This concept of constant questioning has also manifested itself in the Indian Intellectual Tradition, which reached the heights not known to any other civilization in the world in many fields of inquiry, including mathematics, medicine, astronomy, linguistics, etc. As a result, in Indic tradition, there is no religious/secular distinction in either texts or in disciplines.
The other predominant JNU narrative is of conflict and division. This narrative is presented in the form of the ‘exploiter’ and the ‘exploited’. Marxists generally view literature as ‘products’ of the economic and ideological determinants specific to that era. In doing so, they completely ignore and discount the timeless artistic criteria in such literatures. To a Marxist, any literature (or other artistic expressions) reflects an author’s own class or analysis of class relations, no matter how sound or shallow that analysis may be. Marxism, in its ideological implementation, is also violent as it makes people believe that if certain people (exploiters) are eliminated, a glorious future awaits them. Sir Karl Popper claims that Marxism is unscientific in its methodology as it cannot be tested and possibly be falsified mainly because it sees the replacement of Capitalism by Communism as “historically inevitable”. In that sense, Marxism is much like a “faith” than a social framework. As understood by many, human relationship is far more complicated to be trivialized into such simplistic categorizations. Not all human relationships are a result of conflict or exploitation. Marxism wrongly discounts other social determinants, such as family, education, friendship, religion, etc. We should also note that many societies have not only survived, but have flourished peacefully without major turmoil.
The third major narrative revolves around the over-emphasis on the evils of the society, particularly the Hindu society. Indian intellectuals in general and JNU academicians in particular have a fetish for the ills of the society for which they keep complaining and whining all the time. Prof. Kapil Kapoor, the former Pro-VC of JNU, aptly calls these intellectuals Rudalis of our time. Rudalis, as you know, were the professional mourners. The modern day Rudalis don’t see much positive in our society. They are constantly complaining and whining about one thing or the other. Educated primarily in the overbearing colonial education system, these Macaulay-putra intellectuals suffer from an overwhelming disdain for pretty much anything Hindu or Indian.
Last decade or so has seen a perceptive decline in the Leftists’ clout over the institutions of higher education all over. Advances in science and technology in general and Information Technology in particular have not only thoroughly exposed these Leftist academicians, it has also democratized the process of information flow. With such developments, it is only a matter of time that the new JNU narrative will become part of a positively India & Dharma centric grand narrative.
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Avatans Kumar (@avatans) is a marketing, IT, and PR professional. Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics from JNU and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and MBA from Webster University. Avatans has keen interest in topics involving Indian Intellectual Tradition, history, and current affairs.