Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi has been in the eye of a political storm for the past two years. From media trials to sedition cases to continuous conflict with the university administration and the state, students of the reputed university have had to come through a lot, and the battle is not over yet.

In the latest addition to the structural breakdown of the reputed university, the JNU administration has introduced multiple-choice questions for the university’s entrance examinations. These questions demand one correct answer and encourage cramming and rote learning. This move reduces the exams to a game of memory by replacing the descriptive questions that used to assess conceptual clarity, creativity, writing and analytical skills of the applicants.

This change in entrance examinations is part of a bigger plan to destroy the quality of the university along with what it used to stand for.

JNU and a couple of other universities where a fervent culture of political discourse has thrived have been at the receiving end of a lot of backlashes since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power in 2014. Left-leaning political students at these universities are an ideological threat to the saffron party at a hub where young minds are shaped and tempered.

Mission to dismantle JNU?

The face-off between JNU and a right-wing-led state started on February 9, 2016, when JNU students held a protest against the capital punishment meted out to Afzal Guru, who had been convicted in a 2001 attack on Parliament. They argued that the manner in which Guru’s sentence was carried out was contentious.

Some of the students were booked for sedition for allegedly having raised anti-India slogans. A section of the media took it upon themselves to air doctored videos of the protest and further demonize the students before they were found guilty by any court of law.

Meanwhile, a student named Najeeb Ahmad was disappeared after a scuffle with the members of the student wing of the BJP in October 2016. To this date, he hasn’t been found.

The structural breakdown of the university was under way.

Freedom Square, the JNU administration block known for protests,  was blocked with iron grilles and flowerpots, with a court order taking away the students’ right to protest there.

Eventually, dhabas – the makeshift eateries that doubled as hang-out spots for students – were closed; arbitrary show-cause and other notices were given to dissenting students, citing absurd reasons; random police cases were filed against students; the university’s well-reputed sexual-harassment cell was dismantled and replaced by an undemocratic body headed by the administration; and compulsory attendance was imposed on students to encourage narrow examination-centric approach toward education. The authority kept harassing scholars while hooligans issued death and rape threats against student activists.

Amid all this, massive seat cuts in MPhil and PhD courses, resulting in almost zero seats in some departments, happened along with a humongous fee hike that would potentially scuttle reservations for minority communities in almost all courses. Further, forged minutes of Academic Council meetings, where crucial decisions are made, were circulated. Other undemocratic moves include reducing funds for humanities and instead introducing skill-based courses.

Finally, the university was granted “autonomy,” which actually means withdrawal of government subsidy and privatization.

The state vs universities

It’s not JNU alone. Since 2014 attempts to quell dissent in universities has intensified. Political appointees have become vice-chancellors and heads in places known for having a history of protest, dissent and subversive art, such as JNU’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and Ramjas College.

The BJP government is wary of students who believe in interrogating, challenging and questioning authority and not letting the government be treated as sacrosanct. These are the same youth who are against letting fanatic nationalism overtake the minds of the masses, as intended by the rising Hindu nationalists.

Long known as a “bastion of the left,” JNU was one such university that created and housed these inquisitive, young minds. It was founded on the principles of scientific socialism and it encouraged an intense culture of rigorous debate and discussions while providing access to students from marginal sections of the society.

What JNU means

The political legacy of JNU was not created overnight.

JNU was established in 1969 under the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru. There was a great influence of left-liberal and socialist thinkers who shaped the university. In fact, “fostering national integration” was one of the founding principles of JNU.

The burgeoning years of the university saw it getting involved in larger socio-political issues, movements for social justice and democratic values, and secularism, and its students were vocal on every major issue faced by the country. The one-of-its kind political graffiti on JNU walls reflect and take forward this legacy.

Students gather in front of the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Photo: Samim Asgor Ali

Lately, over some years, the student demography in JNU has changed unprecedentedly to include people from almost all sections of society and especially those from minority communities – dalits, tribals, and other backward castes (OBC). People from these communities constitute almost half of the student body.

This approach toward inclusion, diversity and representation drastically changed campus politics. The rising voices of these otherwise marginalized sections shook the foundations of Islamophobia, the dominance of upper-caste Hindus, and neoliberalism that the right-wingers were ushering in. When the BJP assumed power, it started to target JNU. Student activists were subjected to witch-hunts, the university was demonized in the mainstream media, and most important, its core structure was weakened.

The Man Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy wrote in My Seditious Heart about the interest of the BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the university: “The RSS recognized that if what was going on in JNU was not stopped, it could one day pose an intellectual and existential threat to the fundamental principles and politics of Hindutva. Why so? Because such an alliance proposes, even if only conceptually, the possibility of a counter-mobilization, a sort of reverse engineering of the Hindutva project. It envisions an altogether different coalition of castes, one that is constituted from the ground up, instead of organized and administered from the top down.”

The author is pursuing filmmaking and cultural media studies at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.

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