“When I travelled miles, I thought I wanted answers, only to realise that important was to be questioned.”
Amidst sustained vilification of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) rising sharply since 2016, as a neighbour of the Institute since 2015 and an all-time self-invitee of the University, I owe a responsibility to represent my idea of JNU, how it changed my life and how the recent incidents attacking the institution affects me. To understand my narrative better, one needs to understand my background first.
I come from a humble family background that stresses on education more than anything else. Realizing the job prospects, I was convinced to take up Science and pursue engineering for easy job placements. No sooner I got a job than I realized that my vision and aspirations do not match with the stream. Hence, I marched towards Delhi to prepare for UPSC. Since I did not prefer coaching for the preparation, I shifted with a friend near JNU in 2015.
That’s when I fell in love, not with a person, but an institution. While I was busy falling in love with the huge campus – its greenery, the serenity, peacocks, Nilgai, the PSR (a beautiful spot within the campus), my friend, a politically active alumnus of the University always used to be busy at Dhabas, especially the Ganga Dhaba. While the samosas costing Rs 5 were worth enjoying, the conversations around weren’t.
They used to talk about some big words like democratization, institutional crisis, Lyngdoh Recommendations. To a person who failed at understanding the course, she studied for 4 years, understanding these words, let alone arguing on the topics, was impossible. So, for me, JNU was a one-stop solution to cheap food, grocery shopping, and admiring nature.
But slowly the aura of JNU started attracting me. It started first when I saw a guy wearing a skirt. There he was walking, wearing a skirt on the main road near the Sabarmati Dhaba, which is one of the most crowded spots of the campus. It was hysterical to me, even though he seemed pretty confident of his fashion sense and the Janta around found nothing laughable about it. After giggling for a minute or two, I realized I was the only person finding the scene amusing. Since when is a guy wearing a skirt in vogue?
In my world, people would not just laugh but would also question the sexual orientation of the concerned. Then after a few days, I saw a bald girl which was again not supposed to be a big deal. There was no fashion trend as such on the campus. Women used to come out of hostels and even go to attend colleges the way they wanted to go. They weren’t necessarily supposed to be those women who are said to be dainted-painted with makeup.
Dressing up seemed like a personal choice – those who wanted to wear, did, those who didn’t, who cared? For a girl who used to be warned by her warden during her college days not to go to mess wearing nightgowns, it was too much of an experience. The worse to be observed was a common mess for girls and guys. It was a cultural shock. Adding on, women used to go to the men’s hostel. That was outrageous.
My curiosity was at its peak when I saw women leading sloganeering and leading protest march. Before that, I never realized women had voices with such amplitude and pitch, except when cockroaches and lizards are around, or so was taught to me by cinema (well, I grew up watching Yeh Bichchhu Mujhe Kaat Khayega! You can do the math). There were 24×7 accessible hostels and dhabas. There was a separate hostel for women living with their children and husbands.
I met a single parent of 2-year old who used to access the library at night after putting her child to sleep. She was pursuing her PhD. My hostel used to get closed at 7.30 PM, never really cared how long the library was accessible. Hence naturally, this kind of arrangement was unique to me. It may sound silly to the readers, but to me, all of a sudden, the concept of institutionalization made sense.
You see, that woman didn’t have to depend on anyone. Of course, her struggle in life was for her to write in her journal or publish as an autobiography, but she didn’t have to be at the mercy of someone to experiment with what she thought was possible. She had a child to raise, money to earn, and a degree to complete. And somehow she managed to do all three.
All this institution did was offered a campus that gave her the right to study, provided for a hostel customized to her requirement, ensured a place to study, and a safe and secured environment where she could commute without any fear. All that lady had to do was to muster courage and determination that she can be both an amazing mother and a meritorious scholar, which, my friend, is not an easy thing to do in itself. The world I come from, you can be both only with society’s approval, which is a rare thing. I was impressed! And slowly the debates and discussions on the Dhabas started making sense.
I witnessed a forward-caste Bhumihar passionately arguing why OBC reservation is important and a Muslim, disappointed with the backwardness of his community, stressing on religious reforms as the need of the hour. I won’t go into the merits of the respective arguments, but the fact that people could question things beyond their comfort zones startled me. Can I possibly question something even when it is in my favour – this thought gave me nightmares! I thought I was supposed to be feminist because I have personal stakes there.
Can there be a journey beyond the destination? I had started questioning myself. At that point, I had realized I was infected. And damn, I loved the infection! But. Yet. Still. I have no academic affiliation to JNU. I do not understand the Left. I do not know the difference between CPI and CPI(M). I do not know, in detail, who Lenin was and what he did in the Soviet Union. I still do not understand Politics, and no matter how much I admire Ravish Kumar, JNU’s heartthrob, watching him daily is not my cup of tea (you see, ignorance is indeed bliss).
But so is the case with many so-called JNUites. Many of them do not know answers to these questions either. This I can prove from the fact that the turn-out percentage in the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) election has never crossed the 70% mark. Not everyone there is interested in understanding ideologies or running an election campaign or having one’s political party. They are just students and at the end of the day, it’s just another college where students bunk classes, study a night before exams, loiter around, break and mend their hearts, and have fun.
But to me, what differentiated this institution from the rest, and perhaps what people beyond its walls do not understand, is that the books there talk.
The subject topics and lessons are just not touched upon during semesters but are embraced and criticized, both at the same time. If, as a student, one can see campus infrastructure suitable to the needs of the Divyang pupils, as a citizen, one is bound to question why the same cannot be provided in general in the public domain. They do need a job and easy placements, but as students of Social Sciences, it’s their job to experiment with their respective subjects.
You see, the word ‘Social Science’ has the word ‘Science’ in it. Even these scholars have experiments to conduct. Just that their laboratories are society, the Constitution, State and Law, and their arguments, questions, and dissent are their white coats. My defense around JNU is nothing on the grounds of Constitutional Democracy, Freedom of Speech, and Dissent. I don’t understand what they mean. I’m leaving those angles reserved for the actual students of the University.
I, an illegitimate child of JNU, am trying to shed light on the public legacy the university has been leaving for its students with, each passing generation. It gives a personality to a student.
A feminist of Delhi shapes the perspective of a timid never-out-of-home Bihari girl. It makes a student from Uttarakhand wonder about the background of a radical Leftist from Kerala (I must mention here that contrary to the common understanding, the campus is not ‘laal’ per se as right-wing student organizations have a comparable fan-base).
The dedication of a political party is judged by the sole of the campaigners’ chappal, not by how elite the candidate is. The ‘Forty Seconds Rule’ is a self-correcting golden rule running through the veins of the campus that only a student living in the campus knows about and follows. The campus gives a glimpse of a true democracy when the candidates are first answerable to the JNU Janta during the Presidential Debates before expecting votes. In a nutshell, the university has a space for everyone, everyone belongs to everyone.
If you still doubt, attend both Holi and Iftar party on the JNU campus. Trust me, I’m not romanticizing. Having said that, I won’t credit this institution for everything I have amassed so far. I can arrogantly say that somehow the constitutional principles were injected in me by my mediocre middle-class family. I was never taught how to identify a person’s caste by one’s surname. And that’s a very difficult thing to do given that I particularly belong to a so-called forward caste of a backward state of the country.
However, it was as if the mechanism to synthesize the broad discrimination amongst people was disabled by my parents. My engineering college introduced me to a bunch of people who embraced me beyond regional barriers and gave me a larger perspective on life. I did carry the Preamble with me when I went on a blind date with the University.
But JNU made me question myself. It made me uncomfortable. Then it slowly made me respect myself for what I am. It was confusing and chaotic at first. As a student, I knew I never wanted engineering, but JNU made me realize nobody forced me to take one.
However ill-conceived, it was my choice. As a woman, it helped me decide what kind of a person I would want to marry and where to say “No”. As a person, it made me tolerant enough to listen to others even if I do not agree with their opinions. As a citizen, it taught me that it’s okay to question everything and have my understanding of the subject. It’s called scientific temper. I am constitutionally bound to build it. That made me question: ‘Why to question’. It may appeal otherwise to others, but we all need to have our answers to this question.
Today, I have an answer. One needs to question because it’s only when one questions and finds answers to, that one finds an organic connection to the subject matter and become passionate about the causes. A woman going to men’s hostel does not put her in a questionable position. The society is still so apprehensive of the two sexes in one room that it doesn’t recognize that it’s one of the best ways of gender sensitization.
In a time when we are recognizing the ‘existence’ of LGBTQ community, should we still really be restricting the presence of two opposite sexes sans a guardian in one room? The campus teaches you how to question and not what to question. That’s the purpose of a college, and by extension, of education. We have to understand that questioning itself does not throw the matter into its existential crisis.
Questioning enables one to understand something in every possible angle, for the greater good. For example, it might frighten one when a doctor prescribes one to go for an ultrasound. But does that mean that the patient is essentially suffering from a disease? Ultrasound is merely a diagnostic technique and one having any disease is a possibility. But is there any other way to identify the problem a patient is suffering from? You may argue by saying that many colleges in India offer such opportunities and the environment. To that, I say ‘Great’.
My intention is not to showcase how JNU is unique. On the contrary, I intend to express that there should be many more colleges like JNU. The country is in dire need of an institution where students go to attend classes because they are motivated to learn, and not because they have been compelled to do so. The red-walled buildings of JNU inspire me to be a better person.
I have taken long walks on the roads of the campus in my stressful times. It pains me when I see a tainted image of the university in the eyes of people. With the rising sea level due to climate change, the entire mankind is trying to save islands from submerging.
This piece of article is my attempt to save my island, my JNU.