Does JNU’s progressive politics stand a chance?
By Aqsa Agha
In The Other God that Failed, Jerry Muller writes: “The choice of whether to commit oneself to a totalitarian movement of the left rather than of the right often depended on whether one regarded oneself as a legatee of the Enlightenment or the Counter-Enlightenment.” While reading out these lines, I had a sudden flashback, perhaps, of my university days. Gripped by nostalgia, I go back to the pre-Jagadesh days, when protests and agitations were as much a part of the curriculum as core academics. Growing up in JNU – a walled city – that goes by the slogan, “Study and Struggle”, has been an evolving experience both as a scholar and a human. The walls of this mini-city, knowingly or unknowingly, educate the passersby. Sadly, these walls seem to be under attack, not from the outside alone, but from the divisive forces inside the campus.
I reminisce my days when black flag demonstration to the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh did not amount to a punishable offense, when raising slogans and calling for an indefinite hunger strike for workers’ rights against the exploitative administration was peacefully done and goals set were achieved, when fighting for OBC reservation and increase in seats resulted in the formation of a national policy on reservation with the implementation of the 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs.
Those were the days when there was a multiplicity of voices, including that of the right-wing ABVP. The tone and tenor of the ABVP was then shaped by the tolerant ethos of JNU, and not vice versa. Regrettably, what we are seeing today in the campus is the complete opposite of the pre-2014 years. Today, the very word ‘intellectual’ is treated as ‘suspect’, putting JNU academic scholars in a vulnerable position.
Why this vulnerability, despite the healthy and vibrant political tradition in campus?
The answer lies in the temptations of nationalism that has swept the nation and has faced resistance from JNU’s progressive politics. Forming a bulwark against fascist ideas and actions, JNU has, over years, stood by the principle of egalitarianism, which includes equal representation of all sections of the society and representing the voice of the marginalized. The cosmopolitan humanitarianism, which has been an essential ingredient of JNU life, today stands threatened by the romanticism of the idea of cultural nationalism that is exclusivist in principle and is based on one’s supremacy over the ‘other’.
However, it makes us wonder, why did the state decide to abandon a place of higher learning that practiced, in essence, all values that are enshrined in the Constitution? Clearly, for reasons of first asserting and then imposing the idea of cultural supremacy, the state machinery is used to quelling every voice that counters its version of the nation. This is done by making use of political metaphors like nationalism, freedom of speech, and the “New order”, which revamp the university through autocratic measures such as a drastic change in admission policy.
In an attempt to ‘sanitise’ the campus, there has been a major seat cut in all centers of academic excellence in the university this year. A consistent policy of academic antagonism has been displayed by the present Vice Chancellor, Jagadesh Kumar. He makes his predecessors in JNU look less dangerous to the academia. Much like Ernst Kreick, who became the Rector of Frankfurt University in May 1933, Mr. Jagadesh, too, is calling for a ‘renewal’ of the university. Running on similar lines, this renewal aims to produce the “new man” who would turn out to be the new “spiritual soldier” of the state that is committed to illiberal political and cultural activities.
It would be a serious mistake on part of the intelligentsia to view the seat cut in JNU as mere temporary administrative action. The politics behind this arbitrary decision is divisive and frightening, giving a glimpse of the past where everything, including the Humanities, was subsumed under the Nazi philosophy and anti-democratic culture of the Third Reich.
Before the country’s greatest minds become the enthusiastic supporters of this “New order” and the Republic turns politically bankrupt, it is crucial for the responsible citizens to reclaim the academic space that has begun to shrink. At a time when our country’s future is being disassembled by the temptations of nationalism and creation of the figure of the ‘suspect’ intellectual, the struggle appears both enduring and challenging on one hand and inspiring on the other.
Aqsa Agha completed her doctorate from the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. She is currently working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.
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One Response to “Does JNU’s progressive politics stand a chance?”
There does seem to be a real suspicion of ‘intellectuals’ again; not just in India but in the west, too. In both UK and USA we heard many cries recently of ‘we are fed up with experts!’, as if knowledge itself is now viewed with suspicion.