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JNUSU Elections: The University and the Politics of Narratives

Photo: The Indian Express

By Gaurav Pathania 

For the second time in the history of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union (JNUSU) elections, the student wing of Bhartiya Janata Party, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), became the second largest force in a campus, which is known for its Leftist politics. Two powerful organisations, the Student Federation of India (SFI) and All India Student Association (AISA) have vied for power for decades. But for this election, they united in an unprecedented alliance to counter ABVP’s rising influence. Undoubtedly, the strong presence of ABVP is the result of ideological degradation of the Left parties on campus.

The election was fought amidst various media driven narratives over the past one and a half years. In February 2016, when the “anti-national” episode occurred, many students, including the student union president, were beaten up in public, humiliated and abused on social media. Numerous video messages were posted by Army personnel to discredit the university, advising for its closure. JNU, a top research institution in India, was tagged as “anti-national”, “a den of drugs, terrorism and Naxalism”. Its students were labelled as “traitors” and “sex-workers” by the mass media. These narratives create an image of a student who is social misfit for our “moral” society. They became part of our nation’s common sense and rhetoric and influenced the political culture, history, and image of an institution. These narratives not only shook the consciousness of the nation but also changed the voting behaviour (especially among new comers) in the recently held student union elections.

There is a symbiotic and reciprocal relationship between university and society. How does the university respond to these narratives and explain its vision and goal? During the “anti-national” episode, JNU faculty organised a month long “class” at the steps of the administrative building (activists named the space Freedom Square) and taught students various narratives of nationalism. On the other hand, the university administration, following the existing narratives, tried to change the anti-national image, and permanently hoisted a flag at the administrative block. Recently, the administration organised a program, inviting top Army officials and a minister, and held a Tiranga Yatra (Tricolour march) from one end of the campus to another to honour the national martyrs by dedicating a wall in the convention centre. The vice-chancellor also requested the government to install a “battle tank” in the university, saying that the “tank would instil a love for the Army” among students. In his speech, an Army officer stated, “We will force students to love their country”. This preoccupation with what students think and how they think about things should not be the preoccupation of the government. Moreover, this narrative overshadowed past contributions JNU has made to the county through its scientific research and building of democracy by questioning the university’s very existence.

Identity Politics to Identity Resistance Politics

In 2006, as per the Arjun Singh committee recommendations (also known as Mandal II), 27 per cent reservation was made mandatory in higher education. This led to an anti-reservation narrative that culminated in the formation of the Youth for Equality (YFE) group on campus. In the second election it contested in 2007, YFE neared victory, pushing oldest Leftist student party, SFI, into third place. However, with the implementation of OBC reservation in campus admission, the party suddenly disappeared from campus politics. But the question remains: How was a newly born party able to challenge the “ideological” Left on campus? The power of the anti-reservation narrative proved much more effectively than the Left’s narrative of social justice, equity, and equality. If we go back in history, the emergence of the new Left on campus in the post-Mandal I phase indicates the emergence of new Left, AISA, along with the rise of identity politics. Then, later, SFI became the champion of similar politics by highlighting Dalit candidates for the presidential post.

On the other hand, Dalits and OBC students offer a new narrative from identity politics to identity resistance politics. Since 2008, an SC/ST student organisation called Bahujan Student Front spun a new narrative on the Hindu goddess of education. They argued, “Indian history shows that women were not given education; how then is Saraswati the goddess of education?” Another OBC student front boycotted the official Teacher’s Day and started celebrating Savitri Bai Phule’s birthday as their Teachers’ Day. In place of Gandhi, they celebrated Mahatma Phule as the Father of the Nation. From 2010 onwards, the All India Backward Student Forum (AIBSF) has been organising Mahisasura Martyrdom Day (Mahisasur Shahadat Diwas) to counter the highly popular Hindu festival of Durga Puja, which is a celebration of killing of Asura King, Mahisasura, by Goddess Durga. AIBSF, in their pamphlet argues: Sabhya samaj mein hathyaon ka jashan nahi manaya jata (Civilised societies do not celebrate murder). Such narratives have questioned the sacrosanct image of educational spaces as temples of learning (vidya ke mandir). There are many such narratives of cultural assertion; they produced new symbols and icons that challenge the traditional caste hegemony in education.

In this year’s JNU elections, the strong emergence of Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA) presents a new Bahujan narrative that call for the unity of political voices of Dalits, Tribes, OBC, religious, and sexual minorities. All such narratives – anti-national, anti-reservation – and narrative around caste during elections evoke individual’s identity and the history attached to it. It plays a decisive role in defining their agenda, future politics, and ideology to counter their political opponents, especially during elections.

These narratives serve as instruments of dissent and create a counter-discourse. They challenge the roots of existing history, constructs and deconstructs our identities, defining us based on our histories and ideologies. They are cultural resources of political parties and gradually transform themselves as core of their ideologies. University campuses are the breeding grounds of such ideologies. Therefore, it is the responsibility of university and its intellectuals to provide its students new epistemic tools to debate these narratives as well as imagine new one. French thinker, Pierre Bourdieu, aptly reminds us in this context: “political voices must come out of solid social scientific research.”

Gaurav J. Pathania
has recently completed his doctorate in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research explores the emergence of identity based student activism in Indian university campuses. He is currently based in Washington DC.


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