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Once, there was a future. And people with big ideas – even the bad ones – debated the shapes of that possible future, in ways that seem unimaginable today, beset as we are with a kind of adolescent gigantism – biggest statue, tallest flagpole, largest flag.

Institutions are typically short-lived in India – except the bad ones, like caste. For that reason alone, the fact that JNU has survived for 50 years – an event that has been marked by the appearance of a handsome commemorative volume of thoughtful, affectionate essays, lavishly illustrated with photographs from that already distant time, is to be welcomed: JNU Stories : The First 50 Years, edited by Neeladri Bhattcharya, et al. However, in the present context of institutional decay, the ordinal confidence of the sub-title – after all, the Great War of 1914-18 didn’t become the First World War until there was a Second – seems presumptuous.

Once, there was a future. And people with big ideas – even the bad ones – debated the shapes of that possible future, in ways that seem unimaginable today, beset as we are with a kind of adolescent gigantism – biggest statue, tallest flagpole, largest flag. The sense that Delhi University had bloated beyond all possibility of becoming viable, was already in the air in the early 1960s. And today’s South Campus was floated as a kind of spatial solution, but it was and has remained bound up with the parent, and increasingly decrepit institution. One of the discoveries of the present volume is the account of the background of serious intellectual debate that underpinned what went into the making of what eventually became JNU. At one end, there was the French model of the grande ecoles – self-consciously exclusive, unabashedly dedicated to the creation of an elite cadre that would man (alas!) the upper echelons. There was also the model of the institute of advanced study – as at Princeton – which would be freed from the encumbrance of scruffy undergraduates, and could devote itself to cutting-edge research in the service of the nation, then emerging into the now-former future.  

In his memoir of the time, Raj Thapar has recounted how the idea was mooted of setting up a new University as an appropriate memorial for the recently-deceased Jawaharlal Nehru – and not, as in the present style, a very tall statue, a very big bust. The idea of “service” was very much present in the original and competing visions themselves, but what emerged in JNU was a uniquely Indian hybrid, one that married the demands of a vibrant, and numerous, democracy, with the ideal of intellectual excellence. It must be evident to all but the terminally phobic that this hybrid – a kind of democratically-minded elitism, enlightened liberal paternalism – derives from the complex of ideas and attitudes that are, for better and for worse, described as “Nehruvian”. What was intended was not an imitation of Oxbridge or Princeton, or the Ecole Normale Superieure, but something original. (Cynics might be tempted to point out the mutation of the original idea of “service” in the manner in which, at some level, JNU became a sort of nursery for the “civil service” – in addition to “anti-nationals”, of course!) Essay after essay confirms that there was an unmistakable sense, in early-JNU, that one was part of some heroic but also experimental project, of “something big”.

The idea of experimenting with new forms and possibilities was working at several levels, both formal and informal, both at the level of academic programmes as also other, ancillary processes, such as admissions, and evaluation.  It would be foolishly romantic to suggest that JNU is, or now was,  an unmixed success story – no genuine experiment can be. Inevitably, there are failures and, perhaps of greater long-term consequence, unintended consequences. The admissions policy, for instance, was consciously tweaked to correct for the skewed accumulation and transmission of social and cultural capital – the famous compensatory “deprivation points” accrued to a wide range of disadvantages. This is, admittedly, a far cry from the elitism of, say, the Ecole Normale – and many would argue that the consequences have been mixed, but the fact is that the consequent social churning is an integral part of the function of a public university, along with the formal academic stuff. As the editors of this volume affirm, “a university is not just its academic programme … innovative syllabi, experimental courses, thoughful ways of evaluation … It is the culture of intellection, the forms of sociality, the spirit and energy, the excitement and passion that permeates the institution.”

One of the sections is called “Sites of Learning”. There is discussion of the working of the tutorial system at JNU – hard work for faculty, given Indian numbers, but the intensity of tutorial interaction, familiar from other academic locations, made a significant difference to the academic achievement of JNU. However, what really made JNU unique – and, in some eyes, outrageous, was the phenomenon described in an essay entitled “Philosophy at Night”, by Sudipta Kaviraj. The fact of the matter is that JNU in its heyday was abuzz with intense intellectual activity late into the night, in teashops and eateries, in the famous Ganga Dhaba. The conjunction of multiple diversities is a central part of what is valuable about the public university – even when, as I know from my experience of Allahabad University, the academic programmes have practically collapsed. It is entirely unsurprising that this “conjunction” should, in a community of young men and women, extend beyond tidy intellectual boundaries, and many contributors have written about how the university allowed them space to explore identities and relationships. It is a measure, surely, of success, that a deeply conservative society was scandalized,  and a certain legislator of the ruling BJP was apparently once driven to scour the campus for used condoms. (He claimed to have found a few hundred.)

It is this hostility of the BJP, and its broader social constituency, that provides the backdrop for the second anniversary that happens to coincide with the publication of this volume: on the evening of 5 January 2020, a large mob of masked and armed hoodlums invaded JNU, apparently in connivance with the local police. The consequent violence was livestreamed on a million screens – but continues, nevertheless, to be a mystery to the police who are supposed to investigate, and have yet to make any arrests. Inevitably, then, there is an unmistakably elegiac quality to the nostalgia that pervades this volume. Something was. No doubt this has partly to do with being young – more precisely, with having been young, remembering being young – but I wish, finally, to reflect briefly on the possible roots of the hostility towards one of India’s few real universities.

During my years as a professor at IITDelhi, across the road from JNU but unable to find my way into it, so to speak, I saw myself as Hardy’s Jude, longing outside the gates of Christminster. To my engineering colleagues, however, JNU was the scarlet woman, promiscuously dallying with ideas, instead of devoting herself to being useful. But they had their revenge, when Jagadesh Kumar was exported across the road as Vice-Chancellor. Like a good engineer, he accomplished the assigned task – this volume is a memorial to the University that was. But I wonder whether, at a level deeper than the insensitivities of particular individuals and political formations , there might be something else at work.

Language is integral to the work that universities do, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.  The slipperiness of language, infuriating to tidy-minded engineers, is also what makes the disciplines that work with language both necessary, and possible. Recognising, and struggling to tame, the ineluctable ambiguity of language, is the activity that many disciplines are engaged in, in different ways – philosophers seek to quell it, litfolk revel in it, lawyers exploit it… The “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, seeing as it turned upon a suspicion of the polyvalence of language, has had, it is possible to say one generation on, unintended consequences. It is sobering to think that enabling the simple-minded hostility of “nationalist” sloganeers might be one such.

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Alok Rai is a writer, critic and former Professor of English. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and the author of Orwell and the politics of despair (CUP, 1990). He has taught at the University of Allahabad, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, and University of Pennsylvania. He retired from the Department of English, University of Delhi in 2011. His interests include Modern English Literature; cultural processes in modern North India, and issues of language and literature. He is the author of the monograph on the politics of Hindi titled “Hindi Nationalism” (2001). He is also the grandson of the legendary Hindi writer Premchand, whose novel “Nirmala” he translated.

The article forms part of our Whither India? series, curated by Ira Raja and Shaswati Mazumdar.



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