Jayati Ghosh, an Indian development Economist and a professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), once in an open lecture at ‘Freedom Square’, a popular protest site in JNU, said: “JNU has actually been made by you students, and we teachers are learning from all of you, in terms of political understanding, maturity, discipline, creativity and courage and resilience.” So before one starts out on JNU for studies, the gap in imagination is already filled with the glory of its students’ struggles against the oppression of marginalized sections of society, violence against women and transgenders as well as of its solidarities for people’s political, social and cultural movements. The posters of revolutionaries who fought battles for people’s dignities, the poems that read peace & love, the graffiti that celebrated spectacled resourcefulness and spaces for creativity that once used to cover walls, doors, roofs of the schools, administrative units and dhabas in the entire campus have all been ripped to shreds by the administration in last three months. And the status quo has won over it.
A Disappearance That Disappeared
On the night of 15 October 2016, Najeeb Ahmed disappeared from the Mahi-Mandavi hostel in the JNU campus. He was a newly enrolled student at JNU, pursuing his M.Sc. in Biotechnology and had resided at the Mahi-Mandavi hostel for less than a week before he disappeared. The case is so mysterious that students struggle to understand what actually happened. The case was investigated and subsequently closed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the status of case being ‘no progress made’.
If we go back to Jayati Ghosh, crediting JNU for students’ struggles, it’s hard to imagine and believe that a student could simply disappear. The student organizations here were created with a sense to uphold the dignity of every student, and to be ever vigilant that the rights of the students – irrespective of their backgrounds – don’t get tampered with, but I am afraid that these organizations’ non-seriousness hasn’t only defeated these ideas but also created a ‘normalization’ around Najeeb’s disappearance. For a social transformation or an open debate to happen, clarity, honesty, responsibility and consistency are fundamental elements; the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) has been shrewdly effective in not retaining these ideals.
On the night of his disappearance, Najeeb was repeatedly disturbed by people knocking on his door continuously; it was hostel election time and the campaigners had come to his room three times, he was upset and told them loudly not to disturb, said a PhD student in an interview, who was formerly associated with Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organization (BASO), who now has parted ways with them by saying that BASO didn’t do enough. He further stated: “Someone heard Najeeb arguing loudly and the soon-to-be General Secretary of JNUSU from Students’ Federation of India (SFI), who lived opposite Najeeb’s room, saying that Najeeb was drunk.” The PhD student, who wished to remain anonymous, added that a person who was voted by students in a position of power and responsibility spoke irresponsibly without knowing the facts.
The confrontation escalated and Najeeb was gravely assaulted. However, left-wing recruits – including Mohit Pandey, the then JNUSU President from All India Students’ Association (AISA), a Marxist-Leninist students’ organization – in the presence of the hostel wardens claimed that it was all Najeeb’s fault and asked him to leave the hostel, Mushtaq Ahmad, a third year PhD student said. This episode demonstrated the bigotry of students’ organization and their recurring to violence when people openly disagree with them. What remains astonishing is how the institution could regain tranquillity after the “disappearance” of a Muslim student. Earlier we would listen and read the reports about enforced disappearances from Kashmir and now that it has also happened in JNU, it’s shocking, said Anirudh, a Ph.D. student, in an interview. It’s pathetic that we haven’t been moved to the extent of questioning that how is the nature of Najeeb’s disappearance centrally connected with what is happening in Kashmir, he further added.
On the third anniversary of Najeeb’s disappearance, JNUSU called for a strike with placards reading Where is Najeeb? Bring him back! On that day everything seemed more normal than usual. I asked a PhD student from the School of International Studies (SIS) about the significance of this day as a commemoration of brutalization, wounds, the miscarriage of justice, the victimization of truth and how students’ lives stop mattering this day because Najeeb’s didn’t matter too. He answered: “These things keep happening and classes can’t stop.” I then asked a professor to comment on Najeeb’s disappearance and on teachers-students’ complacency, but he refused to say anything except that “it was extremely unfortunate” and since JNU is the only Indian institution that the West takes seriously it was horrible that a student disappeared from such an institution.” There is little more unfortunate than a professor hesitating to talk about a student who has been made to disappear and to express human empathy.
February 2016: A Turning Point
On 9 February 2016, students in JNU held a protest against the capital punishment of two Kashmiris, one meted out to the 2001 Indian Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru on 9th of February, 2013 and other meted out to the Kashmiri freedom fighter Maqbool Bhat on 11th of February, 1984. The organizers of the event were former members of the Democratic Students Union (DSU), an independent students’ organization which stands banned. Following this protest, the administration started an indiscriminate assault on freedom of speech and expression, closing ‘Freedom Square’, and demanding explanations from protesting students with methods close to intimidation. The response to such coercive measures was a global solidarity campaign where more than 500 academics from around the world, including JNU alumni, released a statement in support of the protesting students, stating that the JNU stands for a vital imagination of the space of a University that “embraces critical thinking, democratic dissent, student activism, and the plurality of political beliefs, that included the likes of Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler and others.
The outcome of this propaganda was that Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, et al., became public faces and Kashmiris became criminals. This marked a halt to the struggle against the administration’s wicked policies and the space for dissent began gradually to shrink. This period also marked the entry point for Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right-wing all India Student affiliated to the Hindu Nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) into JNU, who made ‘hooliganism’ a part of their manifesto. The opposition between left versus right superseded all other students’ issues and Najeeb is a long-standing victim of that.
Change: A Tool to Promote Mediocrity
Social changes whenever take place are a result of complex interplay of actors, actions and organizations. It seems JNU administration had already been planning on a design to make entrance examinations an effortless task, said a student from Life Sciences. A Sociology Professor, Avijit Pathak in an article for The Wire titled JNU Aspirants I Feel Sorry For You stated that he was saddened to see the changing pattern of exam from subjective to objective mode because it kills the superstructure of criticality. He, however, offered students a hope to enter university and see it as a possibility of fighting political, ethical, philosophical and pedagogic battles. Pathak’s battle of ideas had no resemblance in the resistance against Najeeb’s disappearance because professors scarcely were troubled by this horrific event. The answers to the failure of resistance against this structural change should come from left-liberal professors who teach students half-baked activism. After students came to JNU, mostly the ones who had taken Pathak seriously, they didn’t find him accessible to them. Sometime after his previous article, he reappeared and wrote another piece for The Wire titled The Story of The Fall of a Great University. In this article, he went on saying that he recommended his friend’s daughter to not come to JNU for studies. This for students meant that he has failed in fighting his own battles, in his imagination too, also at a position which is influential. You couldn’t a have had a better reality check, no matter how powerfully he tried to recollect his emotions, of melancholia and nostalgia.
Elections as Auctions
The outlook of the left-wing politics is superficial, claims a member of ABVP. In this huge contesting nature of ideologies, day to day issues of students have dimmed and national question of proving loyalties of who is a “real Indian” has become something that these factions feel need to have debates about. The prominent display of that was JNUSU election, held on 13th September, where, as a student, I was keenly observing this process. It offered propaganda, of beating drums against each other, of trying to prove who is better than the other. The most surprising element about the promises of making JNU a good place was that Najeeb didn’t find a mention in the words they uttered. This non-mentioning of Najeeb in their manifesto showed where their honesty and sympathies lie.
Bachelors and masters level students get swayed by these faulty political cultures of left-wing, hence voting them to power is a part of false consciousness, not willingness. The kind of education students get and ought to get didn’t find any mention in their declaration too. In all these groups academia is given an abysmal low.
The campus politics is mostly dominated by multiple left-wing student organizations – AISA, SFI, Democratic Students Federation (DSF), an organisation carved out of SFI, reportedly on a reason of compromising principles, that SFI supported the then Presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee. The contradiction in their deeds and words of campaigning for a bourgeois displayed a dishonest glib in their ideology which had resulted in many students quitting SFI. The unifying character of these organizations, for example the current indefinite strike of JNUSU against the fee hike and hostel manual draft couldn’t stop the administration from going ahead with this pattern, which tells us there is something wrong with the strategy even when there were hunger strikes in place.
In 2013, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA) had been formed against the Left-wing appropriation of Dalit voices in the campus. BAPSA claims that both mainstream Left-wing organizations are Brahmanical and patriarchal, and had felt a desire for the emergence of a Dalit leadership. None of these mainstream parties had produced Dalit leadership, and their highest bodies and positions of power had been monopolized by upper-caste Hindu men and women. Asking a BAPSA member about the left-wing politics in campus, he said that “in actuality, it’s the elitism hidden in the name of leftism.” Left in JNU is operating on a systemic and systematic line, following the larger parliamentary left of India, so there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ about Left here.
The double standards of Left-leaning organizations based in JNU have numerous forms & are often subtle. One amongst the many forms of Left’s hypocrisies that I found during JNUSU elections was that the Left organizations while pandering to the Muslim students which comprise an important chunk, operate through a particular kind of Machiavellian scheming which is like using a Kashmiri for Kashmiri, using a long beard Muslim for a long beard Muslim, using a Dalit for a Dalit, only to fetch votes.
Witnessing it personally, all this operates on a gravitational pull, of fear. To contextualize it, in my childhood when I would want to do things as freely as I could, which weren’t allowed, my mother frustratingly would threaten me that if I didn’t stop, be quiet and slept, khokhhe’shaal will come and take me away, (khokhhe in Kashmiri translates to hollow, shaal means fox, a Kashmiri metaphor used to scare kids). That is what Left leaned organizations tell Muslims and Dalits, that if you didn’t vote for us, a hollow fox will come and take you away.
They vexingly incorporate the students into this mull who come from humble backgrounds. The trap which left-wing organizations spread is by perpetuating a cultural capital, that they are hip, that their lingo is cool and that they can speak English with cultured accent. It’s a socio-psychological stratagem that they niftily plonk in the minds of students.
One more off-putting aspect that is with Left politics is that if they pick up an issue, they will protest against the administration with many slogans (one on Azaadi ‘robbed’ from Kashmir) but eventually put away that issue and shift their focus to another point. Actually, this has indicated a deliberate denial of seriousness to those sensitive issues which Najeeb fell prey to and all that all they seek is domination & relevance in the campus politics, and limelight in students’ issues which come along.
Push for an Ideal Space and Negligence of Practical Issues
On a more a wide-ranging scale there is a push from left-leaning professors/students/sympathizers to corner students who come for resolute studies and practical understanding of life, into a plot that is based on utopian narratives. Oral experiences of people who leave JNU are murkier because when a student faces the outer world, it has different and distant realities from what they were told there ought to be.
The problem with JNU is that it’s a space for political correctness, not for understanding & questioning the real issues and reaching at clarity. If we see statistically too, the students who are able to make good careers and fly abroad are already a privileged batch with bundles of exposure with academia & globe. The underprivileged portion of students who get into this posturing ploy barely manage to get their M.Phils.’ and Ph.Ds. realised, and if they do, they lack proper skillset.
One morning in JNU, outside my hostel, I saw a person training his dog how to be faithful. The dog being a little anarchic and not following his orders, the trainer shouted & hit the dog with his stick. The professor who was on a walk stopped and asked the trainer why did he hit the dog. Since the trainer couldn’t understand English, he asked the professor, ‘samajh nahi aaya sir’ (I didn’t get you, sir). The professor asked in Hindi, ‘kuttey ko kyun mara’ (why did you beat the dog). The trainer getting a little nervous said that, ‘sir yeh kutiya ke peeche ja raha tha’ (sir, he was following the bitch). The professor felt disgusted, for trainer’s reply didn’t make sense to him and brandished him by saying, ‘yeh JNU hai, yahan kisi ko maar nahi sakte’ (this is JNU, you can’t beat anybody here). The trainer said sorry, buried his head and left. The professor kept his head high, thinking he won a battle. This context is incontrovertibly important to understand that professor had either stopgap memory or had cold or had landed in the wrong country whose conscience didn’t clout him that “wherefrom” he was talking, a student “from there” has evaporated into the polluted air.
I am happy with making students imagine the kind of societies we wish to live in because the lack of imagination is dangerous and can’t be afforded. But if the imagination is hollow and debates around it are dishonest, the sense of social, cultural and political transformation makes no sense at all.
Students should start with the question of where did Najeeb go? There is never an ending time to the grave blunders and errors that we could rectify and propose our betterment provided our honesty is registered completely. Opportunism will have to be consciously abandoned and your actions will start making sense. It’s a fight to build self-esteem, to restore the dignities of people and students in JNU and elsewhere. Your selective truth when spoken doesn’t remain truth but a tool to slay that truth, because the truth is independent of that selectiveness.
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