Arts and culture

JNU Then and JNU Now – Part 1

In this series, The Informer would be conversing with professors who were once students in this same university, and try to understand how the campus has evolved over the years, how the campus was then when they were students, and how they see it now as teachers.

In conversation with Amitabh Singh, Associate Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies.

I came to Delhi University in 1987 as an undergraduate student from Patna, then I came to JNU as a Masters student in 1990 in CPS; from 1992 to 1999 I was in Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies as an MPhil and PhD student. I taught in Dayal Singh College from 2005–2015, as an Assistant Professor. Colleges are where you train graduates, it’s more of preparing students through syllabus, it didn’t have the quality that JNU gives to its students, for example the idea of arguments and debates, it’s not there in DU as much as it’s in JNU. Because students were not staying in hostels, interactions between students were limited only for 5–6 hours a day, also because of the nature of the semester system—assignments, mid-semesters, end-semester. Here in JNU you get time to interact with other students after class, in mess, in public meetings, there’s no such culture in DU. JNU has an entirely different culture. Largely DU’s student population is mostly from Delhi itself, in JNU people from all over India come due to its entrance examination procedure, through deprivation points, pro-active reservation policy, this diversity is reflected in the debates, and student involvement in politics—representing the social mosaic of the country. DU has a large geographical area, there are 70 odd colleges, the nature and culture of debate is entirely different there. For the past 30 years that I have observed the student union elections of DU: Muscle, money power, caste play an important role, it’s essentially how you attract students through concerts, movies, etc. which even the Aam Aadmi Party’s student wing has done; we thought it would be different from NSUI and ABVP.

     I was never involved actively in students politics when I was a student in JNU, even today there are a large number of students who are not into active politics. I was a simple voter, I had strong political convictions as I was a student of political science, that conviction was largely driven by what was happening in the country and in the world. Activism in JNU primarily revolves not just around petty, local issues like not having water in taps, if there’s the issue of Tiananmen Square, then the latter takes precedence over the former. My political conviction is that of left of the centre, I was never a communist in the stricter sense of the term. When I joined JNU in 1990 there was a transition happening, the 1990s was the period of liberalization, jobs in the public sector started shrinking, the idea we had coming from a middle class  background was that we believed we would get a job in some government sector, becoming a professor, etc. Being a student of this centre, we saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. I have been brought up thinking that communism/socialism is a good thing, panacea of all evil, as my father was a socialist in his orientation, bordering on the communist principle. He being a big fan of Mao Tse Tung, I was impressed by socialism. He had with him smuggled works of Mao Tse Tung from Nepal during the emergency. However, we didn’t have the opportunity to see the better side of socialism—the cultural revolution in China—and that saddened him as well. My upbringing was largely socialist, but we knew the problem of communism and the reason of the collapse of the Soviet Union as well. If you think rationally, scientifically, critically, you can never be a rightist; it’s my personal opinion. These factors allow you to bring about change, whereas the Right believes in a status quo, going back to religion, ancient good times, the traditional, though I don’t mean to say that you need to give up your religion. Change has always taken place through revolutions, not always bloody revolutions. Rightists in JNU also believe in debates and discussion, rather than silencing you the way Shiv Sena does. JNU gives you that freedom to think independently. I was the first in my family, and in my near family, who married from outside my community/state. Had I studied in Patna that might not have happened; JNU gives you the confidence to do what you find good for yourself. The problem of the media and the larger public is  that they don’t understand the concept of academic freedom, academic freedom doesn’t allow you to think in a narrow way; Kashmir to be liberated—this is an opinion. People coming to JNU from all over India have their own idea about how they can transform society, there’s a constant intermingling of ideas which strengthens you as a human being or as a social scientist.

     Not much has changed since the time I was a student here and now. There are more bikes now than then, better fashion statement, fewer outlets in terms of money or cash people had, and the quality of students has improved—that’s my personal assessment. You get better students now because of the various sources of information that have come up, through mass media, internet; back then the only sources of information we had was the library and debates or discussion. Also the debates have become better over the years. In the early 90s there was the Solidarity Movement, which was in decline—it was a movement against the mainstream Left parties, patterned on the Polish Solidarity Movement, there were also the Free Thinkers who were also left of the centre. The coming of the Mandal Commission and the unrest that it caused among the elite sections brought about a change; it ended the domination of pure Left, it allowed the entry of the centre and the right, the NSUI and the ABVP. In the early 90s, there was one president from the NSUI, which was unthinkable during the 80s. There was a churning going on in the SFI; CPM was a party in power in West Bengal, Tripura, Kerala, it was seen as the “dogmatic left” by some Leftist group. AISA came up, those who didn’t believe in the institutional arrangement of SFI and AISF shifted allegiance to AISA. Even then the campus was largely Left, divided in certain groups. JNU has always been Leftist; those among the faculty who don’t want to be called Leftists certainly wouldn’t want to be branded as rightists.

     I believe there’s space for voices from every ideology. In my centre we teach area studies, there are fewer materials which specifically focus on the Leftist perspective. We don’t suggest to our students to read only materials which have a Leftist/Marxist perspective. International Relations is something largely based on realist politics, the literature that we see in International Relations is largely based on realism, and realism doesn’t believe in right or left. C. P. Bhambri used to say “challenge me, question me, but do write what you think is right or correct for you.” You have to substantiate your answer with your valid arguments. Knowledge can’t be confined to “isms”. One has to critically review the Left also. I have a problem with people announcing “I’m Marxist/Leftist”, it applies to both my teachers as well as my colleagues, because by listening to me you can guess what I am, whether I’m leftist, rightist, left of the centre, right of the centre, or simply confused. I don’t have to say it, my listeners should interpret. I always say, all my explanations are critical, but my conclusions are always left of the centre, that’s how I see myself. If someone says “I’m Leftist/Marxist” after entering the class, he or she is failing his/her students, by making them see a perspective, that way whatever he/she says, the students would always think he/she is talking of his/her own perspective rather than considering the knowledge he/she might be imparting, had that orientation not been announced before. When I was a student, once a fellow student of my class asked C. P. Bhambri which party he belonged to—CPI or CPM (He’s a known Leftist), he had replied, “I’m neither CPI nor CPM, I’m CPB”. Professor M. N. Sodi, who was from Bharatiya Jana Sangh, MP from the New Delhi constituency, and professor of SIS, was one of most respected teachers, given his rightist convictions. One of the most vociferous movements in the campus was about the Mandal Commission, but no teacher ever penalized any of his/her students just because his or her students were anti- or pro Mandal, going against his/her own conviction.

     I used to give the analogy of the state being the red light outside of the college to the undergrad students when I used to teach in DU, and the policeman as the government in power, or party in power, so when you violate a red light, you violate the government, so they stop you, fine you, or make you give up your license, coming from +2 level trying to understand how the state operates, it was easier for the students to understand this way. What if there’s no state—there will be chaos. I don’t do it here, all of you are more mature than undergrad students.                                          
Upama Bhattacharya is an MA student at CISLS and works for the Art and Culture Pool at The Informer.

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