Arts and culture

JNU Then and JNU Now—Part 2

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 Soumyabrata Choudhury, Professor in the School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA).

I came here in 1986, as a Masters student in the English centre, carried on till 1996 when I finished my doctorate. I came from DU; it was totally different from JNU, firstly because JNU is a big, residential campus. The very fact that people spent so much time together and student life is not limited to just classes. It was a collective kind of being together—dhabas, hostels, no regulations curbing people from entering or going wherever they wanted to go. My college was a small college, it was a college of very rich people; on the other hand JNU was a place where people from different economic strata came and were living together, also because this is a post graduate, research institute and I was from a graduate college, the level of thinking was more mature and intellectual here.

I was an active member of my college’s theatre society, and at that point actually greatly involved with theatre production. I didn’t come to JNU with the clear purpose of studying; I came here for the purpose of getting a hostel room, so that I can do my theatre which is what I did for first few months in JNU. I got involved in JNU life much later. I was never part of any political party; I was closely allied to several left organizations. In 1989–90 there was a union formed here, my friend Amit Sengupta was the president, which was called the Solidarity Union. I didn’t hold any office but I was very actively involved in the union activities. Solidarity Union was a front comprising of several parties as well as the independent left. There was an organization called free thinkers, there was DRSL—further left—more left than CPM-CPI, there was SYS—the socialist, Jayaprakash Narayan line of thinking, several of us were part of independent left individuals, but closely allied to these organizations. Solidarity resigned at the end of that time, because the Mandal Commission happened [and] the union resigned. Once that happened we still remained active, eventually AISA came into the scene later; some of us did have close links with them in terms of working with them on specific issues, and also supported some of their candidates from [the] outside.

As a teacher in arts and aesthetics, I have a range of interesting political discussions with my students, I don’t know if that’s any less than any other departments and schools. I have been closely associated with politics all throughout my JNU life in spite of the fact that in the beginning I was into theatre, I became interested in politics as I was living in JNU, listening to people, talking to them, reading and responding to real issues, happenings, not just in JNU but events happening nationally as well as internationally—movements, participations and also questioning—and I was among the many students who were influenced. I joined JNU in 2014 as a permanent faculty. Something in the core has been stable here and has not changed in any dramatic way, there’s something in the nature of collective life, of consciousness, which has sustained itself despite many changes. Firstly, there are a lot more students in the campus now—around 8000. In our times there were at least half of that, more Delhi students now. Also the world outside has changed, the neo-liberal economy, the technological revolution that has happened, JNU doesn’t have the older ,more classical, existence. Now it has [a] far more networked way of being, which of course affects how we think about things, with all those changes. JNU has a wider of life of students, which I will gamble to say is unique in the world, I doubt with my limited information that any other campus, any other university in the world at present has that, which is extremely vibrant and intellectually stimulating, egalitarian, and this is how it was even then during my student days. Student politics in JNU has a radical autonomy that has not changed. One change is that on the level of mass political participation, there is a range of students that are participating in the movement now. Students are not so militant as they were earlier. ‘Militant’ here doesn’t mean violent, militant means a way of disposing yourself to your adversary—VC or state or whoever—which was because people were more party led then, now organizations are there but I doubt they have that kind of hold. Because militancy is also part of a kind of professional activism which is not a bad thing, it’s just an analytical factor that is how to move in an agitation in certain stages, certain specific modes from lesser intensities to higher intensities. It’s more horizontal now because a lot of different people are coming together now, more than what I have seen earlier. In certain context militancy is able to sanction certain sorts of results, sometimes it can cause disruption and divide in the movement, sometimes militancy creates a force. Now there’s more spontaneity, more heterogeneity, not dictated by set kind of method, on particular occasion that can lead to confusion. Mass participation without structural militant orientation has more room for concrete empirical analysis.

The government usually reacted badly, harshly even during my student days. In 1989–90, [the] Mandal Commission happened, JNU movement was split, just like it happened all over the country—between pro-Mandal and anti-Mandal; the government was pro-Mandal because it was the government’s move, it was V.P Singh’s government, there was clearly a propaganda for pro-Mandal against the anti-Mandal movement, but apart from certain incidents, there was no absolute repression of anti-Mandal movement. It was one of those moments where both pro and anti-Mandal sentiments were nearly equally balanced. Left supported the pro-Mandal position and free thinkers partly, Solidarity was partly divided over this, some constituent organizations took an anti-Mandal position and overtly left organizations took a pro-Mandal position. Eventually the union resigned over this. Nevertheless, it wasn’t like this that the state is absolutely with pro-Mandal and against anti-Mandal. The killing of Chandresekhar who was a very close friend of mine, was done by a person who was a part of the state apparatus, again it was against the state and the state was no friend of the students, everything that happened—the CBI enquiry, the demand to punish the killer—which was all against state. Again we were definitely on the wrong side of the state but what did not happen was that [the] state didn’t speak in the voice of society and the media was not there in this form at that time that made the dissenters look like they were outcasts of the mainstream society like it has happened now. Lathi charges and detainment happened even then as well. We went for a march once to the Prime Minister’s residence—[the] Prime Minister is a symbol of state power—up to a point we were allowed, as we went further, there was a militant move, we pushed a few barricades and we were lathi charged brutally. Let’s not say that things were softer then. State apparatus like the police apparatus is a coercive apparatus which is used by state/governments in specific moments; they were used just as they are being used now. But that’s very different to how laws are used now, that is using laws which doesn’t produce that much physical violence but out casting, law is being used as an out casting method, which Congress didn’t do. To say anti-national is the same as saying untouchables, it is also a very casteist way of throwing people out of social and political membership. And the law is being used to produce that effect.

I don’t like characterizing myself, I don’t like any kind of summary of a person, because I don’t believe in that kind of unified image, so it’s of very little interest to me who I am, I think that I have been this way even when I was a student. I have very little interest in being involved with student parties now; I’m definitely interested in the life of students or life of this university. Even in teachers’ union, I’m not very active. So as per political affiliation, there’s nothing I have to say. I can say that I have taken part in political events, situation, whether that makes me a political being, is really something about which I have no idea, please don’t ask me to corroborate any characterization of myself.

It’s true that in certain times, some voices dominate, when someone is dominated it’s not a nice feeling, but in JNU no one is silenced or shouted out of existence—that doesn’t happen, not in my earshot at least. Left did dominate, but I never heard that dominant voice shout out or crush or silence any other voice. I have never been stopped from reading anything or never have I stopped anybody from reading something. And even now it’s the same. I said a few days ago at a protest that if ABVP are left to themselves to talk about themselves they would probably say that they like being inside JNU than they would like being outside with their organization, there they would be asked to just function as cadres or party functionaries. But here they would be having conversations with the left. I have taught people who are not left and they have responded well.

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