Arts and culture

JNU Then and JNU Now—Part 3

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 Ajith Kanna, Professor at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, School of Language, Literature, and Culture Studies.


I came to JNU in 1994 as a BA French 2nd year student and stayed till 1999; since then it has been 22 years. In 2003 I came here as a teacher and for direct PhD. I was involved with AISA, I never took part in any of their processions or meetings; if processions were from JNUSU only then did I take part, and at that time JNUSU was headed by AISA. That was the time of the end of SFI, and ABVP and NSUI started emerging during this time. It used to be a joke then that if someone asked someone before the election time, “Who are you going to vote for?”, and that person replied “ABVP”, people would laugh and mock him. Now people say “ABVP is winning, ABVP is going to change the whole university politics”. Now there is pride in voting for ABVP, people are not shy about saying, “I’m going to vote for ABVP”. During my student days, people used to secretly go and vote for ABVP. Now the threat is ABVP versus the Left. Earlier it used to be between SFI and AISA. Since 1994, the presence of ABVP started growing. I’m a Tamilian, I did not know any Hindi when I came to this campus and I thought ABVP is the Hindi translation of AISA, Akhil Bharatya Vishva Parishad, translates into All India Students’ Association, ideologically they are the extreme Left and extreme Right—see the confusion. As a language learner, it took some time to understand what is left, what is right, and what is centre. There used to be hot debates, heated conversions between ABVP and AISA sympathizers. I had been a part of the election committee, and hence I’d closely observed the presidential debate. One of the best presidential debates was the one in which the highlight was the debate between the ABVP presidential candidate and the AISA presidential candidate, and that debate would decide the fate of ABVP—that ABVP was going to lose in that election. All the left comrades, generally, most of them are trained to be powerful speakers and crowd pullers. ABVP is out of fashion, talking of Vedic culture and Hindu culture; back then no one used to listen to the Right speakers, people came only to see how well they could irritate the Left speakers. Now, ABVP is a big threat to other Left parties, now the Left come under alliances with other Left parties to defeat ABVP. Till Chandrasekhar was there, no one could shake AISA—after his death the entry for ABVP happened. In the early 1990s, there was a president from NSUI, it was a political aberration, it was unprecedented. Maybe he won because of his popularity amongst friends and not as a “Congressman”. I have been radical ever since my college times, these intellectual talks used to attract me—as the left guys are known for their intellectual, ideological attitude, unlike the conservative ideas and ideals. In 1996, there was a move to privatize this university. The VC misled us by telling us that he got that order from the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, which was not true. We went for a strike, complete blockout, even the teachers joined us, just like the present time when the teachers have lend their unconditional support. AISA was in the JNUSU and Chandrasekhar was the president. I was in that hunger strike and after 3 days the SFI JNU wing president told Chandrasekhar that we are going for a partial strike, that whoever wants to attend classes can attend classes. Then I said, “How about me, you guys are politicizing the issue, how about me who has been starving for 3 days?” He said, “You are not part of [the] union, you keep quiet your mouth (sic), you starve or you die we don’t care”. On the other hand, AISA was uncompromising in their approach; till then I hadn’t yet joined any political organizations. I have never supported any political parties till date. I have been a sympathizer of AISA and that was because of Chandrasekhar, who was extremely popular and extremely well read, and he could speak in Hindi and English as fluently as anybody. He could sense the pulse of the crowd, and if something was not going well, he would shift to English from Hindi. He knew there are so many people who didn’t know Hindi—people from the South and the North East. And that is how he appealed to everyone.

I came to JNU as a Tamil fanatic, I refused to speak in Hindi and understand Hindi, even after 2–3 years when I came to know a little bit of Hindi, I used to say, “I care a foot about this language”. I had this idea that I would lose my purity if I learnt other languages. I was also very active in Tamil festivals, now I hate that community like anything. Change of mind—change is the only thing that doesn’t change. Now I’m trying to become neutral, a mute spectator to all the things that happen. Now I go and take part in the Onam festival: It’s supposed to be a secular festival—Muslim, Christians also celebrate it. I never participated in any religious festivals like Saraswati Puja. Pongal is another such secular festival, though it has its Hindu colour/orientation. I love Holi. That kind of tolerance, accommodation is what I’m looking for. Ganapati Puja, Saraswati Puja, Durga Puja—these are all exclusive pujas. Why I go to Eid is because there’s nothing like Bihari Eid or Bengali Eid, you don’t need any invitation for Eid, nobody is going to ask you, even your dress won’t tell you that you belong to so and so area. For Durga Puja, the way you dress people might say, “This person looks like a Bengali”. When you learn something from your university or college, and then if you can fight with your community and family on those things you have learnt, then you become radical and rebellious, knowing that there’s a danger of people outcasting you. Can you marry without Sanskritic slokas? Can you do that? There’s something called Self Respect Marriage in Tamil Nadu. I’m the example of my own rationalism/radicalism. I was thoroughly impressed by Periyar’s idea of Self Respect Marriage—the chief guest of my own wedding was my Tamil teacher. Why should only the pandits come and recite the slokas? Self Respect Marriages are devoid of all Hindu cultural ways of conducting a marriage. Is it only the pandit’s right to chant Sanskrit slokas? I don’t understand Sanskrit first of all, I understand Tamil and I understand English, why can’t someone read something from the Bhagwad Gita translated into English, I would understand it much better. That’s the kind of transformation I’m looking for. Communism is beyond caste, beyond language. I find peace in atheism, criticism, debates and not in argument. When you discuss it’s an intellectual exercise, when you argue it’s an emotional exercise—you are trying to prove a point. We are trying to grow in discussion not grow divided. I say let’s do away with religion; it’s the biggest evil of unity. You are talking about territorial nation, cultural nationalism, and I’m talking about progressive nationalism. You have to cut across communities, nations. Nation is a politically constructed boundary. There are nations within nations—Tamil nation, Oriya nation, Marathi nation. What is Tamil Tigers? Same Hindus whose heart goes out to the Jafna Hindus and not Kashmiri pandits. There’s border tension between Bihar and Bengal, same with Tamils, and Malyalis, and Kannadas. I would say wherever Tamils went they were badly treated and they badly behaved as well. I evolved from a Tamil nationalist to a liberal thanks to JNU, thanks to my Bengali friends, and Bihari friends, and Oriya friends, and other non-Tamil friends, thanks to my Muslim friends and Christian friends, thanks to these progressive women and thanks to my teachers.

In my first class here, I remember, I was stumped by Angelie Multani—teacher of an optional English Literature course. She was teaching Romeo and Juliet. The class began at 11 and around 12 she said, “Lets take a break guys”. That was a big thing for me. It was a cultural shock because I came from a small city called Chennai, and that too from a very undeveloped area of Chennai itself— an outskirt of Chennai. My teacher there would never say “Guys”. She comes and asks, “Can somebody lend me a match box?” Somebody in the class very reluctantly takes out a match box, and she offers a cigarette to him. My heart missed a beat. She smoked and came back after 10 minutes. Then she says, “Who taught you that this is a table? Why can’t you say this is an elephant?” Existentialism. I got exposed to something totally unknown.



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