In this series, The Informer would be conversing with professors who were once students at 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.
Jayati Ghosh, Professor, in Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), JNU:
I joined JNU in 1975 when the Emergency had been just declared. It was imposed in June, I joined in July, so it was quite an extraordinary period both in the University and in the country. It was still a new University; I joined economics , I was the 3rd batch, we had a young faculty—mostly young, some were slightly senior—Krishna Bharadwaj, Sunanda Sen, others were in their 30s, they were very passionate, very excited. It was a thrilling time, you got a sense of excitement from the subject, and of course it was a time when the country was under a lot of oppression and there was a sense of solidarity amongst people in the campus. This was also the time when a student got picked up and jailed from the University. And lots of cases were brought against students and some faculty members even when some of them weren’t involved with the JP movement—that was part of the nature of Emergency; people were basically picked up on accusation, on mere feeling that they have been associated with someone who could have been involved with some political parties; they were under surveillance and under threat. A number of them were taken for questioning. There was a lot of fear and intimidation, more than it is at present when we have people being picked up who are not involved in any wrongdoing.
The sense of intellectual liberation here for me was huge because I studied in Miranda House, Delhi University, and it was a very different kind of education; it was very top-down and based on rote learning. What I found liberating here was that you were made to question, you were forced to question every assumption, you were forced to think about each of the arguments you were making, you were on edge intellectually not just in class [but] even outside of class, there was always a competitive pressure to read the latest books out of some Left tradition. There was a lot of discussion on what the professors had meant when they had said so and so. I feel it was possibly the most intellectually exciting period. In those days there was [the] direct Ph.D. program, I stayed for one more year and got enrolled in that but then I got a scholarship and went to England, so I was in JNU as a student for 3 years.
There was an enormous sense of political liberation when the Congress lost big time after the Emergency was lifted. It’s hard to explain it to people who haven’t lived through that period. It was this absolutely amazing time. Of course, we discovered in retrospect some of [the] people we were celebrating for having defeated Indira Gandhi were very problematic themselves. It was a time when there was a lot of interaction between faculty and students, there were some who were venerated—Romila Thapar, Krishna Bharadwaj—people who were institutions, academically, nationally, but it didn’t generate a sense of intimidation, you respected them, had a high opinion, you would try to be on your best behaviour, there was very much a sense of community. I was into politics of different kinds—in my time SFI was the dominant political force. I was with groups left of SFI. Early feminist discussions were also beginning then; it was definitely a politically-charged atmosphere which is important to create politically thinking citizens. Many of the people who were left leaders then turned out to be pillars of right-wing institutions today. Even when they are associated with right-wing establishments and parties they have retained JNU’s mode of arguments, they are very used to what the other side is going to say and having a response to that. I was never a member of any party, I was a support[er] and sympathizer—there were times when I had supported SFI, there were times when I had supported the left fringe thing which was there on campus at that time which was against SFI and student elections.
I have been teaching here for 30 years now, which is already a very long time, and when I came back to teach here, I found it was still the same, dominantly focussed on [the] Left . But I also found much more focus on ecological, feminist, Gandhian, and other kinds of perspectives—this was in the late 80s. In the 90s, and beginning of 2000s, in conformity with liberalization, there was a bit of a lull, because of more of our students were becoming explicitly careerist, many were happy to say that they were not political; they were apolitical, they didn’t even want to know, they focussed on their career[s]; many were thinking that that was the way forward—going abroad for higher studies or getting into jobs. [The] Economics department had by then established itself and students managed to get very good jobs or move into universities. In the 2000s, there was a change which was facilitated by the expansion of the student community, inclusion of people from the reserved category, and focus on filling these quotas, once again giving a lot of diversity to the student body. When I was a student, along with reservation there was a very complicated system of admission which had a lot of different additional marks—many more criteria of deprivation were taken into account and so we had a very diverse student body. The present system is less complex and takes into account only where you did your schooling and whether you are a woman, these are 2 very simple indicators. I’m not sure if women should get 5 marks, a lot of women who come here are not deprived. I would reduce that and add marks for criteria like the income of the household. Now you have OBC reservation, those days you gave marks.
After the University was closed in 1983 for a year when a student movement went wrong, a new admission policy got rid of all of that to the detriment of the University. Some of the things have now been brought back like provisions for women from backward areas. One of the great things about this University is that you meet people whom you wouldn’t have met otherwise because India is a very hierarchical and discriminatory society and those who are from the elite are not even aware [that] they are in a bubble. I went through school and college, not being aware of kinds of discriminations that happen. I went to an elite school and to an elite college, you don’t actually know of the lives of people coming from very different situations. At one time in our department, we were predominantly Bengalis, our students used to come from either Delhi or Kolkata, we had protests from other students saying that Bengali is the second language of the Centre. Not anymore, though, now it’s much more diverse, there are much more Hindi- speaking people in class now. JNU exposes people to other people from very different backgrounds and of course, all sorts of different things result from that. I find a big difference between students who join in the 1st semester and when they are in their 4th semester, they become mature in ways that they don’t realize themselves. I take 1st semester classes, so in the first few lectures students keep standing when you enter and you have to keep telling them to stop, by the 3rd month, when you walk in they don’t even notice you, they are chatting, and you have to do everything you can to quieten (sic) them to start the lecture. Our students often get completely hassled because they don’t have textbooks as here there’s a whole different approach to learning. By the end of [the] second year, most of them have got it, and they don’t necessarily get it from us, they get it from each other.
NSUI had always existed but it was very minor. The size of the university then was smaller about half maybe 4000 students. ABVP came up in the 90s, I don’t think it even existed before that. Congress was seen as a very right-wing. There was a group which called themselves the Free Thinkers, they used to advertise themselves by saying that Marx was a free thinker. Their idea was not to be Left; many have later joined parties which are not of left configuration. The JP movement contained people of all kinds—people of the Left as well as Right-wing tendencies.
After the Emergency ended, it was like breathing again; during Emergency you didn’t dare to have rallies. After the Emergency, there was a complete flowering of everything—doing things people do all the time, from hostel demos to meetings to processions. It was a much more extreme time in terms of attempts of overt control, it was less fascist and more authoritarian, there was less attempt to use populist vigilante violence. Then it was really the state versus everybody else, what is happening now is that all kinds of anti-social vigilante elements are encouraged to create fear and intimidation and they have the implicit backing of the State. I participated in rallies and protests all the time, in fact, I remember just after Indira Gandhi was defeated, it was crazy, as usual, we took these buses from JNU and went to the airport to receive Raj Narayan who had defeated Indira Gandhi, subsequently Raj Narayan turned out to be a total creep. It was just that moment, that intoxicating moment, I remember garlanding Raj Narayan. Then we went to Tihar jail where we garlanded George Fernandes, now when we think of George Fernandes we think of a lot of unfortunate things. But then they were the giant killers, it was that moment in history when these people had defeated authoritarianism, so there was this kind of heady feeling which of course you feel foolish about subsequently. Even during the Emergency, there were things happening, it was not like nothing was happening but it was much more suppressed—not underground but under the surface. The Mandal Movement was another interesting movement in the late 80s, and I think it exposed the caste divisions among faculties and students in a way that was very surprising for many of us. In fact, it was when I personally became aware of how significant caste was, I’m ashamed that I was that old and it took me that long to realize, because I came from a family where caste was never seen as an issue, I went to a school where nobody talked about caste, in college nobody talked about caste. It was later I realized that nobody talked about it because everybody just happened to be upper caste, so in my household people would be horrified if somebody brought up caste. I didn’t know my caste for a long time, it just so happened that we were upper caste, therefore not something that affected our day to day living. During the Mandal Commission agitation, you suddenly realized how deep these divisions were. Colleagues would just come and tell you things—the kind of daily indignities they faced even from other colleagues which were a complete shocker to me. Students would raise issues; earlier they were afraid to face these issues. Some teachers otherwise progressive would express incredibly casteist opinions. Suddenly it was like an exposure; previously this caste question was subterranean. I grew up thinking caste is not an issue, I thought that class is an issue, gender is an issue. The caste question erupted during the Mandal Agitation, it was as if somebody had lifted the lid. V.P Singh actually lifted the lid of a simmering cauldron, those of us in the top of the cauldron were not even aware that it was simmering, we just happened to be privileged and upper class, so we didn’t see this as this thing, because we ourselves were not casteist in our daily lives, we didn’t realize the kind of oppression, humiliation that lower caste people had to go through. It was a really revelatory movement actually.
Over the 90s in the campus there arose the voice of those who were marginalized and oppressed in various ways. This caste question hit me again during UPA-I, when I was in [the] National Knowledge Commission and OBC reservation once again in educational institutions were things which were going to be passed and I happened to be the only woman member of the Commission at that time and I [was] also the token Leftie so I ticked two boxes. I was surrounded by very eminent academics, eminent business people, elite people and they were all against this reservation, and they wanted the Knowledge Commission to come out strongly against it, which I fought for and it got to the point where actually there had to be a vote because I refused to allow it to go through; I insisted that my dissension be reported. There was another scientist Pushpa Bhargava who was a half vote, he abstained, so it was 6.5 against 1. It was a big thing; it was out in the papers as media picks up certain things just the way the media is doing JNU all the time now. Suddenly in my JNU mail, I started getting 300 hate mails a day, and they were all from upper caste people and full of all kinds of vile abuses—it was extraordinary, it was almost visceral, it’s like you scratch somebody and all that was suppressed comes out. Someone said, ‘May you fall sick and be treated by an OBC doctor.’ I remember writing back to that person that some of the best doctors I know are OBC doctors from Vellore, which has 90% reservations and I would be happy to get treated by them. It was extraordinary the kind of anger it generated. Many of my colleagues, who previously didn’t say anything, came and said things to me as I had come out so openly in favour of it. They told me about their experiences even on this campus—about subtle forms of discrimination one wasn’t even aware of and sometimes even more open discrimination like people’s plates not taken to the same kitchen to be washed but taken to the angan to be washed. JNU is the microcosm of India, we are trying to make ourselves better but we are by no means either perfect or far advanced in that. The Left in the past has been blind to a lot of these caste discriminations, not everywhere, though—the Left in South India used to lead the temple entry movements and things like that but in general, in the broader sense the Left has been blind to many things.
Upama Bhattacharya is an MA student at SSS and works for the Art and Culture Pool of The Informer.