Winning Tripura, subduing JNU

Winning Tripura, subduing JNU
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Janaki Nair

The triumphalism witnessed in Tripura is linked to the sustained political and administrative attack on the Jawaharlal Nehru University since February 2016.

The adrenalin rush following the triumph of the BJP in the Northeast, and Tripura in particular, prompted a startling public admission from Sunil Deodhar, the BJP’s Tripura prabhari (IE, March 4): “Now we have broken the backbone of Communism, from JNU (emphasis added) to Kerala. This is more than just symbolic for us.” Any remaining doubts about the origin and goal of the sustained political and administrative attack on the Jawaharlal Nehru University since February 2016 may be dispelled as wilful ignorance.

Those who constitute the teaching and learning community at JNU, and take pride in its near half-century heritage, should first take heart from this frank admission of the transforming power of ideas. For JNU, with its undoubted debt to the rich range of ideas that is today scathingly referred to as “Left-Liberal”, is not comparable to a mere state government whose fortunes are tied to the whims, fears and aspirations of the electorate. JNU is not a space to be won or lost at the hustings; it is a far more “dangerous” space precisely because it nurtures minds, encourages thinking, even of the oppositional kind, and produces as many who sustain the establishment in our subcontinent as challenge it.

Therefore, JNU has required more than just the dangling of promises (the allure of the 7th Pay Commission in Tripura was certainly greater than sanskriti, desh bhakti and itihaas). It has required great and ingenious effort to break the institution; it could make the half-century celebration a non-starter. What is it stake in the battle for JNU is not just its own heritage, or its achievements, but all those institutions of higher education whose strengths may be in the social sciences, humanities and languages. The backbone that is being broken is the culture of learning and teaching itself.

The first requirement for dealing such a debilitating blow to an institution is a leader who is convinced that a university is, above all, a space of unquestioning piety, closer in form to a church than a place of learning. The unrestrained hostility to the institution that he heads was made very evident in the statements of the JNU vice-chancellor (VC) in his Lok Sabha TV appearance on February 19, 2018. This is surely a first in the history of Indian institutions, a leader who runs down not only his own teachers and students, but also his illustrious predecessor VCs, one of whom, K R Narayanan, made it to the highest constitutional office of the country.

In an earlier, justly infamous remark, the JNU VC had requested an army tank on the campus, in order to “instil” nationalism among the students. It takes leadership of a determinedly anti-intellectual kind to nurture the tight link between a university and the nation’s armed forces that has been forged over the past two years. Most universities worldwide would celebrate their illustrious teachers and alumni, or the power of ideas that have moved and shaped the world as we know it. The new leadership at JNU chose to venerate its military heroes on its walls, perhaps to atone for its purportedly “anti-national” past.

Another arrow in the anti-intellectual quiver has been to alter the composition of the university. This is being achieved in a number of ways. Begin by deepening the belief that science and technology alone are worthy of awe and moral authority; they are less partial, biased and partisan knowledges than the social sciences and the humanities.

Denigrate JNU’s reputation and clout over the last 45 years that has emerged from the legions of bureaucrats, judges, media personnel, teachers and politicians that it has produced. The emphasis must now shift to engineers, management specialists and others who will not be “corrupted” by the social intelligence it takes to make systems work.

Another approach to demographic management is to drastically reduce the numbers of students taken into programmes of study at the university, as was achieved last year when MPhil and PhD admissions were reduced by a whopping 83 per cent. When it led to the paralysis of work in some departments, the JNU administration was unperturbed by the spectre of “un”accountability that is otherwise publicly lamented.

But even that will not ensure a permanent change of the JNU teaching-learning community. So the most important move, implemented at the speed which can only break necks and backbones, is to disband the carefully devised system of weightages (in addition to the state-mandated reservations) that JNU evolved through debate and discussion. It ensured that students from rural, underprivileged, and marginal backgrounds could enter a prestigious institution of higher education. This system has been “disappeared” under the voluminous skirts of the May 2016 UGC regulations.

At the level of faculty recruitment, another valuable road to long-term demographic transformation has been pioneered. Strange and intellectually incomprehensible “modes of interrogation” have replaced the interview which may have allowed the best candidates to be chosen.

The greatest casualty in this surgical strike has been the university as a space of deliberative democracy. Thus, crucial decisions relating to the day-to-day functioning of the university — ranging from truly interactive viva voce examinations by external examiners, the continuance of a system to counter sexual harassment (GSCASH) that has won praise within and outside the country to questions of compulsory attendance — are now decided by administrative fiat. Neither the faculty nor the student bodies who had been part of the time-consuming processes in the past, are necessary partners.

Many other breathtaking changes have simultaneously sacralised and militarised the university. A “command and control” system of administration, which cherry-picks loyalists to implement its arbitrary and capricious decisions, has moved far away indeed from the legally established statutes and the established norms of JNU. It also moves too far away from plain civility, which should be the hallmark of the university as a public good. But these are necessary sacrifices, the victors in Tripura will inform us, to ensure the even greater “good” of loyalty, obedience and parochial thinking.

The article was first published in Indian Express