The Truth of JNU’s Dissenting Spirit: A Journey From Theory to Praxis

Several articles have noted the events of January 5 at Jawaharlal Nehru University, most of them being comment pieces written in a composed fashion. While these carefully worded articles are pivotal, the emotional distance in these writings is also capable of painting a picture of a distant land for those who still look the other way and say “all is well”, refusing to acknowledge the ‘here’ and ‘now’ of the state of affairs.

Return to Laughter is an ‘anthropological novel’ where the author calls it a novel because she felt a mere anthropological account trying to meet all criteria of science would compromise with the nuances of everyday reality of those she studied and consequently reduce them to mere data.

My choice today is somewhat similar when I have let go of a position that would only identify me as a sociologist and I rather insist that you acknowledge the emotional journey I make today as a student between fear, uncertainty, reason and hope.

JNU’s increased resistance in the #FeesMustFall movement began on October 28, 2019. We haven’t seen the insides of classrooms since then or the faces of examination sheets. By boycotting registrations, we have now put at stake the very presence of our names on the university rolls. The JNU community, in these times, has been resolute to unprecedented extents in the university’s famous history of politics. This famous history of politics unsettles many and as much as counter ideologues would like crediting it to JNU being the last bastion of the Left in India, the truth of its dissenting spirit lies in its emphasis on praxis.

Popular belief is of newly enrolled JNU students magically turning into leftists, however, the essence of a student’s newfound voice lies with JNU’s focus on praxis, teaching them that being apolitical is not keeping your hands clean from the dirt that politics is considered in popular notion, but it is in fact betraying your training as a social scientist.

Not many additions are made in the list of texts that one must read to complete a master’s degree in the same discipline. I still read Bourdieu but now when the forms of capital that extend beyond economic play out in my classroom, they are recognised by classmates and teachers who do not invisiblise them in the learning process of an individual but instead work around them. With its unique system of deprivation points, JNU does not dismiss difference callously under ‘unity in diversity’ but rather takes account of it to teach empathy to aspiring social scientists.

Also read: JNU Violence: My Home Is Getting Destroyed

Even today when JNU is witnessing an unbelievable amount of support pouring in from across the world, a JNU student is of course grateful but at the same time questions why similar coverage was denied to greater violence unleashed on two minority institutions just weeks before.

Max Weber held that the best way to do sociology was via ‘verstehen’, or the same empathy which seems to be the ethos of this questioning spirit. A departure from mere theoretical learning also means unlearning constitutes a larger part of the tendencies that shape your future actions. This unlearning seems to be absent in coursework of those that today have put even Faiz Ahmad Faiz under the communal lens and seek to verify whether or not he was antagonistic of a certain religion.

Treating all occurrences as abstracted and culturally isolated, their shortsighted allegations stem from a conceit which is never challenged in their theory ridden coursework. They don’t acknowledge the years Faiz spent in Pakistani jails, owing to the skepticism surrounding his ‘belief’, or his friendship with the atheist country of the Soviet Union.

Finally, returning to the long history of protests in JNU, some credit it to the abundance of time that students of a social science university have. Often compared with those paying heftily for their education at IITs and IIMs, a JNU student is accused of not knowing the value of education on account of our subsidised fees. Not only does such an attitude reiterate the belief in a rickety hierarchy of sciences but it also presents a classic case of what Hannah Arendt had called the ‘banality of evil’.

Also read: Who’s Afraid of the University?

Obsessed with towering structures and figures denoting currency, few forget that those are not synonymous with a nation. While the oppressor hides behind these structures, dissent focuses on preserving the social fabric which must be the essence of a nation. This social fabric is systematically attacked time and again but just because it bears dents of oppression-making the evil seem banal-it does not have to be the new normal for us. This new normal is what JNU fights to resist and it is precisely because we know the value of education which allows us to problematise this new normal.  Which is also why we insist that education must remain an accessible necessity and not a luxury.

JNU does not passively accept the hegemony of the oppressor that seeks to paint the whole country as ‘new,’ insisting we treat all as ahistorical. For those who imagine a binary between studentship and being forefronts of dissent, I urge you to reconsider what you see as nationalism and how right is it to exclude a demand for social justice and reform from your definition of it.

Sharing an intimate space of hostel accommodation or cheap dhaba meals with those whose everyday reality is what one reads indifferently as newspaper articles on marginalisation, is what makes one problematise an apolitical position.

This very learning of empathy is enabled by an inclusive education model, making JNU a thriving environment for social sciences and a threat to those who wish the imagination of a nation was limited to concrete structures, cash inflow-outflow and a convenient hegemony.

Srijana Sidharth is a second year Masters student at the Centre for Study of Social System, Jawaharlal Nehru University.