Not too long ago in the history of the Republic — 1974 to be precise — a large body of students entered the lobby, and later the room of Vice-Chancellor G Parthasarathy, the founding head of Jawaharlal Nehru University, a man charged with the setting up of a world-class university, and announced that they were gheraoing him. They wanted the barriers of gender separating the girls’ and boys’ hostels to be done away with, as it smacked of a feudal society based on patriarchy. They were expressing the most progressive ideas agitating the young mind — the gendered barricades encompassing society. Parthasarathy, who had interacted with the most powerful people in the world, found this group of students, many of whom did not even speak English (the language of the diplomatic elite that he was familiar with), more powerful than all who had come before — they were students, yet their demands were not for their own interests, nor even for something euphemistically called national interest. They were protesting for something which in their minds they thought would make society better all-in-all. He did not ask for the police, did not chide them, neither was he demurred — he talked to them about social, bureaucratic and other miscellaneous issues that would not permit such a great idea to be immediately pursued in a traditional society; it would in fact be harmed through the vicious constrictions of traditional society. Its time would come, though, one fine day, and then the society would remember the pioneers — those JNU students. Such was the spirit embodied in the foundation of the university that is JNU. There are many other instances that reinforced these values and established the spirit of dissent and dialogue that became the signature of this great institution.
In the mid-1980s, a Dean of Students introduced a register for women students/ guests entering the men’s hostel, where the purpose of visit was to be recorded. Many uncharitable remarks made the administration understand its own lack of practical wisdom, and this rule was never strictly enforced.
Then, in the late 1980s, an ever-watchful body of students discovered that a senior official was drawing salary from two sources. In the pre-RTI age, they made efforts to get at the source. The Vice-Chancellor, a stickler for rules, had to disown the officer; at no point was a student either issued a show-cause notice or shown the door.
In the early 1990s, students wanted to strike against the administration and they were sitting on a hunger strike when the Vice-Chancellor himself joined them in the strike, saying this was his cause too. Professor Yoginder K Alagh, the Vice-Chancellor, was no mean scholar and knew that the students were not demanding something out of the world.
Thus, through such acts, the young were indicating the new and emerging mores, which led to the university not being ossified. Teachers had their individual political and intellectual predilections and students too had their own, but one saw the campus, like the nation, carry on with the variety and colour of these differences. There were shouts and slogans to drown the other, but they were more a demonstration of intellectual prowess than threats to physically eliminate the other. When the State imposed Emergency in 1975, JNU students became part of street agitations. Their refusal to allow then prime minister Indira Gandhi into the campus is the stuff of legends.
The story of an institution is a story of shared memories and shared ideals. JNU, as it has grown in the last 50 years, is one such great story. Within this story lay millions of small lives and their careers as they have woven the narrative of this country in the last half century.
A university reflects the character of a nation: its moral self, its confidence and its resolve to face the world. When we sat at the table in our hostel mess, when we all talked about our larger vision and smaller plans — about fighting the capital and its sway, our resolve to finish off shades of Apartheid or the discriminating caste hierarchies — we were speaking of the society and for a future society. The shared memories of those talks, of the politics that gave us the language to express those visions and plans, are small stories in the big world.
As the University celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is these shared memories of the collective self that will keep the beauty of the institution intact. All that is beautiful needs to be cherished and the memories are those beautiful things that direct us towards a great future. It is unfortunate that those who do not cherish the memory and what JNU stands for, are at the helm of affairs today. But memories fortunately cannot be killed, only repressed in some circles.