Grow up, JNU: It’s time you become political

The mindlessness of the social media and all of us is evident on a daily basis when we ride great waves of utterly uncritical and unthinking celebration, the latest being the JNU moment. What we fail to do is pause and think. Perhaps this is the nature of the beast. Instant media require instant responses. But surely we know enough about the world to know that universities cannot by their very nature and structure be radical.

The modern university has its origins in the Prussian state aiming to become a big imperial power again after its defeat in the Napoleonic wars in the 18th century, a process which ended in the foundation of the German empire. Kant in his Conflict of the Faculties (1798) shows the fundamentally authoritarian structure of the university in what it privileged and what it did not. It may have been based on enlightenment ideals but its basic structure and mode of introduction was authoritarian.

Even a cursory look at any university will show you that the very structures of hierarchy, authority, administration and educational institutionalisation cannot possibly allow for revolutionary change. Add to that the fact that these institutions are enmeshed in power relations of caste, class and gender and you have quite the opposite of a space for radicalism of any kind.

Momentary ruptures may happen (think May 1968) and may delude us into believing that the world is about to change but institutions like the university quickly restore themselves to order. JNU is no exception. JNU pretends to be a radical place but its radicalism stops at vicious in-fighting between Left groups, pretentious and inconsistent sloganeering, pasting the walls of the insulated campus with graffiti and posters and pretending that the campus is a microcosm of the world and all is well with both.

For the marginalised and the oppressed within JNU – Dalits, women, sexual minorities, construction workers, adivasis, religious minorities, to cite just some examples – life in JNU is hell. In K Stalin’s documentary film India Untouched, Dalit student Smita Patil speaks of how she was viciously discriminated against in the haloed portals and hostels of JNU. A foreign student was raped on campus by her professor last year and no one even spoke about it, especially the otherwise supervocal student group in power which tries to appropriate every struggle in town as its own. No guesses as to why they were silent. The rapist happened to be affiliated to the party and was a member when he was a student there. A student was murdered there a few years ago by a fellow student and hardly anything was done to redress the fetid sexual culture in JNU which has scores of sexual harassment cases every day.

It is one thing to critique the government for arresting students for being seditious. It is another to understand that if one is political one should put one’s money where one’s mouth is. The protesting students should celebrate the arrest and all court arrest as well because that shows solidarity with the Kashmiri (around whom the event was in the first place) who faces charges of sedition every day of her life. JNU students are not really political at all. They live in a bubble.

The arrests, the police violence and the lawyer violence are all wake-up calls. It is time JNU grew up and really became political. Just crowing about large numbers of students forming human chains on campus is a laughable form of self-righteousness and an appalling form of non-politics.

Ashley Tellis is a gay rights activist

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