Thinking Minds Inc.
Recent controversies apart, JNU remains an equal opportunity provider for independent thinking and research
ONCE TUCKED AWAY IN A REMOTE CORNER of Delhi amid the undulating ridges of the Aravallis, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, better known just as JNU, today is in the thick of things, ideologically as well as geographically. Priding itself on being the only central university in the country that is research-oriented, not just doling out degrees, it is often derided by adversaries for presuming to think that any thought process in the country begins here.
Over the years, the varsity has grown into an organic being with a life of its own. The organic unity of the campus is not just physical—contained in its many small dhabas, barber shops and canteens—but also in the unique student-faculty relationship, a reconfigured guru-shishya relationship as it were.
Being a politically conscious campus that believes ‘JNU thinks today that India thinks tomorrow’, the varsity has been in the middle of several controversies in recent times, be it Afzal Guru’s commemoration in February last year that sparked off a debate on azadi to the disappearance of its student Najeeb Ahmed in October. But the university seems to have survived the battering to its image, emerging as the best university of India.
In March this year, it bagged the ‘Visitor’s Award’ for the best central university in the country. The honour, which was handed by President Pranab Mukherjee to vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar, was instituted in 2015, to encourage a spirit of healthy competition in universities. As many as nine central universities, including Jamia Millia Islamia, the Aligarh Muslim University and Banaras Hindu
University, were in contention. The universities were judged on several parameters such as studentfaculty ratio, research output, university ranking and patents filed.
The current university dispensation, led by its IITian V-C reflects a new energy. “We have a high concentration of outstanding faculty and bright students,” says Kumar. “We also have good autonomy in running the university. Our academic programmes and syllabus, teaching and evaluation methodologies as well as the selection process are decided by the university. We also try and take the knowledge we impart to society to help it face challenges. A crucial component, therefore, is to teach students entrepreneurial skills.”
Academic vibrancy apart, the socio-cultural atmosphere on the campus too is very alive. Individual hostels host ‘hostel nights’ where students from other hostels are invited. Nothing illustrates the spirit of unity and revelry better than Holi on the campus. A ‘chaat sammelan’ in which stand-up comics from across the varsity showcase their talent culminates in celebrations on the Jhelum lawns.
The presidential debate before the student elections is another much-anticipated event on the campus. Students of various political outfits cross ideological swords at the event to sway voters in their favour. Interestingly, JNU has its own constitution, according to which no printed material and posters are allowed on the campus. JNU politics, therefore, is hand-crafted in a sense. Student-activists paint their own posters to advertise their ideology.
“JNU is unlike other universities and colleges of India,” says Riteish Kumar, a PhD student at the School of International Studies. “Being a completely residential campus, it gives students a chance to bond as a community of their own. All are equal. All survive on the same food, same books and thrive on the same teachers. The campus gives a fair chance to all.”
Social hierarchy is left strictly outside the gates. Students from the most humble backgrounds join those from privileged backgrounds in a spirit of inquiry. Inside the classrooms, as well as outside them, the discussions are egalitarian, carrying on long into the night over chai and egg paranthas at Ganga dhaba or elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, JNU boasts illustrious alumni. Dubbed a factory for civil servants, it counts foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar among them. It has also been alma mater to several leading po-
litical figures, among them former Union minister Digvijaya Singh, minister of state (independent charge) Nirmala Sitharaman, CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat. Psephologist Yogendra Yadav is from JNU as is journalist P. Sainath, and actor Swara Bhaskar.
Joining their ranks most recently is the iron-spirited Ummel Kher. Afflicted with brittle bone disease and abandoned by her family for having ambitions, Kher lived and studied in a JJ cluster before joining JNU and cracking the civil service exam this year, ranking 420th on the merit list.
“All are equal in JNU. All survive on the same food, the same books and thrive on the same teachers. The campus gives a fair chance to all” RITESH KUMAR PhD, SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
READING LIST The library at JNU