JNU’s deprived section students brought with them experience, thinking hitherto alien to academia

agitateBy Pramod Ranjan*

It is essential to find out how this university, created in 1966 by a special Act of Parliament, became a leftist bastion. The answer lies in its unique reservation system. In this university, from the very outset, aspirants from backward districts, women and other weaker sections were given preference in enrolment. Kashmiri migrants and wards and widows of defence personnel killed in action also get preference. The nature of the questions in the admission tests of the university is such that only the ability to answer multiple-choice questions related to one’s discipline is not enough to see one through.

Only those students who have, apart from command over their own subject, analytical skills and reasoning power get admission here. The undergraduate courses of foreign languages are an exception in this regard. But even here, once they have a bachelor’s degree, they can join an MA or an MPhil course only if they have the aforementioned skills. Thus, for years, JNU has been home to the finest and most fertile minds from economically and socially deprived sections of society. And when they analyze the hows and whys of their socio-economic background, they get drawn to Marxism.

This fully residential university, spread over 1000 acres and nestled in the lush green Aravalli Range, never attracted the elite class. The hostels serve plain food and residents drink from jugs – instead of glasses. Estimates suggest that at least 70 per cent students of the university come from either poor or lower-middle-class families. Though the Left always dominated the students’ politics in the university, till 2006, students from economically weak but socially higher classes ruled the roost here. That was because they outnumbered all other groups.

The number of Dalit and Tribal students was capped by the 22.5 per cent reservation for them, although OBC students have been given preference in enrolments since 1995, the credit for which goes to the agitation launched by the renowned students’ leader Chandrashekhar (1964-97) (“Samajik Kranti Ke Sutradhar”, Ashok Kumar Sinha, Shabda Prakashan, Patna, 2012).

Even then, the percentage of students from socially deprived communities, including OBCs, in the university never exceeded 28-29 per cent. In 2006, the government announced reservations for OBCs in institutions of higher learning and that drew these classes towards JNU. The fact that all students of the university get scholarships was an added attraction. As Abhay Kumar pointed out in his article, “Assertion of Dalitbahujan discourse in JNU” (“Forward Press”, August 2015), “According to the Annual Report 2013-14, out of the 7,677 JNU students, there were 3,648 Dalitbahujan students (1,058 SCs + 632 STs + 1948 OBCs). Simply put, the percentage of non-upper-caste students today is roughly around 50 per cent. If one includes other deprived social groups, minorities and women, the upper castes and classes are a minuscule minority. As a result, during the last three years (from 2012-14), JNUSU presidents have been from the marginalized sections of society – V Lenin Kumar (2012, SFI-JNU or DSF), an OBC from Tamil Nadu; Akbar Chawdhary (2013, AISA), a Muslim from UP; and Ashutosh Kumar (2014, AISA), a Yadav from Bihar.”

In 2012, OBC students were elected to all the four posts of JNUSU (“Jai Joti, Jai Bheem, Jai JNU”, Forward Press, October 2012). The winners in the 2015 students’ union elections also reflect the same trend: President Kanhaiya Kumar, AISF (Bhumihar, Hindu upper caste); Vice-President Shehla Rashid, AISA (Muslim); General Secretary Rama Naga, AISA (Dalit); and Joint Secretary Saurabh Kumar, ABVP (OBC). It may be mentioned here that it was after a gap of 14 years that an ABVP candidate emerged victorious in the JNUSU elections. But his victory had a lot to do with his OBC roots as well.

As the videos of his speech reveal, the current students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, who was arrested on charges of sedition, is not only a brilliant speaker but also his speeches are a beautiful amalgam of Phule-Ambedkarism and Marxism. JNU students say that his powerful oratory was a major contributor to his victory in the elections.

After the enrolments last year, the percentage of students in JNU from SC, ST and OBC has gone up to 55 per cent. A large number of Muslims are enrolled in Arabic, Persian and other language courses in JNU. Data on them is not available. But if, along with them, the number of Ashraf Muslims and other minorities is added, it can be safely presumed that at least 70 per cent of the students in the university are non-Dwij.

Note that the official figure for OBC students in JNU has gone from 288 in 2006 to 2,434 in 2015, i.e. a tenfold increase in nine years, although apart from the 288, there would have been other OBC students who hadn’t sought a reserved seat for admission. The number of women students has also gone up substantially.

New slogans, new graffiti, new discourses

This change in the social texture of the students not only changed the composition of the students’ union but also the dominant discourse on the campus. Though leading students’ organizations continued to hold the flag of Marxism aloft, their slogans started changing. The graffiti started changing. Instead of Marx, Lenin and Mao, the slogans increasingly started quoting Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar. Portraits of Bahujan heroes who took on Manuvad and casteism started adorning the walls – so much so that it became impossible for any students’ organization to survive on the JNU campus without sporting these symbols. And the change was not limited to slogans and graffiti; the topics of research also underwent a sea change.

The students from the deprived sections brought with them life experiences and thinking processes that were, hitherto, alien to the Indian academic world. They gave a new momentum, a new energy to research in the humanities. The “Left” had taken a new turn – a turn that took it away from the discourses that interested the upper classes. The radical Left has always been present here. Discussions on Naxalism, Maoism and freedom to Kashmir have been fairly common. The number of big and small functions and meetings on these and related issues to date must easily be in the thousands.

The Mahishasur and food-freedom movements were the manifestations of the new discourses that were replacing the old ones here. They drew nationwide attention. The traditional Left either looked the other way or made it clear that it would stand by the freedom of expression and would not oppose these voices coming from the deprived sections. This was, in a sense, the coming-together of Left and Bahujan ideologies or, at the very least, the two camps agreeing on a common minimum programme.

*Excerpts. Read full article HERE

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