FLORIDA: And you can stick your little pins
In that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry baby,
Doesn’t look like me at all
-Leonard Cohen (The Tower of Song)

I was not born in JNU. I was lucky enough to pass an entrance exam and scrape past thousands of applicants and secure a spot in the eighteen of MA, English, JNU which is a globally ranked department. All the credentials are being mentioned because it seems the place in question doesn’t have any, according to what one is reading all over media, social or anti-social. All puns are seriously intended.

Yes, only the IITs do not conduct tough entrance tests. After my undergraduate degree in English at St. Stephen’s, like most of my friends, I entered a decent B-school with a promising career, with also a JNU entrance cleared for backup. Within a few days, my literary instincts started getting disturbed and I called up my mother. My fee for a quarter had been paid, and she said without hesitation, “Lakshmi knocks on many people’s doors, Saraswati on the doors of a very few. Go ahead. Become a man of letters.” JNU was a very different experience from St.Stephen’s which is amazing, but upscale. My new university showed me a new world – with students from every walk of life- very urban, very rural, very left, very right, all the varying kinds of ‘very’.

It was a struggle to deal with this plethora of views, the multiplicity of this universe – struggle because one has to struggle with oneself, one’s preconceived notions. It takes a lot to unlearn the easy learnings in life that come from dining tables and televisions. Inside the class, and outside the class, there is one thing that JNU holds dear – a spirit of enquiry and questioning. There would be classes through the day, backbreaking assignments for four or five courses – because it is a system that works on term papers continually and not just one exam at the end of the year/semester; and then one would hang out with friends and strangers at the dhaba and discuss literature, history, cinema, philosophy, politics, science – you name it and they game it with their gift of gab.

At the dhaba, a very learned poet, Vidrohi Ji, who had left the conventional world – he sat there all night and sang his songs. The students bought him food and gave him quilts in winter. A society that respects a mad poet is a very highly evolved society in my opinion. Vidrohi ji died in his signature style a few months ago – singing songs while protests were on against government proposing to pull out the meagre scholarship it doles out to students. (A teaching assistant at the PhD level in the US gets around $1500 as opposed to Rs 8000 ($130) for a PhD scholar in India)

One learns as much outside the classroom as one learns inside. One gets to fall in love with nature, with peacocks and blue bulls, and gets very sensitive about climate change, for this is the only campus in the buzz of Delhi that has a forest. One gets to understand the value of a reasoned debate, one to gets to learn the art of listening in an age of speaking and hardsell.

JNU student elections use only handmade posters as opposed to tonnes of money spent in other universities printing posters and using muscle. The same Lyngdoh committee because of which elections were stalled in the campus for a few years, termed JNU as a model university for conducting student elections. With students from every corner of the country and beyond, and their cultural nights, one suddenly realises one is floating in an immense ocean of knowledge. One learns to respect, to protest, to fight for the rights of the students and the underprivileged.

Just to add to the context, JNU is the most gender sensitive campus in the entire country – with girls having the agency to walk alone at three in morning without any fear anywhere. In the Delhi rape case of 2012, it was JNU students that took the lead and protested first, and then it snowballed into what it did. The number of issues in which students have protested and actively participated are countless. What is more nationalistic than this, than to fight for the rights of the working class and the underprivileged? Is education merely meant to get multinational jobs? What is the point of studying if one is not philosophically, historically and politically aware of one’s world?

As far the current matter goes, let us look at the context. There were protests about the suicide of Rohith Vemula, in which there are videos of Delhi policemen manhandling protesting girls, who by the way are not just from JNU. Have any of these people been put behind bars yet? The Rohith case, becoming too hot to handle, the guns are then targeted at JNU.

Let’s get to Afzal Guru. How is the government an ally of PDP in Kashmir? There are voices, Kashmiri students do question, as many people of PDP do as well. I am no expert on this matter, and would not pretend to be. There are suspicions of planted voices. This issue is a cover. This cover doesn’t legitimise the presence of police all over the campus; and once again policemen (not women) inside girls’ hostels. This case doesn’t make a charge for sedition technically as one has heard on television from experts.

One can ask thousands of outsiders from their first hand experience of JNU protests, if they ever saw sedition. How is the media sticking to a few words and losing sight of the whole context? Universities are supposed to be safe from police interference, and supposed to be autonomous. The students making unruly slogans could have been suspended if the VC deemed it right. But no one has the right to witch hunt, and malign an institution that has been built as a centre of excellence by generations of students and teachers. The viral hate campaign against a government institution - why is the government not interested in catching these campaigners and bringing them to the book?

Campuses are temples of learning, and dissent and protest of students is a global phenomenon. If one knows France of 1969, or America of Vietnam times, or JNU of Emergency, or a hundred such examples, one would know that there is a long and respected tradition of resistance and student movements. This is what keeps a democracy robust. Even if you do not really believe in a real democracy, tactically, campuses are safety valves – where the youth have a voice to vent out, a place to put their word. Currently, in my stint as a teacher in an American university, I am faced with uncomfortable questions from my students and intellectuals, for I maintain that India comes from a long tradition of tolerance, multiculturalism and Sufi-Bhakti traditions. Crack down on students never impresses three categories for sure – students (of all kinds, not just the cracked down upon ones), their parents, and teachers. That is a lot of votes lost, and multiply it many times because they are all influential categories.

One last thought. Apart from teaching, I am also attending courses – one of them is about the epistemology of the theory of karma in Indian philosophy. Why is such a course taught in the US? Why are they interested in knowledge systems from India, that too in obscure philosophy, or a course in Swahili language from Africa even if one student enrols, whereas in our country the most useless thing to do, it seems, is to study social sciences? As the old maxim goes, knowledge is power. Where is that ocean of knowledge that we boast of, where is that argumentative Indian?

(Dr Amit Ranjan currently teaches at Florida International University. )