Anagha Ingole is an assistant professor in Tripura Central University.
Since the February 9th event so much has been written and said about JNU–both negative and positive- what this university is, what it means to its students and to the nation. It opened up the debate on the idea of a university, to the larger ideals of freedom to think and express it, freedom to disagree, freedom to realize the beauty of being born as a human, to be able to conceive of oneself as aware starstuff –as one- not just with humanity but the cosmos. That’s how Rohit Vemula would have probably put it. Its indeed ironic that he had to hang himself to wake us all up from our mundane slumber, especially those who thought they could imprison his ideas by stopping his stipend. His letter was his last attempt to jolt his oppressors to reality, pitying them on what they had reduced the human experience to be. But if an appeal so genuine was torn apart and turned up against Rohit, his family and everyone who stood for him; if the reasoned debates at the freedom square teach-ins from the best minds in India, the appeals and solidarity statements from scientists and the most eminent academicians in India and the world, the beating up of a student leader in a court complex, a concerted agitation launched by university students, a hunger strike in this unbearable heat of Delhi which enters its 14th day as I write could not move your conscience I wonder what will. And thus this note is not addressed to the HRD minister or the JNU VC.
I write this for the student in my class and may more like her whose parents will not allow them to fill JNU forms because the powers that be, their adherents and some section of the media has so efficiently sold the anti-national, morally degraded JNU stereotype to the people- over television, over newspapers and over the social media. The answer from JNU, as so eloquently delivered by the JNUSU president in his historic speech is, like reality, more nuanced and not as easily conveyed as a stereotype. The image of JNU in the small towns and villages of this country has been made in the cast of that stereotype. I know that this word wont get to all of them, but I also know that it must.
I am a backward caste woman from the region of Vidarbha in Maharashtra. My native village is 60 kms away from the city of Nagpur. Though I was born and brought up in the city I spent summers in the village where like any child growing up in India I saw untouchability practiced, I saw the dalit quarters on the outskirts of the village called beghar (homeless), I saw that when the otherwise sacred cow died and fleas flew around the carcass the dalit from the beghar was called upon to remove it as the whole village watched and take it to their quarters. In the city it was more nuanced. The playground where we played had sanghas and samitis for girls and boys respectively and they somehow stood for a exclusivity which was decipherable even at that tender age. The best school was run by an upper caste Brahmin family and imbibed a cultural nationalist education. I would not have been able to put it in these words then but I could not share the sense of entitlement that some friends who went there could. I remember one friend’s mother expressing her displeasure that I went to a Christian missionary school where Indian (Hindu) morals were looked down upon. I remember myself wondering why all my Brahmin friends (and I had many, who are even now friends and all are not Brahminical ) had Tarun Bharat (RSS mouthpiece) as the daily newspaper at their place. However talking politics explicitly was considered bold, impolite and disturbing and thus we were unsure of the answers we were reaching at by ourselves. The Nagpur of the Sangh was exclusionary and the Nagpur of Deekshabhoomi wasn’t as rooted then, isn’t so even now.
Growing up as a girl was another struggle where I like most young girls internalized the shame that is supposed to come by embodying the female. Where equal education did not mean equal freedoms especially in the personal sphere. Growing up in a generation where becoming an engineer or a doctor was the only measure of a worthy life- in an India where the middle class must aspire to reproduce a service class for the bourgeoning industry. Where education was limited to books and classrooms were limited to its four walls. Where politics was a dirty word and student politics was unheard of. Where, when I chose to take up political science my teachers themselves discouraged me and advised not to waste my academic talent and energy. But like most young people I was looking for answers to explain to me what exactly was happening and what should happen? The political science I was learning was so far removed from the politics that came up on television every night that it was difficult and impossible to put things together.
My search for answers took me to JNU. The fees was meager and procedure for applying was very easy. Another important reason why JNU was my first choice was that my father said that you can go out to study only at a place where they will provide a hostel. This place seemed the most promising. So I wrote and got into a M A programme at SIS. Everything about this place was different. It was so unlike what the other university brochures wanted their universities to be. The admission assistance desk was a class in major political parties in India. Before I became a student I was handed over a charter of my rights as a woman student. It was the best class on gender I had taken till then. Talking to people in the queue was an introduction to Indian pluralism and the hostel corridor was the first place from where I saw at once what Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab, North East, Karnataka and Orissa looked like together. How their languages sounded. It was ecstatic! Though there were no timings for entering or leaving hostels we the new lot initially didn’t stay out beyond 9.30 (internalized patriarchy). The hostel floor was also the first lesson in altruism where students who were not necessarily political activists agreed to take in those new entrants into their rooms like it was their responsibility to accommodate them. I didn’t understand why everyone was competing with each other to help out others. My training in the world outside asked me to be on guard.
Speaking of being on guard, the mobility on campus for girls students baffled me. I couldn’t imagine how it was possible to walk past the whole campus at any time without being stared at. It was my first lesson in the ability to shed off your immediate identity and the freedom that it brings with it. I had come to a place where trust and not suspicion was the commonsense. It was also a lot of chaos -so many student organizations trying to tell you about themselves, the first classes which are overwhelming even for the DU students –who were the only ones who knew who were Rajeev Bhargava and Ashish Nandy, the class readings added with the mess time political parchas, the public meetings where scholars, intellectuals, political leaders shed all their bigness and try to talk one on one. This was our exposure to what an education meant, it was a lesson in thinking. I had entered the campus in that fateful year in which the elections were stayed. I didn’t mean to ‘do’ politics, my family had sent me for two years; I had to do a good MA and get a job; at least that was what the agreement was. But as I said a lesson in thinking, critically and deliberating over what you thought was instilled.
When the stay came and the election process was halted I witnessed the first UGBM of my JNU life. The entire university body gathered on an open ground to discuss how to get the elections back. People went one by one on stage and gave reasoned arguments about what they thought of the situation. That night was life altering. I wondered why these students sat up all night patiently and enthusiastically to save their election, to save their JNU and the realization dawned upon me that how precious this place was. And I jumped in to the struggle for JNU, a struggle for everything which is worth fighting for in this world.
I do not wish to write what happened after this except that these were the best years of my life. I went on to do my Mphil and PhD (still on). JNU somehow made the research scholarship exam a cakewalk. I participated in politics- without any influence, background, money or muscle I could, because it is imperative. I feel proud today that the JNUSU President is building solidarity in the country against the right wing forces, because it is imperative.
Moreover I didn’t do bad at academics at all. I have been a good student, worked for a year with the Department of Social Justice on the problem of manual scavenging and today I teach political science in a central university in the north –east. I feel equally at home here because I learnt my nationalism from JNU. It taught me to expand both my imagination and my heart to the universe. I am the first woman in my family to have taken up academics and my family now respects my freedom to make my life choices. JNU is not just where you go, its what you become. Primarily fearless and free!
A Hindi translation of a poem by Pablo Neruda for my beloved JNU :
तुमने मुझे उस आदमी का भाई बनाया जिसे मैं जानता था
तुमने मुझे सभी जीवित लोगों के अतिरिक्त शक्ति दी
तुमने मुझे मेरा देश वापस लौटाया
जैसे किसी नए जन्म में
तुमने मुझे वह स्वतंत्रता दी जिसकी अकेले आदमी के पास कमी होती है
तुमने मुझे विश्व की स्वच्छता और खुशियों की संभावना देखना सिखाया
तुमने मुझे अविनाशी बनाया
क्योंकि अब मैं खुद में खत्म नहीं होता