Written by Pradyumna Jairam.

On February 9th 2013, the Government of India, headed by the Congress Party, executed Muhammad Afzal Guru, the lone-surviving “terrorist” behind the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. The Supreme Court of India declared that his hanging would satisfy the “collective conscience” of the Indian people. After his death, massive protests and demonstrations broke out in Kashmir. Although there is no doubt that the attack on the Parliament was an attack on the institution and the idea of Indian democracy, several questions have been raised regarding his conviction.

Three years later, on February 9th 2016, a group of students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), had planned an event to protest the “state-sanctioned murder” of Afzal and to show solidarity with the people of Kashmir. The events that transpired due to these protests were shocking. The president of the Students Union was arrested on the accusation that he had shouted anti-India slogans. Other organizers were charge-sheeted and went into hiding.

For them, going underground was the result of a vile and vicious hate campaign unleashed by a large section of the corporate media, eager to portray these students as ‘anti-national’ who attacked not just the courts, but the idea of India, as well. There has been no evidence thus far that the students were engaging in ‘anti-national’ activities but merely exercising their right to disagree with the decision of a court. News channels, however, donned the hat of judge, jury, and executioner; determined to prove their nationalist credentials. The reaction of the public flowed from the media circus with many advocating a shutdown of the university to rid it of ‘anti-national’ elements. Others argued that tax money should not go into subsidizing the education (as a Central University, education is highly subsidized by the State) of ‘traitors’.

While numerous lessons can be gleaned from this incident, the biggest one is that it was an attack on a university; a space for higher learning. One must make a fundamental distinction between the learning that takes place here and that which takes place in a school. In the latter, learning is restricted to the memorization of facts to excel in examinations. However, in universities, learning involves critical engagement with facts and debating competing ideas. This includes debating Adam Smith and Karl Marx’s ideas on economics. Or students assessing the merits of Gandhi and Ambedkar’s ideas on how to annihilate caste.

Speaking as an alumnus, the history curriculum at JNU is constantly revised by professors. Each term presents a diverse range of historical themes to study, many of which go beyond narrating the mere political history of the nation. It aims to present history beyond the narrative of the nation, through the eyes of the people; especially unrepresented communities such as Dalits, women, and indigenous populations.  Moreover, Colonial rule is rightly critiqued through a holistic socio-political, cultural and economic prism. Thus, the central goal of the curriculum is to constantly ask difficult questions for which no ready-made answer is available. I have revised many earlier pre-conceived political thoughts because of my experience at JNU; in the classroom and with peers, through engagement with numerous historical sources.

In schools, students largely sit in homogeneous classrooms devoid of diversity with respect to religion, caste or region. The university, however, is a much broader space, where students from different socio-economic backgrounds and regions often interact with one another; forming another essential aspect of ‘learning’. Interactions with people from different regions and identities provide students the opportunities to learn more about their peers, as well as, their own unique histories. For instance, notions of ‘azaadi‘, would be very differently understood between someone from a metropolis such as Delhi or Mumbai compared to a Kashmiri student’s perspective or lived experience.

The University occupies a delicate position in the life of an individual. It is sandwiched between the school which is rigid in its pedagogy, and the workplace (which although it provides economic livelihood) is filled with routine procedures, and devoid of opportunities to analyze and examine. Thus, the ability to engage, criticize, disagree, debate and argue is fostered in the grounds of the university space that test the student’s ability to go beyond historically-accepted narratives, and derive alternative interpretations.

The students of JNU who were protesting the killing of Afzal Guru, were armed with something far more lethal and potent than AK-47’s or tanks, they possessed the gift of intellectual curiosity and critical thought, afforded to them by a dedicated faculty that does not believe in conformity but rather constant questioning. Going beyond the extremely one-sided narrative of the media, which has long abdicated its responsibility as the fourth pillar of democracy, the students attempted to provide an alternative narrative of an event that is still deeply tangled in mystery. Is there something being hidden?

Nevertheless, if there is one thing that February 9th, 2016 taught us, and with the rise in intolerance of free thought in the country, it is the university that is fast becoming perhaps the only pillar of democracy, as it alone respects the values that a democratic system. And it must be defended at all costs. Instead of arguing for #ShutdownJNU, we should be demanding #MoreJNUs.

Pradyumna Jairam is a Ph.D. student at King’s College London. He is an alumnus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ramjas College, Delhi University. Image Credit: CC by JNU/Wikimedia Commons.

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