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Guest Editorial: JNU and its Tradition(s) of Dissent

By Malavika Binny

Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, has oft been portrayed as a space of intense academic activity, Left politics, intellectual debate and class questioning in India, and quite recently it has also been embroiled in a controversy over what has been termed as an ‘anti-national’ rhetoric by certain sections of the media. The first two weeks of February has witnessed a cultural meeting condemning capital punishment, the arrest of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) President Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition, the slapping of sedition charges and issue of arrest warrants against student leaders and JNUSU office bearers and one of the biggest student marches in the history of independent India. As the month progressed, two other students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, surrendered to the police and what unfolded was a sustained but seething protest movement wherein the students, not only of JNU but also of universities across the nation and around the world showed extraordinary resilience and a steadfast resistance against a university administration, who allowed the police a free hand on campus and a central government, which used every arrow in its quiver to gag the movement.

The convergence of the ‘Justice for Rohith Vemula’ movement and the JNU protest movement, the swelling international visibility of the students’ movement, the evidence of doctored TV footage of the 9 February event, media personnel being roughed up, the news of  Kanhaiya Kumar being brutally beaten up inside the premises of the Patiala Court, the formidable unity put forth by the JNU Teachers’ association and the relentless social media support from JNU alumni, sympathisers and supporters of the movement led to a considerable shift in the public opinion on JNU. Kanhaiya Kumar received a hero’s welcome when he was granted bail by the Delhi High Court and through a mesmerizing speech which made him an overnight sensation. He explained that JNU fights for not freedom from India but freedom in India. JNU celebrated an early Holi with the return of Anirban and Umar to the campus and they too did not hold back in articulating their definitions of freedom and nationalism. The movement was not only historic in terms of the questions it raised – on the meanings of nationalism, the validity of sedition laws, the problematisation of capital punishment, questioning of media-ethics and the role of student activism, but it also witnessed the birth of new forms of protests – professors organising open air teach-ins in front of the administrative block on JNU  campus, students marching with and giving flowers to those who opposed them, the JNU faculty forming a human chain to protect the students and the Azadi square on campus witnessing talks and speeches of every shade of the political spectrum.

The backdrop of the JNU protest movement gives us a unique opportunity to interrogate the university’s history and its many lineages of dissent. Dissent, in this case, must be understood as any notion which challenges the conventional and the normative; be it the celebration of LGBTQ identities, ‘dhabha culture’, challenging of patriarchy and brahmanical hegemony, the presence of a strong North-Eastern discourse and so on within the campus. The protest movement also offers a vantage point to take a critical look at the fissures and contradictions within JNU. Is the campus as inclusive as it is portrayed? Has the relevance of Marxist/Left politics diminished in JNU? Is there a divide between the high towers of academics and ground reality on campus? Why does JNU remain as an island of gender and social justice in not-so-just surroundings or is it not so? These are but some of the questions that can be and needs to be raised at this juncture.

For this issue of Cafe Dissensus, articles which critically engage with the theme of dissent (political, social or cultural) in JNU were invited. A special emphasis was placed on not glossing over the not-so-smooth edges of the university; also the authors have dealt with most issues through personal narratives which induce an air of vitality into the articles.

In this issue, Meera Gopakumar explores the idea of sedition vis-à-vis the freedom of speech in a democratic nation against the backdrop of the clamour of the binaries of nationalism and anti-nationalism. Tintu K.J. engages critically with the theme of capital punishment and the state and the ways in which the JNU administration assumed the role of a proxy-state during the protests.Umar Khalid speaks candidly of his political convictions, concerns and journey so far without mincing his words against state oppression in multiple forms. Kanad Sinha responds to Prof. Makarand Paranjape’s claim of the lack of mediality in JNU with an exploration of the university’s cultural life through his own personal experience and probes the Mahisasur myth and its links to JNU’s culture of accommodation. Keisha Kashyap lays bare the challenges of stereotyping and racial discrimination faced by the students from the North-Eastern states of India in both JNU and the capital city of Delhi. In one of the first interviews after he was released on bail, Kanhaiya Kumar speaks to Vani Mecheril on the problematic of Left politics and the way forward. Tintumol Joseph writes an intensely personal account of dance in JNU, while Gourab Ghosh in a well-articulated essay traces the history of the LGBTQ movement in the university. Deepshika Boro probes the image of the body politic of the nation and the non-representation of the North-East in the mainstream as opposed to the accommodative space provided by the university for North-Eastern students in particular and pluralism in general. In conversation with Tintu K J and Malavika Binny, Anirban Bhattacharya critically analyses the role of Left politics, Neo-Liberal tendencies of the Indian state in the recent past, the role of student politics and the need to forge larger solidarities. Azhar Amin captures the JNU protests in a vividly engaging photo-essay with every snap telling and re-telling a thousand stories. In a brilliant article, Ashrukona Deka problematizes the interplay of nudity, power and gender in a response to the bizarre allegations of Gyandev Ahuja that JNU students indulge in naked dancing and use 3000 condoms, 500 abortion syringes and 2000 liquor bottles every day. On similar lines, Uthara G writes a fitting reply to actor Mohanlal’s comments on the JNU crisis and the need to go beyond superficialities and the opportunism of allying with the power hierarchies of the day. We have two riveting political cartoons in the issue by Nassif Muhammed Ali. We have also included Debaditya Battacharya’s article, ‘The Independent Intellectual’, first published on Café Dissensus Everyday, which is yet another response to Prof. Paranjape’s claim of the ‘unquestionable’ legitimacy of elected governments and the issues with such an approach. Shruti Venukumar examines the different stands of the many Left parties and organisations on the issue of Kashmir so as to debunk the idea of a monolithic Left in JNU.

All through the issue, there has been a conscious effort not to refract JNU through the lens of only the present crisis, but to represent the multiplicities and contradictions within, to bust certain myths about the institution, while being self-critical in the process, while we earnestly try to understand what ‘dissent’ is within the context of the university and in the larger context of the nation. We hope you will enjoy the issue and enrich it through your comments and feedback.

Read on!

Photo-credit: Subin Dennis

Malavika Binny is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. She specializes in and is madly in love with Ancient History. Her research interests include gender, caste, histories of science, medical traditions, archaeology and architecture. She has published articles in both academic and non-academic journals and loves walking barefoot in the rain.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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