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A JNU Memoir: Batchmate Remembers Nirmala’s Days as a Free Thinker

Sitharaman called herself a proud Free Thinker because she believed in her right to think independently.

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An old picture of Nirmala Sitharaman with her friends from JNU.
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When The Quint asked me to write a personal profile on Nirmala Sitharaman as a student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the 1980s, I was not sure if I could do justice to it. I was assigned this task because I was a student in the JNU around the same time as Sitharaman.

But, then more than three decades have passed since; with age, memories have faded. The larger picture still remains etched in memory, although the details have gone a little hazy.

Sitharaman Was a Part of the 'Free Thinkers'

Sitharaman and I were neither classmates nor batch mates; we were studying in two different departments in the JNU. Sitharaman completed her Masters from the Centre of Economic Studies and Planning (CESP) and later shifted to the International Trade Department of the School of International Studies (SIS) for MPhil.

I remained a student of the Centre for Political Studies (CPS) throughout; so, we had very little academic interaction.

The only reason why Sitharaman and I became close was because both of us were student activists. However, we belonged to two different student organisations: Nirmala was part of the Free Thinkers. 

The organisation was founded in JNU by Anand Kumar – who was to later become the president of the Swaraj Abhiyan, the breakaway group of the Aam Aadmi Party – who had had a socialist background from the Banaras Hindu University.

Kumar was the president of the BHU Students’ Union on the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha (SYS) ticket. But when he landed at the JNU in the early 1970s to pursue MPhil in the Centre for Social Studies, he found that the Student Federation of India (SFI) under the leadership of Prakash Karat, who later went on to become the general secretary of the CPI(M), had taken root among the students.

So instead of founding an SYS unit in JNU, Kumar created an omnibus organisation called the ‘Free Thinkers’ to mobilise the support of all students who were opposed to the ideological straitjacket of the communist politics.

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Individual Liberty and Rationality Was Her Motto

Kumar lost the first election to Karat in 1973, but he avenged his defeat by trouncing him in the 1974 election. When Kumar left for the US to pursue his doctoral studies, Chandrashekhar Tibrewal of the CSS took over the mantle of the covener of the Free Thinkers.

He carried on the onslaught against the totalitarian thought and action of the communists and promoted liberal ideas of plurality and diversity.

Sitharaman called herself a proud Free Thinker because she believed in her right to think for herself on all issues, be it campus-based issues or national and international developments.

Unlike the members of the communist student organisations like the SFI and the AISF who suffered from the herd mentality and followed the dictate of the national communist parties, which, in turn, kowtowed to the policies of the Soviet Union and China, Sitharaman and her co-warriors in the Free Thinkers always kept aloft the spirit of individual liberty and rationality.

I was not a Free Thinker; I belonged to the Students for Democratic Socialism (SDS) which was, like the Free Thinkers, a campus-based organisation but which, unlike the Free Thinkers, placed a primacy on the ideological content of student politics.

The biggest commonality between us, the FT and the SDS, was that we had no external masters to pay our obeisance to.

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She Was Good at Putting Across Arguments Forcefully

We, as students – with all our limited knowledge and experience – were free to take our own decisions and make our own mistakes. That was the beauty of our student politics.

It was natural that we, the FT and SDS, should band together to take on the mighty challenge of the SFI and AISF, which had a virtually impregnable support base in the JNU thanks to the charismatic leadership of student leaders like Karat, DP Tripathi, Sitaram Yechury, Kamal Mitra Chenoy, and many others.

We made the alliance in the 1982 students’ union election: I became the presidential candidate of the FT-SDS panel. Sitharaman did not contest that election but the strenuous effort she put in for the success of the panel, from writing and pasting posters to distributing leaflets and canvassing among the students, is still alive in my memory.

That election was projected by us as a fight between ‘shut’ and ‘open’ minds, and the students had to make a choice.

Sitharaman was very good in putting across that argument forcefully; she would address small groups of students and pose this question to them – would they like to mortgage their independence of thinking for an elusive social and economic justice that remained a chimera?

Sitharaman and her friends – especially Rajkumari from Tamil Nadu, who was also a student of the CESP and an inseparable companion of Sitharaman those days – contributed a lot to the success of the panel.

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Those Were the Tumultuous Times

That year, I was elected as the president of the Students’ Union and, more important, for the first time in the JNUSU’s history, a non-communist group won a majority in the Students’ Council (a feat not achieved even when Kumar and later David Thomas were elected JNUSU president on the Free Thinkers platform).

The victory of the FT-SDS panel in the election gave further impetus to work together. In May that year, we waged the biggest-ever battle against the JNU administration which called in the police. About a thousand boys and girls were arrested and sent to Tihar jail.

Those were the tumultuous times; I do not remember if Sitharaman also went to jail with us, as almost 300 girls were arrested from the campus and lodged in the women’s section of the jail.

We, the boys, held the General Body Meeting (GBM) in jail almost every day. We stayed in jail for three weeks. But, when we went out, the campus had been declared sine die.

All students had to go home. Students returned to the campus after the summer vacation. But, I had been expelled from the university. I could not get back to academics; I could not even enter the campus as it was declared out of bounds for me.

So after those eventful days in May 1983, I lost touch with Sitharaman and many other friends.

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Why Did She Join BJP?

I met Sitharaman again more than 25 years later, perhaps in 2008 in a JNU alumni meet at the famous Parthasarathi Rocks in the campus. She introduced me to her daughter, a young vivacious girl.

When I asked Sitharaman if her husband had also accompanied her to the alumni meet, with a straight face she said yes and pointed to Parkala Prabhakar, an old friend from JNU with whom I had interacted some minutes before but I had no idea he had married Sitharaman.

I knew Prabhakar as a good friend and a political activist. In fact, he had contested as a presidential candidate on the NSUI platform in JNU but I had absolutely no knowledge that Prabhakar and Sitharaman were dating. Perhaps cupid struck between them after I left the campus in 1983. But, what surprised me more in that meeting was the answer I got when I asked Sitharaman what she was doing.

She said that she had joined the BJP and was doing party work.

I must say, I was shocked to hear this. How could she, a free-willed, a rational-thinking girl from JNU who opposed the communist groups for their ideological rigidity on the leftist plank, join an ideologically closed party like the BJP, albeit rightist persuasion.

But, then she replied that she wanted to do something for the society and the country and the party platform provided her the opportunity to do it.

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Her Name Will Be Inextricably Linked With JNU

Well, she took a decision to join the BJP and she has made it big in the party through sheer hard work and acute intellect, I daresay, nurtured in the JNU. In just about a decade, she has risen from an ordinary member of the party to become the Defence Minister of the country – one of the top four positions in the Union Cabinet.

Such meteoric rise without a father or a godfather in politics, I thought, was only possible in the western democracy, but Sitharaman has broken a new path in Indian politics as well.

The Madurai girl, who did not watch Hindi films as she did not understand it (her roommate and classmate in JNU, Sashi Gandhi, once told me that Sitharaman went to watch Silsila in a cinema hall with her, and kept asking what was happening throughout the movie as she did not understand a word of Hindi), has now made it big in national politics dominated by the Hindi heartland.

Well, it could be a matter of debate if her JNU stint prepared her for her extraordinary success, but the fact remains that her name will be inextricably linked to JNU by both her supporters and detractors alike. I am confident that she would live up to the big challenge and faith reposed in her by the party and the Prime Minister.

But, I am afraid, Sitharaman who regularly attended the classical music concerts while she was a student in JNU, would now have to cut down on her love for music to make the best use of the unprecedented opportunity that has come her way.

(The writer has worked as Assistant Editor, Edit Page, Times of India, New Delhi; Resident Editor, Hindustan Times, Patna; Planning and Research Editor, India TV, Noida, He is currently Director, Jagran Institute of Management & Mass Communication (JIMMC), Noida)

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