JNU Of My Days Allowed All Shades of Politics — What Changed?

Is it the worst time to be JNU student president and have your skull smashed? Or also the best time to be a student?

5 min read
JNU Of My Days Allowed All Shades of Politics — What Changed?

Dear anti-JNUites, let me hit you on the head with this: a student election in JNU a long time ago.

It was 1995. I was an MA student on this campus. As I marched in protest with hundreds of people outside the North Gate on 5 January — the night of terror on this campus — my mind drifted back to an election promise made back then. It sounded ludicrous and lovely then and now, on this black night, when nothing else seemed to make sense, this suddenly did. I can explain.


‘If You Vote For Me...’

We were sitting at the canteen outside the main library building – the lovely brick exterior masking the badly lit and damp interior. Nimbu paani in hand, N and I were laughing about nothing and everything. This was our entire purpose in life. A man came around, shoving his election leaflet in our face. His name was Zubair. But his appearance preceded him. He wore an upturned cane basket on his head and came up to us with all the swagger he could muster, and a killer line: “Zum beepul think I am Clint Eastwood,” he declared, his thick Malayali accent adding to the deliciousness. N and I stole a quick glance at each other. A plane passed overhead. Our campus you see, was close to the Delhi airport, so there was a plane per minute overhead. Zubair’s main selling point in his manifesto was: to have the airport shifted.

“If you vote for me,” his paper said, “I promise to have the Delhi airport shifted, to stop students from being distracted by the noise.”

Wow! We were thrilled to bits. A manifesto that read like it came straight out of a Rajinikanth film. We were ‘lau-ing’ it, as they say in Delhi. “Yes Zubair,” N and I shouted in unison at his election rally. “Come on, we are with you!” He was contesting as an independent, and this was his eighth election. Sadly, he used the ‘F’ word in his rally at the Election Commission, so he was barred at the nth minute.

Was it the ‘Best of Times, the Worst of Times’?

As the Delhi smog and street lights cast an orange haze on us protestors now, I was thinking about the ludicrousness of the present, and Zubair suddenly seemed sensible.

We had a prime minister and home minister go back and forth in their interpretation of the new citizenship law. We had videos being circulated of masked goons entering the JNU campus with what appeared to be members of the police standing by and not doing a thing. We lived in a world where the distinction between law makers and law breakers was often that the breakers were in Parliament, and the upholders (self-proclaimed, us included) were out on the street.

Was it a Dickensian curse – ‘the best of times, the worst of times?’ 

Was it the worst time to be the President of JNU and have your skull smashed in? Or also the best time to be a student and be out on some street on any given campus in the country, asking for basic rights to please be allowed to exist?


JNU Of Yore Had Many Shades of Opinion Alive On Campus

Now that my university has been vilified into a caricature of itself, I want to bring back the layers to the experience of being in JNU. To remember and resurrect a narrative of a campus with many stripes and some self-reflection. I, for instance, was a reluctant socialist on a Leftist campus, who could be skeptical and critical of the hard Left, and exist on a spectrum that now seems to have evaporated in the current political imagination. JNU was a Left-leaning population by choice and reading. As were all other campuses of repute, not only because there was a political monopoly by the Left, but because that is the way most sensible campuses in much of the reading-writing liberal arts world were everywhere you cast your gaze. Let’s just say, if you did read about the French Revolution, you would be hard-pressed to side with Louis the 16th.

That said, there were many shades and many opinions alive at the time, on campus.

Post-modern ideas were the new kids on the block and they were used to throw darts at the old Left with their badly tailored kurtas and purposefully tawdry aesthetic. There was even the appearance of the ABVP for the very first time on our campus, unheard of in previous times, but no matter what the political prescription, you could walk around on campus, hold a meeting or a demonstration without a care in the world. That was our job description as students. We didn’t have to fight for it. We could turn our noses up at things, spend all day doing absolutely nothing. Or make out with someone in the tall grass and bushes at Parthasarathy Rocks. And the role the odd cop played in our lives then was to look away as the grass moved too much, and tap their lathi loudly to get us to adhere to unwritten codes of public prudence.

JNU Violence on 5 Jan: Throwback to 1970s

Now, we marched to the North Gate as some of us said to each other, “Look, the cops are taking our pictures. They’re going to file these away to use later when they need ‘faces’ to use as incriminating evidence of ‘something significant’. Should we cover our faces? Are we going to be beaten?” “Stand close. Don’t leave gaps. Actually, let’s be in the thick of it all. Why stand away from the centre, then what are we here for? Why are we trying to be safe? Are we getting old? March, march forward, to the North Gate,” said someone ahead.

My mind went back.

Were we too lax back then in the 1990s? Are students of today paying for our nonchalance, of days being blown away in packs of Gold Flake cigarettes and Led Zeppelin?

It was sinister and electric now, to walk back and forth in time as we made it to the North Gate. Times of defiance, times of despair. And re-birth. The JNU of the 1990s needed to go back in time to its glory days. One of us, rolling back the years said out loud, “It’s the Emergency all over again.” Actually, it was the 1970s that came back for a night. Suddenly we were all young again. Our slate wiped clean. Nothing to look forward to. And everything to do all over. To go back to Dickens, would this be ‘an age of light or an age of darkness?’ Standing at the gates of JNU, it felt like an age of renewal. Resurgence. Exactly the opposite of what the vandals wanted.


Adding Protest Where Necessary

Since we’re in this space of defiance, let me end with another incredulous one from the student leader from my time – Zubair. I always wanted to know what became of him much after I had graduated. Here’s a rumour from some years later: Zubair handed in a PhD thesis to his guide, apparently without any punctuation.

“I cannot possibly read this, please punctuate it and send it to me,” his guide ordered. So Zubair did the most ingenious thing possible. He typed on a plain sheet of paper – a full-stop, a comma, a semi-colon and colon and wrote alongside – ‘add wherever necessary’. Campuses are infectious, no matter what the age and what the provocation. The country seems to be taking Zubair’s dictum quite seriously. From Mumbai to Bengaluru to Hisar. We’re adding protest where necessary.

(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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