In JNU being a communist means a teacher's pet, not revolutionary

Following the ideology at the varsity does have its own host of perks and privileges.

 |  4-minute read |   11-03-2016
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"If you are not a socialist by age of 18 you don't have a heart and if you are still a socialist by 35 you don't have a brain." This is an oft-quoted maxim wrongly attributed to former British prime minister Winston Churchill.

Living in a verdant, one-walled university campus in the national capital, while lying on the recline post-dinner with a burning "herbal" fag in one hand, most of the students face an existential crisis. This type of crisis generally haunts those students who are mostly from well off families, who have a well-settled career ahead of them. While others, who are not so fortunate, are still focused on mundane issues of finding a career and job.

Those "revolutionary" types are on the look out for a purpose for their stay in the campus, looking for a meaningful diversion from their dull and dreary academic routine. It's here that role of revolution comes in. It provides a romantic outlet for feelings in an otherwise mechanised and rational academic schedule.

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Also, it provides students a chance to pamper their egos by deluding themselves that they are against the mighty Indian state and justify their existence by indulging in shadow boxing against the oppressive establishment. These anti-establishment "inquilabi" enactment is staged on almost a weekly basis by organising a "mashaal juloos" from the Ganga dhaba to Chandrabhaga hostel with great fervour and frequency.

Every student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), during his/her academic career, must have heard clichés romanticising rebellion, one of them being that the youth is rebellious and anti-establishment by nature. Do you want the youth to be conformist? Before getting agitated and taking up sides, we need to pause and ponder. What constitutes the establishment? Against whom are the students agitating? Does the act of speaking up demand courage or fortitude on the part of the students? Let's deal with these questions.

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Whichever way you may define politics, as a noble tool for the advancement of social good, or as a corrupt tool for furthering your personal interest, it is essentially a social activity. Social activities are conducted through commonly accepted and understood systems of expression, one of which is language.

Politics then is basically about who controls public narrative. So if politics is basically, deep down, a contestation over words, meanings and ideas, then defining establishment solely in terms of which party has a five-year control over taxation and coercive power of the state is a fundamentally flawed notion.

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Academia, with the aid of mass media, takes up the lead role in defining public correctness and directing public discourse, and in the process, becomes the source of legitimacy.

So if the coercive power rests with the North Block, South Block and the prime minister's office (PMO), interpretative power rests with the "Kremlin on the banks of Jamuna". You can gauge the power of the academic establishment by the way it formulates and moulds acceptable political discourse in our country.

Such is the hold of the academia that even the ruling party at the Centre - the BJP - couldn't publicly state their policy in terms other than what has been defined by the academia. For instance, though the BJP is not comfortable with the word "secular", the best accusation it could come up against the Congress is that it is "pseudo secular".

Similarly, after looking at the Budget passed by the Narendra Modi government a few days back, the BJP is now being called by most commentators as a party of socialism plus the cow. So the real question is, are the JNU youth really anti-establishment or are they playing to the gallery, to the real establishment.

So the establishment is the university itself, in this case, the JNU. Living in a campus that is avowedly communist (most of the faculty members and seniors express their allegiance to the ideology openly), I don't think being communist is a matter of bravery, a thing that requires sacrifice on your part for standing up for your belief and conviction.

On the contrary, being a communist is cool and can be called opportunistic, since it does have its own host of perks and privileges. For instance, you wouldn't be ostracised in teacher and student communities for being out of sync. Moreover, being in the good books of teachers does provide you with a longer rope in terms of evaluation and grading.

Higher education is a highly networked place where reference, recommendation and peer reviews are the ultimate determinants of who will be part of the ecosystem and who will be the outcasts. So those "brave", "rebellious" and "anti-establishment" people need not care about who is sitting in the PMO, unless and until the person sitting in the Dean's chamber is on their side.

So the next time you hear some youth being praised for being brave, rebellious and anti-establishment, before idolising and romanticising them, just do a background check of the context.


Anshuman Singh Anshuman Singh

The writer is a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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