How I Remember JNU and How It Spoiled Me for Life

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Dr Ather Farouqui | Caravan Daily

THE idealism inculcated in JNU stays with you, it seeps into your every core and translates into action. This is why, even now, whenever there is public outrage over unjust government policies or an act of violence, JNU students and faculty are often seen leading protests, facing police tear gas and browbeating, and generally expressing their outrage on diverse fora and social media.

But life has also taken its toll on JNU. Its pride of tolerance of diversities of every kind among its faculty, administrative staff or students, whether regional, linguistic, religious or of dress, is dented every time an assertion of uniformatisation occurs and every time dissent is pitted against one’s loyalty to the nation. The continent in which JNU was an island is catching up with it. Luckily, JNU still has the strength to resist and retain its pride.

I joined JNU in 1986 to pursue a part-time Diploma in Mass Media in Urdu. I hail from a sleepy town, Sikandrabad in district Bulandshahr, located some 60 kilometres from Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT). I don’t think that in 1986 my one-horse hometown was any different from what it had been in 1947. The privileged lifestyle now enjoyed by the elite and some sections of the middle class was then the prerogative of just a handful of families.

The Delhi of 1986 was not as claustrophobically or catastrophically crowded as today’s; it was quite unorganized and dirty nonetheless, despite the fact that existing roads had been widened and some new ones built, leading up to Asiad ’82. DTC buses during those days were — all owned by the Delhi government without any distinction of Blue line, yellow line or red line let alone air-conditioned (air-cooled?) — bursting at the seams, with commuters packed like sardines, jostling for space to find a foothold, or hanging out from the entrance and the exit. Delhi then was rough around the edges hardly deserving of the capital tag, except for Lutyens’ Delhi, Civil Lines, and a few select colonies.

The only really egalitarian Indian city at that time was Bombay which—to some extent—still is. Delhi attracted migrants from all over and contrary and unlike Bombay where generally merit counted Delhi is a city of Jugad and having no culture of its own after the demise of Dehlavi culture in 1947 which truly symbolised the composite Indian identity. Migrants used to flock to Bombay in search of employment or an elusive role in the movies.

After finishing school, I was at sea asking what next, for I had grown out of my cubbyhole town. The only option for me was to migrate to Dubai where my maternal uncle worked. But with just an undergraduate humanities degree, the most I could hope for was the job of a stenotypist. So I opted to get instruction in stenography from an elderly instructor who ran a shop on the first floor in the main market (the term ‘institute’ was not then in use in small towns for such establishments) I could hardly stick a day or two with stenography, an experience recalling my shot at learning Persian, with every tutor emphasizing that memorizing Amadnama (a small booklet) was the essential entry point, as were shades of the poetic metre for prosody.

I failed the stenography test but picked up some typing skills on a rickety old Remington typewriter and a lifelong love for this quirky, yet dependable device. This is the reason why I can just about manage computer keyboards these days. Technology-wise, I have always been a laggard. Even now, a rather worse-for-wear Underwood deluxe typewriter which I picked up in a Singapore flea market (ironically made in Mexico such is the reach of globalization) occupies pride of place on a mantle in my office.

Anyway, on completion of my BA (‘Honours’ courses were then and even now unknown in most state universities), I visited Aligarh Muslim University, but an overnight stay was enough to convince me that I could not survive there. Stating ‘why’ will only earn me enemies among AMU admirers, but that experience taught me that despite being born and brought up in a Muslim society, Muslim institutions were not my cup of tea. Certainly and most certainly Aligarh is an anathema to my temperament. So I never made the mistake of signing up for one.

A chance meeting with a teacher at the Centre for Indian Language, which still runs the part-time mass media diploma course in Urdu, provided a ray of hope and I managed to get admission. The diploma was and remains a guarantee for a job in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, where one needs a recognized diploma or degree to apply in the first place. Nobody boasting this diploma fails to land a government job. So being the small-town boy that I was, I had aimed for a government job, with steady pay and reasonable hours. That was the extent of my imagination prior to my JNU days.

In 1986, the School of Languages (now School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies), School of International Studies and, if I remember correctly, one wing of the School of Social Sciences was located in what is then termed the Old or Down campus housing several administrative training schools for central government employees, including one for IFS personnel along with many other central government offices. If I remember correctly, across the road were the School of Physical Sciences and Centre for Russian Studies in an area which is technically part of the new campus today.

The old campus consisted of some PWD buildings serving as hostels and different schools. The term Up campus for what is now known as the JNU is now not known for the generations which came to JNU post-1990. When all the schools moved to the new campus in 1989-90, Sabarmati and Narmada hostels were yet to come up. By the time I completed my PhD, a whole assortment of new hostels—Tapti, Lohit, Chandrabhaga, Manu Mandavi, Shipra, Koyna, and Damodar— were about to spring up giving the impression that an entirely new campus had materialized within the New campus as a result of the suicidal liberalisation set in motion in 1991.

When Paschimabad was constructed for B and C category employees, the students resented the loss of forest cover. If that lot were now to see the new wings of hostels and a host of multi-storeyed buildings, with even shops and restaurants, the concrete takeover would evoke the choicest language that would put even our online stand-up comics to shame. Be that as it may, change was inevitable following the embrace of short-sighted capitalism which does not recognize the destruction that it brings in its wake.

The university, of course, faces a lot of pressure for new hostels due to the increase in intake, but in the bargain, JNU loses more and more of its character and authorities are not willing to draw a line to say no to expansion any more before it is destroyed..

One could argue that instead of putting pressure on JNU, new universities based on this successful model could be set up elsewhere, as in the case of AIIMS. I will even venture to state that an immediate ban on expansion is the only way to stop the gradual destruction of JNU, which stands out for its excellence and ethical standards.

Jawaharlal Nehru University’s central library

As an institution, JNU aims to produce individuals with a sense of social responsibility. Due to the pressure on intake levels, though, it is in danger of losing its character and high academic standards. Fortunately, my generation and the two or three earlier generations will not be around to see this. For us, JNU was an oasis, but for post-liberalization-era entrants, this sense of belonging might well seem alien.

For me, the mass media diploma did not add up to much as anything really significant was learned in the classroom—because of the poor quality of teachers who took evening classes at the Centre for Indian Languages. The legendary late Mohammad Hasan took only one class in the first half of the day and since most of the diploma students were doing some full-time course or working, it was impossible for them to attend his class and other important ones during regular hours.

Also, unfortunately, the course structure was such that if one had basic knowledge of Urdu literature, one could easily secure the diploma, as it was nothing but a skeletal BA Urdu literature course. Our teachers and guest lecturers hailed from the Urdu wing of the Centre of Indian Languages or were individuals associated with the Urdu services of All India Radio and Doordarshan. People who have no knowledge of the pre-liberalization era cannot understand the quirks of these worthies associated with Radio or TV in those days.

One good teacher who was an outsider who didn’t really belong to the ‘Urdu world’, was Manjari Sahay was then a Hindi newsreader with Doordarshan. With the passage of years though, I forget what she taught us. Though we did not learn anything the whole year, our mark sheets were very impressive and conveyed the impression that we had acquired considerable knowledge on the mass media.

The disciplines mentioned in our mark-sheets are to this day hardly taught in any university or private institution that offers mass media courses in the country. The mark-sheets, however, made it out as if every good course related to print journalism, radio, TV, and film was included in the syllabus. But it was on the strength of that diploma course that many of us got entry into mainstream JNU. This would have been otherwise impossible.

After completing my diploma course, I went to conduct an interview with M.S. Agwani, then Rector, who later became Vice-Chancellor for an Urdu weekly where I used to work as a part-time correspondent.. After the interview, while we were chatting over a cup of coffee and when I told him that I had “done mass media” (as we used to term it), he told me that he was aware of the pathetic state of the diploma course and would recommend its scrapping at the next meeting of the Academic Council.

Inside scene of the central library in JNU.

I did my best to convince him that the course represented a small window of entry to JNU for those who would otherwise not have the chance and that it should not be scrapped. I admitted, however, that the course could do with some drastic changes. I also said that for those who wished to work hard, this course was a boon, as their mere presence in JNU would motivate them, irrespective of whether classes were conducted regularly or whether the course had any utility. Somehow he was convinced and later narrated this incident at a meeting with the CIL teachers. The diploma is still running—along the same lines, with the same unsatisfactory quality of teaching.

The old campus was also a melting pot of new ideas and in 1986, there were just a handful of residences for students and teachers. Most of them of course later moved to the hostels on the new campus. There was a small complex for fourth class employees in the old campus close to the entrance of which faced the Central School on the road leads on to the new campus. Mahanadi hostel in the Poorvanchal complex, the last destination for buses, was for married research students and newly appointed teachers who were on the waiting list for accommodation. Brahmaputra hostel in Poorvanchal was and is the first choice of those who are determined to make a mark in the civil services. A lot of new houses for teachers and a married scholars’ hostel was constructed in the complex in the early nineties. I have no idea what Poorvanchal is like now.

At least one-third of the built-in area of the old campus of JNU had been constructed on a ground-level lower by about 1½ yards. Yet instead of bringing the other constructions at even level through the usual earth-filling technique they merely decided to level up the space of construction and hence while crossing from the buildings at the lower level if you enter from the ring road, you are required to climb a few stairs up: the lower level construction comprised the administrative block, a number of classrooms, the entrance of the Library and a branch of the State Bank of India; the foundations of the library building laid at a higher level.

The administrative block housing the offices of the Vice-Chancellor and other blocks was kept deliberately high so as to provide for stilt car parking beneath.

The old campus consisted of a few pink buildings constructed by the PWD. It had three entrances: one from the road going to a new campus from Qutub institutional area, another from the outer ring road which goes to Vasant Vihar and another facing Ber Sarai, where a shopping complex has now been constructed where PWD offices were located then. At that time, Ber Sarai was still a village and JNU students used to wend their way through its gates.

Now, one finds a few photocopy shops in the newly built shopping complex which also handle typing and binding work for MPhil and PhD dissertations. Earlier, there were a few establishments in the Ber Sarai run by local residents with a few more shops including a barbershop and a photography shop run by two Malayali Christian sisters, who lived nearby and later shifted to the KC, the Kamal Complex in the new campus. This establishment was frequented by students for passport-size photos. One lane led to a small market inside the village, where there was a lady typist with a manual typewriter, whose services I utilized until 1990, when I bought myself a portable typewriter, a much-cherished possession even today as mentioned earlier.

One has to reach the main entrance to the administrative block in the old campus entering from the outer ring road. This was a smaller entrance adjacent to the bus stop and was used frequently. To its left was the administrative block and on the right was a sort of chabutra that generally hosted labourers working on construction projects in the New Campus.

In the administrative block, the offices and chambers of the Vice-Chancellor, the Rectors, the Registrar and the Finance Officer were located. If one did not move in the direction of the administrative block and went straight, after 15 metres or so one would reach the library on the left and the adjacent tea shop was where we would have piping-hot tea particularly in winters after evening classes for just 30 paise! Besides the library were a few stairs leading up to open space. With a State Bank of India branch on the left was part of the administrative block and a lawn and on the right was a cavernous hall home to the post office and the employment office, the latter failing to provide employment to JNU students consistently.

I don’t remember the offices on the first or second floor; in fact, I am not sure whether there were any such floors up the first floor. The DTC counter beyond the hall and at the end of a gallery would issue student passes and would operate only between 9.30 and 10 am. One Mr Datta was in-charge of this DTC counter and this gentleman’s mood swings during that crucial half-hour were enough to exhaust him for the rest of the day and spoil the mood of the students who had to face this his ire once a month when they went to renew their bus passes.

After crossing the gallery one would approach the main canteen located in a large hall which provided snacks and cheap lunch, but would shut shop every afternoon. Beyond the canteen was an empty plot of land that functioned as a rallying point during union elections where meetings would be held throughout the day.

If one entered the campus from the ring road bus stop and did not take the turn towards the post office, one would reach the various schools, including the School of Languages. The Centre for Indian Languages was located on its ground floor. A small room housed Madan’s canteen, which provided good tea. Lunch there generally consisted of subzi and one daal along with paranthas, all cheap and delicious. Madan, who was very young and newly married then, hailed from Rajasthan.

Now, he has a big canteen in the basement of the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. He is now in his sixties and runs the new canteen with the help of his wife and other family members. There is no change in menu or the taste of the tea!
Now no longer aspiring to a comfortable government job, as I had sampled JNU and wanted more, I enrolled for MPhil in 1988.

Then the new campus was at the last stages of construction. Classes were held in the old campus while we lived in the new campus, from where we took either bus routes 615 or 666 to commute. At that time, facing old campus and adjacent to Ber Sarai, there were some LIG flats, one of which housed dramatist Habib Tanvir, who preferred to stay there although he had been a Rajya Sabha member and could buy some prime real estate elsewhere. Unfortunately despite this close proximity, his plays rarely featured on JNU campus.

Our MPhil course commenced and classes were held in the old campus and generally, in winters, most students and teachers returned to the new campus on foot. From the gate in front of the Central School, one crossed the road and entered the new campus through a small gate which one could not enter on any vehicle and it was a kilometer-or-so-long walk along a causeway, a sort of pagdandi cutting through a beautiful jungle in the bright sunshine especially in winters, before one reached the new campus. Many of us preferred to walk instead of waiting for a bus even in the hot summer such was the appeal of this nature walk.

By the time I submitted my MPhil dissertation in 1990, most of the schools in the old campus had moved to the new campus. I had been converted by JNU by this time, full of ideals and hardly resembling the boy who had once aspired to a work-a-day government job. I started working on my PhD now and continued to occupy my Periyar hostel room till 1995 when I submitted my doctoral dissertation.

Following this for some months I refused to leave the campus and stayed on as a ‘PIG’ (permanent illegal guest in JNU lingo) and thereafter, listless and ill-adjusted to the outside world, I had to return to my hometown as I had not applied for a job anywhere. Also, unlike most academics, I was not content to occupy a lecturer’s position in Urdu, which did not interest me at all. One option was a direct PhD in English, but this I thought unfeasible, especially after spending one year writing some hundred-odd pages on postmodernism before, fed up with the jargon of literary theory, I shelved the idea.

One standout feature of the campus was KC, or Kamal Complex. Kiecha, the Chinese restaurant, was there in 1986 and next to it a vegetable vendor near Chaudhary’s food joint. There was also a motley collection of small businesses—a stationery shop, Madan’s chemist shop, a fair price shop, a tailor’s establishment, and a barbershop. One thing I particularly remember about KC was a PCO facility run by a differently abled person post-1988. No hostel in those days had the facility of a phone where one could receive calls through the exchange. The dysfunctional apparatus was placed at the entrance of each hostel.

In 1983, there was student agitation on some issues and as punishment, almost every possible facility provided to students withdrawn, including that of receiving calls. That year, M.S. Agwani was part of the administration and he was considered anti-student. I cannot recall his designation at that time. Presumably, he was Rector, but when I met him in 1987, he was, if memory serves, the officiating Vice-Chancellor.

He soon became Vice-Chancellor, but the anti-student label stuck and he played this part to the hilt by at least attempting to make an example of the students. He was a mediocre scholar of West Asian Studies, and being a product of the AMU, he was exceptionally good in making jugaad that made him Vice-Chancellor at the last minutes ignoring all meritorious candidate using the influence of Mohammad Yunus, a Nehru family retainer having unparalleled influence down to the time of Rajiv Gandhi holding the political baton.

It was towards the end of his term—coincided with the process of liberalisation set in motion—that the incoming phone facility was restored in every hostel and the most priced thing: the entry of girl students in boys’ hostels!

Once liberalization set in, the character of JNU changed drastically. When I completed my PhD in 1995, only a few students had scooters or bikes and most of us used public transport. This was true for teachers too. Though most Professors had cars—mainly Fiats—they hardly used these. Most Lecturers and Readers could neither afford cars nor air conditioners. In Periyar, a student from Bihar had an old Fiat, but it was mostly parked outside the hostel.

By 1997, however, almost every teacher had a car and air conditioner and every student has the facility of an MTNL connection in her/his rooms which were soon replaced by the cell phone apparatus. Students, for their part, now had scooters or bikes, as they got a lot of money via junior/senior research fellowships, which provided tidy sums. Now, of course, the campus stands transformed in every respect and austerity is a thing of the past.

JNU is known for the political awareness of its students and teachers. Both are marked by their honesty and sincerity, which are in contrast to the prevailing moral and political decay in the political Capital. I joined JNU in the days of the licence quota-permit Raj, but concern for issues and political awareness was much higher in those days; now idealism has taken a backseat mainly because of the rampant materialistic middle class mind-set, a malaise that affects all of India now, an obvious outcome of the liberal economy. Still, there is a large section in JNU which values honesty.

Some theoreticians aver that in the absence of opportunities for corruption, people were ‘honest’ out of compulsion in pre liberalisation of India. This contention, however, deserves a thorough academic inquiry. Till I left JNU, the general attitude was one of questioning, of looking below the surface of what purported to be ‘reality’ and was touted as conventional wisdom.

As a result, people were more careful and generally eschewed temptation, though in practical life some were forced to make compromises, be it students or teachers. Teachers with political patronage were few in number, but those who had it were very powerful. Generally, however, most teachers steered clear of it to preserve their independence. They were satisfied with their lot and were concerned only with their academic achievements. Many of that generation are still serving with grace and dignity. We all know that time cannot be turned back, but the beauty of life lies in trying to maintain a balance in everything, which, I trust, every JNUite worth his salt will strive for.

Nonetheless, the idealism inculcated in JNU stays with you, it seeps into your every core and translates into action. This is why, even now, whenever there is public outrage over unjust government policies or an act of violence, JNU students and faculty are often seen leading protests, facing police tear gas and browbeating, and generally expressing their outrage on diverse fora and social media.

However, when they leave the familiar and venture out through JNU’s gates into the wide world outside, they realize that even the train ticket back home comes at the cost of greasing someone’s palms and that corruption is omnipresent, and also that the world doesn’t set many stores by JNU ideals. It is this shock that most JNUites experience when they leave their beloved campus and which is why, whenever I meet a non-JNUite, I don’t tell them how they were unfortunate to miss out on the JNU experience, but rather that they are fortunate that they didn’t get to go to JNU—because JNU spoils you for life.

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Dr Ather Farouqui is a scholar of Urdu language and its education. A Sahitya Akademi Award winner for translation, he is the editor of Muslims and Media Images and Redefining Urdu Politics in India. He is also the General Secretary of the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind).

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