In Democratic Students Union (DSU) for example, eight members in 2014 were from north India and four belonged to the Northeast and Darjeeling region. Out of these four activists, three happened to have studied in the same high school, St. Anthony’s School — in Darjeeling’s Kurseong district.
In the campus, the community of faithfuls often fought with their worst enemy, each other. “New cadres then become polarised and follow a confrontational line. Between sfi and aisa, there is a river of blood,” says Khaliq Parkar, a former MPhil student. Old wounds were often rubbed vigorously, sometimes innocent comments were seized upon. During every polls, a fratricidal carnage spreads through the Left ranks.
The AISA will accuse SFI of not fighting against the attempt of Nestlé to open a vend in JNU campus in 2005 or rejecting any accountability in the 2007 killing of farmers in Singur and Nandigram by CPM led West Bengal government. SFI in return will blame AISA and CPI (ML ) General Secretary Vinod Mishra for not taking a clear stand on OBC reservations in the 1990s.
Climbing up the ladder is a tough act and young leaders have to show their skills in a two dimensional political world: one is the public interaction between the activist and common students, and the other is the quasi-private interaction between the activist and the sun-dried organisation.
The leaders lure specific network of sympathisers, decide whether to address a speech in English or Hindi, find a rhetorical pirouette to avoid uncomfortable questions and keep calm and carry on when questioned by the rival organisations. This body public is fundamentally an act of performance. Like an actor before footlights, the leaders must act real, which includes, even, wearing a specific outfit.
Certain rules of dress gives mask of position – an unwashed and worn-out kurta, chappals even in winter, gamcha in summer and a jhola. “This jute bag makes students think that activists are going to work with the masses, boarding a bus just after their speech. Just as if they were always in movement, busy, so that they have to keep their things always with them,” says Suchismita Chattopadhyay, a PhD scholar.
The baptism of a Left activist in jnu cannot be complete without her capturing the revolutionary discourse and class struggle cosmology. Textual analysis of student pamphlets, throws up a lexical field based on confrontational phrases – dare to resist, damning facts, communal-goons, worker’s exploitation, not up for sale. All God’s in Marxist pantheon are invoked at the dinner table – Mao (DSU ), Mazumdar (DSU , AISA), Safdar Hashmi (SFI , DSF , Lenin (AISA, SFI, DSU, AISF), Bolivar and Chavez (DSF, AISA, SFI, AISF), Che Guevara (all except NSUI and ABVP), Bhagat Singh (all), Ambedkar (all).
While television anchors and Sangh Parivar rush to paint JNU as an anti-national campus, in their own way, JNU activists develop a close sense of what India is, as an imagined community. Students committed to public affairs do not only discuss Marx, Gandhi, Ambedkar or Lohia, they take position on contemporary Indian issues raised in media.
“When you open the newspaper in the morning, it tells you what you are going to protest against in the afternoon,” says Ishan Anand, a senior Democratic Students’ Federation leader. Daily protest and programmes in jnu are often made in reaction to news items.
Benedict Anderson saw this medium as a silent form of mass ceremony in which the nation is imagined by the readership. Most jnuites are of that kind, they envision India when taking a position on political matters. Irrespective of specific ideologies flourishing in campus, commentaries portraying jnu activists as anti-nationals are grave misinterpretations.
Historian Romila Thapar notes that the current issue exemplifies the opposition between two forms of nationalism, one secular and one religion-based. The political arena in jnu welcomes overlapping interpretations of secularism, including a communist version, a feminist-inspired, and a Dalit-centred one.
The Hindu-Right definition of an Indian, articulated by the RSS and both their student (ABVP ) and political outfits (BJP ) refuse to accept incompatible but competing claims over the definition of the nation. Following Golwalkar’s understanding of the Nation, Indian identity according to RSS and ABVP is equated with Hindu culture, in which religious minorities are enjoined to keep expressions of community particularism to the private sphere. “We repeat: in Hindusthan, the land of the Hindus, lives and should live the Hindu Nation” (in We or Our Nationhood Defined, 1939).
Contrary to this essentialist definition of the nation, communists’ idea of India is attached to the ascriptive aspiration for land free from landlordism, class oppression and adherence to religious pluralism.
A textual analysis of JNU pamphlets since 1994 by Jean-Thomas Martelli shows how the word ‘nationalism’ provokes different reactions from different groups in the campus. It tells us that each organisation identifies different enemies to the Indian interests. ABVP emphasises on illegal Bangladeshi immigration or Islamic terrorist acts, while Marxist-Leninist organisations (AISA , SFI ) concentrate their attacks on “imperialist” forces, such as the US or Israel as well as hated elites like capitalists and industrialists.
Mirror of commentaries held up to JNU so far showed it as a deluded herd passing resolutions on affairs of far off land, say rigging of municipal polls in Nicaragua. In contrast to these views, the word India was mentioned overwhelmingly 25,138 times.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s PhD study is on social transformation of peasants in post-apartheid South Africa. He met his supervisor, Subodh Malakar, at a seminar at Joshi Adikari Gangadar Institute in New Delhi. Impressed by his paper on Marxism and population problems in India, Malakar advised Kumar to seek admission in JNU . This is the first time, Kumar, who came from mud-walled town of Bihar’s Begusarai, heard about jnu.
But Kumar’s idea of nation was loud and clear: “ We are not only a Left party, we follow a patriotic nationalist character,” he told us in an interview last year. As an after thought, he added: “Don’t worry. I am an Indian by sentiment but Marxist in reason.” That’s the sound of a young man in the grasp of destiny.
Jean-Thomas Martelli is a research scholar at King’s College London, working on contemporary student movements. Shafi Rahman is a journalist based in London and editor of the India Gazette London.