How I remember JNU and how it spoiled me for life
A nostalgic journey with writer and Sahitya Akademi Award Winner, Ather Farooqui…
To those who can’t get entry into the regular postgraduate degree courses at JNU, even nondescript courses like the part-time Diploma in Urdu journalism or the full-time course in mass communication run in the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) campus by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting present a window of opportunity to be a part of this great institute. It is great with regard both to work ethic and ideology. To those who wished to work hard, these courses were/are a boon, as their mere presence in JNU campus would motivate them, irrespective of whether classes were conducted regularly or whether the course had any utility.
…The idealism inculcated in JNU stays with you, it seeps into your every pore 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 in diverse fora and on 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 much store by JNU idealism. 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 that they were unfortunate to miss out on the JNU experience, but rather that they are fortunate they didn’t go to JNU—because JNU spoils you for life.
…But life has also taken its toll on JNU. Its pride in its tolerance of diversity of every kind among its faculty, administrative staff or students, whether regional, linguistic, religious or of dress, is dented every time an attempt at uniformity 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 the sleepy town of Sikandrabad in district Buland Shahr, located some 60 km 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 it is today; it was quite unorganised and dirty nonetheless, despite the fact that existing roads had been widened and some new ones built, leading up to Asiad 1982.
DTC buses in those days were — all owned by the Delhi government without any distinction of blue line, yellow line or red line let alone air-conditioned — 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 — it still is. Delhi attracted migrants from all over and contrary to Bombay where generally merit counted, Delhi was and is a city of Jugaad (hacks) with no culture of its own after the demise of Dehlavi culture in 1947 which truly symbolised a 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 about what to do 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 emphasising that memorising 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 shelf 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 environment, Muslim institutions were not my cup of tea. So, I never made the mistake of signing up for one.
A chance meeting with a teacher at the Centre for Indian Languages, 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 limit 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 were located in what was then termed the Old or Down campus, housing several administrative training schools for central government employees, including one for IFS personnel. If I remember correctly, across the road were the School of Physical Sciences and Centre for Russian Studies in an area that 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 JNU is now not known to 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 liberalization 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 and say no to further expansion.
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. 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 nothing 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, 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 of mass media. The disciplines mentioned in our marksheets are to this day are hardly taught in any university or private institution that offers mass media courses in the country. The marksheets, however, made it seem 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 otherwise been impossible.
After completing my diploma course, I went to conduct an interview with M.S. Agwani (d. 2019), then Rector and later 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. 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. 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, which faced the Central School on the road that 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 1990s. I have no idea what Poorvanchal is like now.
At least one-third of the built-up area of the old campus of JNU had been constructed on a lower than ground level 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: the lower-level construction comprised the administrative block, a number of classrooms, the entrance to the Library and a branch of the State Bank of India; the foundations of the library building lay 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 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 galis (narrow alleyway). 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 Ber Sarai run by local residents and 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, Kamal Complex in 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.
To reach the main entrance to the administrative block in the old campus one had to enter 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 to the right was a sort of chabutra (platform) that generally hosted labourers working on construction projects in New Campus. In the administrative block, the offices and chambers of the Vice-Chancellor, Rectors, Registrar, and Finance Officer were located. If one did not move in the direction of the administrative block and went straight, after 15 m 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!
Beside the library were a few stairs leading to an 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 employment office, the latter consistently failing to provide employment to JNU students. I don’t remember the offices on the first or second floor; in fact, I am not sure whether there were any such floors above 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 his ire once a month when they went to renew their bus passes. After crossing the gallery, was the main canteen located in a large hall, which provided snacks and a 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 when 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(cooked vegetables) 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 60s 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!
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 in the last stages of construction. Classes were held on Old Campus while we lived on 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 on Old Campus and generally, in winters, most students and teachers returned to New Campus on foot. From the gate in front of Central School, one crossed the road and entered New Campus through a small gate which no vehicle could enter and then it was a kilometre-or-so-long walk along a causeway, a sort of pagdandi ( a narrow unpaved path) cutting through a beautiful jungle in the bright sunshine, especially in winters, before one reached 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 on Old Campus had moved to 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 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 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 outstanding 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 (Public Call Office) 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. A dysfunctional apparatus was placed at the entrance of each hostel.
In 1983, there was student agitation on some issues and as a punishment almost every possible facility provided to students was 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 me right, officiating Vice-Chancellor. He soon became Vice-Chancellor, but the anti-student label stuck, and he played this part to the hilt by attempting to make an example of students. He was a mediocre scholar of West Asian Studies, and being a product of the AMU, he was exceptionally good at jugaad (makeshift technology). That was what made him Vice-Chancellor at the last minute, using the influence of Mohammad Yunus, a Nehru family retainer having unparalleled influence down to the time of Rajiv Gandhi, ignoring all meritorious candidates. It was towards the end of his term — which coincided with the process of liberalisation being set in motion — that the incoming phone facility was restored in every hostel and the most prized thing — the entry of girl students in boys’ hostels — was obtained!
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 had the facility of an MTNL connection in her/his room, which was 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. 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 mindset, 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 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 pore 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 in 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 much store 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 that they were unfortunate to miss out on the JNU experience, but rather that they are fortunate they didn’t go to JNU — because JNU spoils you for life.
But life has also taken its toll on JNU. Its pride in its tolerance of diversity of every kind among its faculty, administrative staff or students, whether regional, linguistic, religious or of dress, is dented every time an attempt at uniformity 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.
Bio: Author of Islamic Banking in India at the Service of Pan-Islamists which forced the UPA-II to reverse its decision to allow Islamic banking, and of Marx My Word, a unique play of Marxist dichotomy, Ather Farouqui, a PhD from JNU, is a pioneer scholar of Urdu language and its education. For long he has been arguing that instead of modernizing Deeni Madrasas, the government should provide Urdu education as part of the secular curriculum of school education. A Sahitya Akademi Award winner for translation, he is the editor of Muslims and Media Images and Redefining Urdu Politics in India. Presently, he is the General Secretary of the 125-year-old Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind). He lives in New Delhi. He can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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