“The best ideas are born when minds are allowed to roam free and think critically,” M Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, in his inaugural address at the university’s convocation, held in early August after a gap of 46 years. “JNU is committed to this freedom of thought and critical thinking, with an emphasis on our fundamental responsibilities.” For many who have studied or taught at JNU, such platitudes would represent a cruel and bitter irony, given that they were said by a person who has left no stone unturned to destroy critical thinking and freedom of thought in the university in the last two years. A few moments after the vice chancellor delivered his address, Anoop Patel, a former student, refused to shake handswith the VC while receiving his degree. Patel later said he was protesting the VC’s instrumental role in destroying JNU’s “inclusive, democratic, progressive and secular credentials.”
The VC had barred the media from attending the convocation, perhaps in anticipation of such a protest—after all, in the past two years of his tenure, the university’s students have witnessed crackdowns on nearly every expression of free thought and critical thinking. For instance, in June last year, six students who were involved in protests calling upon the VC to formally take up the matter of the disappearance of the student Najeeb Ahmed with the police, including myself, were fined a hefty Rs 20,000. Last month, several students were fined for cooking pakoras in protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on unemployment in the country—that even selling pakoras is a job.
Simultaneously, over the last two years, a small coterie of the JNU faculty—including the presiding officer of the Internal Complaints Committee Vibha Tandon, the warden Buddha Singh, and the appeals committee member Krishnendra Meena—has been promoted to key administrative posts. Together, this JNU administration, comprising the VC and his coterie, have undertaken measures that fundamentally alter the nature of the university—from punishing dissent among both faculty and students with an elaborate penal regime, to introducing structural changes to the institute’s policies of social justice. The actions of the administration surely seek to destroy JNU as an educational institution. But the broader impact of this will not be the fall of JNU alone—it will make way for the dismantling of public education in India.