Why are people surprised when politics happens at Jawaharlal Nehru University?
You are not surprised when IITans build a machine. You are not surprised when Google, the search engine giant, is born in Stanford.
So, when a political leader of sorts is born in a students’ movement at a premier university in the national capital of the world’s largest democracy, should we be surprised?
The answer is perhaps, no. One might add for effect that Kanhaiya Kumar, whose speech at the JNU campus on Thursday night hit the national headlines and triggered a viral video, is now a “Make In India” product.
At a serious level, there is widespread misconception in India that universities exist only for educating the young in skills which in turn are used for them to get jobs. Actually, that is a simplistic view, though an understandable one. Universities have historically been hubs for brainstorming and research as well. The subjects may vary, though.
In the UK, Cambridge and Oxford are known for economics, humanities and the liberal arts the same way as universities like Stanford and Carnegie Mellon are known in the US for engineering and physical sciences. Using a similar logic, it is possible to say that if IITs are an Indian variant of a Stanford or a CMU, JNU is an equivalent for an Oxford or a London School of Economics.
Debates and discussions have been a part of India’s argumentative tradition and even the ancient Nalanda, now sought to be revived, was famous for that.
However, in the new middle class morality of contemporary India, there is an equation of universities with skill shops.
The logic often used to justify this is that students and faculties are indirectly funded or subsidized by taxpayers. But in this, an issue is conveniently forgotten: social change is as much a product of politics or reformist initiatives as an innovation in technology.
In that sense, a Kanhaiya Kumar can be seen as a political entrepreneur. When he gives a speech in the campus, it is the social equivalent of what an engineering student does when he displays a prototype for venture capitalists.
The students union in JNU discusses social ideas the way Stanford engineers experiment with computers in their labs. The bodies they eventually found can be called social enterprises or political startups. You can, of course, consider the ills of an ideology just as you can discuss the adverse effects of a drug or technology.
Why should there be an assumption that only technocrats are important? The fact is that JNU has produced civil servants, political leaders, academicians and non-governmental administrators who have put their humanities education to good use.