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Remembering JNU and the university space as a "better way" of living together in India

in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)

Published onOct 06, 2021
Remembering JNU and the university space as a "better way" of living together in India

I consider myself to be very emotionally attached to the campus [JNU1] – too much for my own good sometimes. And I think I have not been to a place like this before. [...] I have never been so comfortable in a place. It is very open hearted in a sense that you will see the people from across the country- which you would never had met - and from the world as well. […] The place seems very inviting. […] Whoever you are this place is going to be open for you.2

Whereas the student in the introductory quote emphasizes his personal affection for the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus and describes the campus as a place open to all, others call for its shutdown. Following the 9th of February 2016, we saw a nationally and internationally highly regarded university being declared a threat to national security overnight, framing the university and all its members as “anti-national”. Or as the JNU professor Janaki Nair describes it, “the country was turned into a choric chamber in which the accusation of ‘anti-nationalism’ was repeatedly echoed, a pejorative attribute which attached itself to the whole JNU community”(Nair, 2016:x). The same argument can be found in the insightful article from Mohinder Singh and Rajarshi Dasgupta in which they illustrate how the name of a university was made to a generic label through being repeatedly used in a certain way in the public sphere especially since 2016 (Singh & Dasgupta, 2019).

Opposing the public discrediting of JNU, many people went on the streets to protest and publicly shared statements, claiming that JNU was misrepresented by the people in power as well as articulating solidarity with the JNU community. All these counter actions became parts of the so called “JNU resistance movement”, including protest marches, public lectures, theater, and art performances as well as the practice of sharing personal experiences from the campus. Common to all of them was that they not only performed in the physical space, but also used the digital space(s) for their own purposes. Therefore, I understand the negotiation process around the meaning of JNU (or what JNU stands for) as an ongoing multi-dimensional process, offline as well as online.

Although JNU has often been the subject of controversial debate, the polarized perceptions of the site have solidified since 2016. Starting from a supposed micro-event on the campus in February 2016, the university became the site of a pervasive and multi-dimensional process of negotiation around the narrative of the “national” vis-à-vis “anti-national” in contemporary India. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power since 2014, sees JNU as a potential threat to the nation's security. In contrast, for many academics as well as students, JNU symbolizes a place that stands for both, excellent education and an anti-establishment culture.

With the public discrediting of a university like JNU the general debate about the position of universities within Indian society intensified. Since then various universities have been marked as a threat by the government and some media outlets, and a hostility towards university staff has been massively promoted among the public (Apoorvanand, 2018:7), (John 2018:113), (Pathania, 2018:6). While the current government in India demands “national benefit” and unquestioning loyalty from universities, various members of the academic field continue to emphasize the importance of independent questioning and critical thinking. In this context, academics such as Apoorvanand (2018), Bhattacharya (2019), Pathania (2018) and Azad, Nair, Singh & Roy (2016) have published various anthologies dealing with the idea of the university. In almost all the introductions of the various publications, the idea of JNU is named as an ideal to strive for. JNU in this context is seen as a place that has/had the potential or resources to be a space where everyone could find their own place/freedom based on their individual needs.

JNU, which was opened in 1969 with the claim to be “truly 'Indian', 'relevant' and 'excellent'“(Kidwai, 2017), had very different pedagogic practices to other traditional universities since the very beginning. Very low tuition fees, a well-thought-out quota system, interdisciplinary teaching, a largely informal faculty-student relationship, and the deliberate mixing of students from different social backgrounds were to create a unique space in which young people would find the confidence to break with societal norms and overcome social barriers. Therefore, a university like JNU functions as both a “center for knowledge creation” as well as a “catalyzer of social mobility” (Apoorvanand, 2018:2-3). Apoorvanand describes JNU as followed:

Till 2014, it was a dream for young people aspiring for higher studies to get into JNU. The university had evolved an inclusive admission policy which enabled students from different kinds of deprivations to find a place there. Its campus culture was also seen as more egalitarian, with more occasions for girls and boys to mingle, for students from the scheduled castes and tribes to feel equal to the so-called upper-caste students. (…) JNU then, was an ideal destination for both students and teachers. Academic institutions saw it as a mode to emulate. But all this changed after 2014.(Apoorvanand, 2018:8)

In this article I want to elaborate a little more on this other idea of JNU (the “not anti-national” or “ideal” narrative), which I will refer to as the “myth of JNU”. I use the term myth to describe something that I cannot name and that is not clearly defined, but rather something that is believed to exist and that is shared and experienced with a community based on their individual relations to the place of studies. This something is also found in the introductory quote to this article. To elaborate on this a little more, I will share some personal impressions of the first time I encountered JNU (as an exchange student in 2014/2015): Being a student at the Humboldt University in Berlin for many years, I never felt a special connection between myself and the institution. Therefore, I was very surprised at how unifying the affiliation with an institution was perceived to be. The simple phrase “I am from the JNU” seemed to create a connection between people who assumed to share and embody a similar experience and mindset. The affiliation or connection between individuals and institution is abstract and traceable at the same time, as a certain idea of belonging gets passed on from generation to generation and gets materialized in different media forms. It is fluid as well as fixed and exclusive. It is less about the question how and what JNU really is, but rather about the way it is used as a reference.

It seems almost impossible to put JNU into words without oversimplifying. Through using the term myth I want to address the experiencing of the campus or the felt connection. (Of course, also this is simplified as there is no one way of experiencing/feeling the campus, but there still seems to be a shared perception of JNU as a space that has the potential to overcome social barriers and create a space for a more equal society.) I am aware that (in the same way that multiple “ideas” and “memories” of JNU circulate), the “myth” I focus on here is by no means the only “myth of JNU”. Therefore, this article does not claim to shed light on JNU in all its facets and the individual approaches to this university. Hence, this article does not primarily focuses on political ideology, but on the everyday circulation on memories, ideas and processes that remember JNU as an inclusive place that enables the possibility of living together in plurality and yet tolerate and encourage dissent.

Using a variety of media created by students and alumni or JNU-supporters in general (online and offline), this article will highlight the narratives on which this “JNU myth” is based and how it is communicated. The sources used in this article should also be read as expressions of solidarity with a counter idea of JNU as well as the intention to keep this very idea alive. Further, I will discuss the extent to which this myth is used as a resistant memory practice against the government's strategic encroachments on freedoms. Doing so, I will include different digital sources published by alumni, observations from my empirical field work on the campus in 2019 as well as academic literature published after 2016. Drawing on Mark Allen Peterson, I understand media as something that creates visual experiences (Peterson, 2003:119-120). According to him, “any media text has multiple positions corresponding to social positions available in the society and the distribution of codes and interpretive competences among the people inhabiting them”(Peterson, 2003:120). In her article examining the relationship between media, social movements, and solidarity, Fritzi-Marie Titzmann further argues that activist self-representation is sopporting a strong interrelation of solidarity and agency. She also points out that mediatized solidarity has the potential to create a shared identity as well as global attention [Titzmann, 2021].

Protester in Berlin in solidarity with the CCA protests in India. January 2020.

©Anna Schnieder-Krüger

Based on this, publicly memorizing and sharing experiences (related to JNU) in the context of this article are understood as a practice of resistant (memory) practice. Further, I am exploring the correlations between the necessity of the existence of the “myth of JNU” for the current academic space and the construction of the idea of an “ideal university” in a broader sense. The goal of this article is neither to glorify JNU nor to portray it as a utopian place without problems, but rather to demonstrate a narrative of something that can be used as a tool of resistance and imagining an abstract better future. Further, I am interested in how these stories/memories (the “myth”) get transmitted. Therefore, it is interesting to have a closer look at collective memory processes. In sum, I want to identify the ways the “myth” gets created and transmitted, and further highlight as well as problematize the importance of this myth to society in general. The latter is of particular relevance if we also understand JNU as a symbol that for many is linked to aspirations and the dream of becoming part of JNU one day.

Although the focus of this article is primarily on JNU, it is important to keep in mind the connections between JNU activist groups and other social movements. As JNU students have been a driving force in many protests in the past (for example, during the 1975-77 state of emergency and after the 2012 Delhi gang rape), JNU is by no means an isolated space. Therefore, I would like to argue that keeping the memories of “JNU as a space of plurality” alive is a way to represent a source of hope for various struggles. 

Due to the scope of this article, the impact of the pandemic on this topic is not included or considered at all. The future will tell what consequences the last few months will have for JNU, universities and society in general.

Myth, Media and the Campus: Negotiating the image of JNU

Who sets the memories? – The students! – How? – Through their fight that is on and because the campus is a living space. It just doesn’t live today and dies tomorrow. […] There is a spirit and we have to fight for it.

In various newspaper articles, videos, and interviews that emerged in the months following the 9 February 2016, students, faculty members, and alumni characterized JNU with the epilogue “this is what JNU stands for”. There seems to be some consensus among the university community and its alumni about what JNU is. The same can be found in the preceding quote and the reference to the “spirit”. During the interview, the quoted student emphasized that the campus belongs to the students and that they alone have the potential to shape this space and at the same time be shaped by the space.

This recurring narrative and consensus that JNU is perceived as a transformative place and stands for something that cannot be replicated by outsiders. This often romanticized and idealized perception of JNU - especially the campus - goes along with a strong personal attachment, through which JNU students have identified themselves for generations. According to the scholar Jean-Thomas Martelli, campus life - or rather, certain campus-based cultures - is a crucial element in the politicization of many students. In particular, the intense engagement and instruction from one generation to the next support political socialization (Martelli, 2018).

The perspective of JNU as a “special space” is accessible through and materialized in an enormous amount of different media forms. This article tries to follow a non-media-centric media approach, as the medium itself is not in the center, but rather the experience and interaction with the medium. As pointed out by David Morley and Shaun Moores, media studies should be set in a wider and interdisciplinary frame, instead of focusing only on media technologies (Krajina, Moores & Morley, 2014:691). Peterson further argues that media offers a virtuality in which we can meditate on experiences that are not our own. Those mythic experiences enable a scope of imaginative play (Peterson, 2003:119-120).

According to Barthes, the myth as a message can be transmitted in the most diverse forms and through the widest variety of media, as the myth itself is a system of communication (Barthes, 2010:251,252). To understand the myth, it is important to look at how it gets communicated rather than through what. Drawing on Barthes understanding of myth, I will understand all parts of my material as signs that become part of the chain that creates the myth (Barthes, 2010:251). At the same time, the various media also represent pillars of cultural memory, with each medium opening a specific access. Especially as the collective memory processes can be guided by selective memory policy as well as forgetting policy (Assmann, 2009).

Following the above, I will give two examples of how digital media sources function as carriers of the myth and are part of a chain: First I will look at memes and second at a music video.

Remembering and Imagining JNU online

Screenshot from Instagram page: JNU_ROUND_TABLE

Memes function as a tool of communication, expression and of sharing opinions. They work through being humorous as well as basic and at the same time leaving space for adding personal content [Aslan 2018].

The example here is a screenshot from the Instagram page of the account JNU_ROUND_TABLE. Although the meme does not name any “quality” of the campus, it can be read as a space of happiness. At the same time, it leaves space for the audience to fill that gab based on individual experiences and memories. Memes do not just stand by themselves but contribute to a “shared culture by fostering people’s imagination, creativity and involvement in society through new media” [Aslan 2018].

While the meme presents JNU as a space for calmness, the music video to the song “Azadi” by Dub Sharma presents a different side of the university as it communicates a certain perspective on the “JNU resistance movement”. The video uses visuals and sound recordings from “real” protest moments and combines them with “scripted” scenes/lyrics, which frame the movement in a particular way. Although short sections of various scenes are shown, the overarching focus is set by the “forward” movement of various bodies in multiple marches (or is it just one march?). As an example, scenes of violence are embedded in a context of peaceful resistance and upward movement. The vulnerability of the young bodies against the violence from the outside can be understood as an instrument, which triggers a feeling of outrage and solidarity in the audience. In combination with scenes from various struggles, the music video tells the story of the student as a fearless upholder of social justice and freedom and as a mobilizing force against oppression. In contrast to the students, the opponent or the threat is embodied by the same person with different masks. Overall, the video includes numerous metaphors and symbols. The coherence of the media text depends on cultural codes to be interpretated (Peterson, 2003:60).

Azadi ( Dub Sharma) Video

Although the two examples represent two different sides of JNU, they still serve the same imagination of JNU as being “special”. The knowledge preserved in a mythical term is a tangled knowledge consisting of unlimited associations (Barthes, 2010:264).

However, these digitally visualized scenes were a direct consequence of actions in the physical space. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the infusion of the everyday by different kinds of media communication and the interconnection(s) with cultural transformation practices in the material space.

Keeping JNU as a memory space and performing resistance

Adding to the already presented examples from digital media, I now will draw on some examples from my fieldwork and explore how the physical space is a pillar of resistance that enables the visibility in the digital space. These interlinks and overlays between the virtual and material spaces are changing the relations between those two (Krajina, Moores & Morley, 2014:688). New media configurations are emerging from the interlocking of virtual spaces with physical spaces which influences socio-cultural dynamics (Schneider & Richter, 2015: 12). Therefore, I trace the JNU students’ usage of transmedia memory practices and collective performative resistance to occupy and remember nostalgia as a promise to keep the “myth of JNU” alive in the future. I will draw on material (field notes and interviews) I collected during my fieldwork in 2019, when I was studying material and structural changes on the campus as well as the student’s perspective on those changes. The student quoted earlier, who called the campus “a living space,” now points to the importance of everyday resistance:

The campus is alive because it is fighting on an everyday basis. [...] we are alive just because we are fighting on an everyday basis. The day we will stop, the campus will die. [...] It is all about the moment, it's all about strategy, it's all about how do you fight that.

Although many of the students no longer actively participate in these performative everyday protests, several interviewees emphasized the importance of these actions. Another PhD student emphasized that it was essential to show that the changes initiated by the administration were not perceived and accepted as “normal” or “given”. The importance of keeping up the protest on an everyday basis can also be found in the quote above. The fact that small groups of students still come to the dormitory cafeterias during mealtimes to shout slogans accompanied by a drum, distribute leaflets, and inform about concrete changes, demands, and events follows a ritual or rehearsed pattern of behavior. A statement of a student and organizer of various protest actions, “there will be protests where nobody will come, and we don't expect anyone to come” thus reflects an idea that puts the call for resistance above the actual holding of a concrete event. The continuity of these performed resistant patterns enables the possibility of hope:

So even now I have this hope, that if there is a spark or something people might come together.

The evidence of this hypothesis can be found in the number of students participating in the “anti-attendance” or “fee-must-fall”-movements. The same person nevertheless emphasizes the importance of visibility of resistance in the digital space:

Visibility has become very important. Social media visibility for political organizations has become more important than doing actual work. [...] And even in the physical space there is a lot of conversation about what is happening in the virtual space.

This quote illustrates once again how intertwined material and digital space are. Therefore, when studying any protest action in physical space, it is also important to incorporate the usability of the images generated in the process for the digital space as well. I would furthermore like to point out that it can also be the invisible daily actions that perpetuate and produce the myth. I will now introduce two examples from my research that portray how memory practices and everyday tactics are used and how they serve as carrier of the myth. Doing so I follow Moores suggestion, that the significance of the everyday doings should be taken more seriously (Krajina, Moores & Morley, 2014:693).

  1. Poster/wallpapers

With the removal of the posters, which were both communication media and recognition features of the campus, a very visible change occurred that deeply intervened in the existing structures of the space. The space was not only drastically altered visually but standardized. The posters, as communication media, symbolized in some ways what JNU represented in the eyes of many. They embodied a space that stood for exchange and critical ideas.3

To counteract the posters' invisibility on campus, JNU Student Union called on all students and alumni to upload photos of the posters and create a digital archive. Briefly, the posters multiplied in digital space across time and place and became very present beyond their own party affiliation due to high participation and uploading of images. The creation of a digital archive that transcends generations as well as parties can be understood as a shift in spaces. Posters disappeared on material walls to be multiplied on digital walls and are thus remembered trans medially. This observation ties in with Kraidy’s understanding of the “hypermedia space”. Images need to occupy the physical space for a moment to be multiplied on digital wall even if they disappear fast in the material space (Kraidy, 2015:321). The idea that the posters represent “what JNU stands for” can also be found in the already mentioned music video “Azadi” by Dub Sharma t. In the credits of the video JNU is put in context with many other social movements/institutions and “stands for” is visually blended in. The following qualities attributed to JNU and the other targeted institutions are each underpinned by a picture of a poster on campus.

  1. Vivekananda Statue

Another visual change on the campus is the installation of a statue of Vivekananda which stands directly opposite the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru but is much more visible to the arriving person. As a memory space, the campus is permeated with media that serve as material supports of cultural memory. Therefore, the establishment of new symbolic media represent a massive intervention in the given structures. This innovation and many more must be recognized as a governmental strategy by which the administration attempts to establish a new structure of orientation through a systematic change in the infrastructure, based on selected names and figures that are constantly remembered through the use of the new designations. Forgotten in the same step are the previous unofficial designations, which are based on a collective memory of students that has been passed down through generations and has thus lived on. To counter this, students use the tactic of reinterpretation. This can also be found in the claim of a student, that JNU students will see in the statue only a “historical memory of flounder”.

Till this statue is on campus and till the time students are here, they are going to pass on this memory to the next set of students: That there was a vice-chancellor […], who got my library budget to be reduced by 80 percent, […] who diverted this money to build a statue, calling spiritual gurus, […] and instituting massive fund cuts in this campus. And this statue is an example of that.

This resistive practice is based on the understanding that changes on the campus need to be coordinated with the broader JNU community. At the same time, JNU's VC chooses a photo of this exact new stature to celebrate JNU's strong performance in a ranking. While Vivekananda is visible, Jawaharlal Nehru neither appears visually nor with his full name in the description.

Nonetheless all the tactics used by students, combined with digital archiving and a performative everyday life serve to maintain a memory space and traceable objects that carry the myth (or to name it differently, the other idea of JNU). The intention of many students to ascribe their own symbolism to the new material implementations on the campus can be understood as the desire to hold on to memories created by students and the belief in a memory that seems to transcend generations. Although all these resistant patterns are temporal tactics, it is important to not look at the efficiency of those tactics, but rather at what is communicated through the temporal or imagined resistance. It is less about the actual hope to reverse the reimplementation, but rather to symbolize the contradiction visually.

Based on this, I understand the everyday struggle of those students, who on a daily basis embody their disagreement with changes implemented by the people in power, as a tactic to keep a memory alive, that can be used as a source of hope for the future. As Moores puts it, “it’s important to see how meanings can emerge from routine practices, through our practical, embodied and sensuous engagements with lived-in environments” (Krajina, Moores & Morley, 2014:693).

The “Myth of JNU” and society

The example of JNU is often used by multiple scholars as an example for an “ideal university”. In this article, I argue that the imagined equivalence of the “ideal university” and the “myth of JNU” is a narrative that outlines the possibility of a society based on equality, freedom of speech and critical thinking. Both are, in their ideality, constructed and interdependent on each other. It is a collective and activist idea of various scholars who do not represent a homogeneous group but adhere to the same abstract or utopian idea of universities and their political mission. Apart from the difficulties of an idealized perception and the thereby operating social obligations and expectations, it is crucial to recognize these collective memory practices as forms of resistance, especially as a form of solidarity with the students who continue to respond to any further restriction of academic freedom. In this sense a myth or a set of memories is created, preserved and reimagined through ideas and images that are traceable in online archives as well as in the everyday practice of sharing and remembering the “good days” of JNU. Through the myth or the attempt to keep a certain memory alive, a narrative is constructed that is linked to desires and aspirations and at the same time serves as an identity-building tool for a collective. It invokes a shared perception of JNU as something very special and worthy of preservation, whose significance far transcends itself. The archived idea of JNU serves as a source for imagining a university that works towards the good of the society, rather than being excluded by or outside of society (as it is implemented through the label anti-national). Keeping up the myth/memory further serves the activists opposing the government as a meaning making process to their own struggle.

Nonetheless, I would like to point out once again the problems associated with the study of the myth. The polarization in the perception of JNU since 2016, ignores the plurality in which this university is perceived and what it represents for different individuals and groups. While “dissent” was a main feature of the so-called JNU culture, the myth homogenizes the different ways of precepting and experiencing JNU.

The discussion I would like to start through this article is on how everything that is communicated and that frames JNU as “something special” is part of an echo chamber that is not addressing an audience outside but rather inside JNU - or to be more precise, an audience that believes in the potential of the JNU as a space that can save freedom of thought and expression and that can create a “better” society. The importance of sharing nostalgic memories is not to convince anyone that JNU is not “anti-national”, but in fact the true value of this practice lies in the continuity of the circulation as well as the archiving of that idea itself, as it symbolizes an aspirational space and a hope for the future. The desire to “save JNU” brings together many different groups (even if the individual motivations may be different) and thus creates a community of solidarity. In sum, the article shows how articulating and remembering a certain idea in solidarity with that very idea can keep it alive. Thus, an alternative path or way of living together is constantly remembered and visualized. In this context, it is the utopian imagination of living together peacefully through valuing plurality, equality, dissent and freedom of speach. This study has opened up scope for further research. It opens avenues for identifying how this practice of glorifying and nostalgic memorization, is understood by students as a responsibility to save academic freedom as well as society in a more abstract way.

About the author

Anna Schnieder-Krüger is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Gender and Media Studies for the South Asian Region at Humboldt-University Berlin. Since being an exchange student at JNU herself in 2014, she has been following the events on and around campus privately as well as academically. In her PhD research she explores the meaning(s) of university in post-colonial India as well as the self-placement/-understanding and external-placement/-understanding of students in relation to the task of „saving“ academic freedom. 

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