Jhelum, a former student of English at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, recalls an evening stroll to the Parthasarathy Rocks where she spotted a nilgai looking at her quizzically: an epochal moment in her life. “It’s an urban legend in JNU that if a nilgai crosses your path and looks into your eyes, you are destined to stay on campus for a decade. So that was it,” she says. In this melting-pot of wildly diverse political/ intellectual streams and social backgrounds, often lampooned as a world of lotus-eaters who live life to their own rhythm and rules, Jhelum found herself at ease for seven years. “When I first came to the campus in summer, it seemed dry, angry and orange, but a month later JNU had turned a lush green embracing you with open arms. That’s how varied it can be,” she remembers fondly. A more recent walk around campus brought back warm memories of charged-up debates around the role of Marxism or of post-colonialism; of street plays, learning the intricacies of history or development economics in classrooms, student politics, evening sojourns at Ganga dhaba or the occasional midnight snack.
The sprawling green campus, with aesthetic but no-frills red-brick architecture built around a natural Aravalli landscape, has been a haven for students for generations. It’s a place where one learns as much outside the classroom as in it. Being founded on a core of liberalism means it sets up a natural space for dissent; for being heard, learning to ask questions and developing a capacity for reasoned arguments.