Saturday, Dec 02, 2023

What JNU Can Learn From Syama Prasad Mookerjee

What JNU Can Learn From Syama Prasad Mookerjee

Vivekananda to Gandhi, Tagore to Mookerjee, our thinkers enriched education. JNU or TISS, it’s time Indian universities listened.

The way institutions like JNU think and function is crucial to the history of higher education in India and the sociology of knowledge. File Photo

Education is a cradle-to-grave lifelong phenomenon. Formal education, in classrooms, happens in schools, colleges and universities and centres of higher education. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, introduced after a gap of 34 years last year, promises to transform the education space -- both school education and higher education, and produce future-ready citizens who would help realize national goals.

In addition to quantity, like, for instance, the plan to raise the gross enrolment ratio in higher education to 50 per cent by 2035, quality of education, too, is equally important. Many NEP measures will improve the standards of education, across-the-board, across the country.

In higher education, institutions like JNU, founded in 1969, have always been considered important. JNU wields enormous influence. “The way institutions like JNU think and function is crucial to the history of higher education in India and the sociology of knowledge,” say Neeladri Bhattacharya and Janaki Nair, in an edited volume published in 2020: “JNU Stories: The First 50 Years”.

This is an assessment that many would agree with.

So, when JNU’s academic excellence is sought to be emulated, it should be welcomed. But when aberrations, like anti-India slogans, or pronouncements even by some JNU academics who question the integration of Jammu & Kashmir with the Indian Union, are sought to be emulated, these tendencies must be nipped in the bud.

JNU Professor Nivedita Menon said something in February 2016 that created a furore. The JNU Professor said: “Everyone knows that India is illegally occupying Kashmir. It is said the world over. Everyone accepts it”.

A TISS student’s dissertation has now attracted attention as it talks about what the student believes is “India-occupied Kashmir”. After a screenshot of the dissertation went viral on social media, triggering an outrage, TISS was forced to put out a statement that “the Institute didn’t endorse the title, and that action had been initiated for fact finding”.

A university, or any centre of learning, must promote universalistic thinking, something that has been captured in Indian philosophy as “vasudhaiv kutumbkam”.

The JNU volume, mentioned above, has an interesting excerpt explaining the phenomenon.

Prof Gopal Guru narrates an experience with sociologist Jit (J P S) Uberoi, one of the finest of our time. Someone asked the Sikh sociologist: Why don’t you talk about Sikhs? Uberoi reportedly answered: If I talk about the Sikhs, who will talk about humanity?”

Universalistic thinking, a philosophy that considers the world as a family, and considers protecting and nurturing this family as a sacred duty, runs through most of our thinkers, from Swami Vivekananda to Gandhi, from Rabindranath Tagore to Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

Mookerjee, whose birth anniversary falls on July 6, believed that education, while having a universalistic philosophy, was also the first step towards a nation-first worldview.

After becoming vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta at the age of 33, Mookerjee initiated multi-dimensional reforms in the university, with a focus on Indian languages, scientific training and research in Indian history and civilizational studies”.

Apart from a universalistic outlook, an inclusive philosophy and a commitment to national ideals and nation building must also inform a university’s character.

JNU has many strengths and merits. Neeladri Bhattacharya and Janaki Nair, for instance, list “inclusivity” as one of its goals.

A significant section of those who have lived the JNU experience would, however, question this. They would argue that one aspect of JNU life is its repressive, oppressive, self-serving, self-perpetuating Left ecosystem.

One example would explain how. The JNU volume, “JNU Stories: The First 50 Years” was conceived by a group of History teachers. The History Centre in the School of Social Sciences is known as a Left bastion.

For the volume, the teachers got together a large number of colleagues, and a group of former student activists, to contribute to the 75-chapter volume.

So while representatives of SFI, AISA, AISF and socialists find a place in the volume, the ABVP has been kept out of the project. This despite the fact that ABVP representatives won elections to the central panel of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union office-bearers, on at least four different occasions in the 90s. Today, this would be called out as another example of "cancel" culture.

Sociologist Avijit Pathak, not really known for his affinity for the BJP-RSS worldview, notes in the volume: “No, JNU was not perfect. We need honest self-introspection… Did JNU become a privileged island? I wonder whether there was some sort of subtle hegemony that didn’t allow other intellectual traditions to evolve. Was it a centre of Left of Centre Nehruvian intellectuals?”

A university, whether it’s JNU or TISS, or any other centre, must reflect the United Colours of India, while being universalistic and inclusivist. Any project or attempt at questioning national integrity and sovereignty cannot be and must not be allowed under any circumstances.

As Mookerjee once said, “Nations live or die according to the character of the people. Wealth, arms, munitions, disciplined armies and navies and air forces are of splendid service but the character of the people, the character into which the youth is growing, determines the life or death of the nation”.

Our universities must reflect the Indian ethos as we embark upon the celebrations to commemorate 75 years of India’s Independence. Any anti-India rhetoric must have no place therein.

To produce future-ready citizens, who are nationally committed and socially conscientious, our universities must lead by example.

(The writer, a JNU alumnus, is a political analyst. Views are personal. Feedback can be sent to [email protected])