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Learning under the sheds of Aravali 

I fondly remember one of my professors from undergraduate days in one of those rainy classes enlightening us about the meaning of a university. He explained that ‘a university is a place where the universe can be taught, it is a place which has no syllabus, a place of sheer learning and critical discourse, it is a place where the universe can be brought and critically examined, a place which has the potential to enlighten us with a much clear lens to see the world’. Jawaharlal Nehru University was one such befitting place which was a perfect example of such a characterization of a university. One hardly gets a placement to work under a multinational company after completing his degree from JNU but this place makes us realize the larger idea of education, the meaning of concepts like justice, liberty, ideas like toleration and consent, values like fraternity and peer belongingness and the very potential to question the society, state if it fails to abide by its duties. 

Situated under the lush greens of Aravali, JNU has been a guarantor of billion dreams. The idea of a campus-based university situated on a 1000-acre land for critical reasoning and the development of the many talented youths is surely enchanting. The democratic space of Ganga Dhaba with its naturalized sitting arrangement, the musical nights at Sabarmati, the Chai pe Charcha near the library and school area, the peace and solitude at PSR, the haunting aura of JNU caves, the much-revolutionalized quotes on walls, Jamming sessions at random places and random debates between left v/s the right all in all constitute the rich JNU culture. 

Swami Vivekananda says, ‘The purpose of education is the upliftment of masses’. It has in a true sense given wings to many students coming from underprivileged sections like Sarita Mali. From selling flowers and garlands in the streets of Mumbai to getting a place at UCLA for a PhD fellowship, Sarita has taken huge strides. She came to JNU and did her Masters, Mphil and PhD. She spoke to ANI and expressed the vitality of institutions like JNU. She says “JNU is the turning point of my life. Getting admitted to JNU in MA is the turning point of my life. Had I not got admission here, I don’t know where I would’ve been. A university like JNU gives abundant hope to people coming from the society where I belong to”. Sarita was able to study at JNU because of the affordable yet quality education offered to her. Her potential was nurtured and groomed under the rich knowledge of academic scholars at JNU. The utility of such places becomes evident when people especially from underprivileged strata reach for such opportunities. 

Ramjal Meena, a JNU security guard caught national headlines a few years back upon clearing the Russian language entrance paper. The academic vibe at JNU has the potential to motivate a guard to get a postgraduate degree in Russian. A plethora of such cases exist where students from the marginalized communities, the downtrodden poor sections have got a podium like JNU to sharpen their academic skills and have done significant enough. I know many students who won’t have gone on to do higher education had they not enrolled in JNU. The comfort to study at extremely low fees, negligible hostel room rent and a MCM scholarship for mess charges ensure a poor student luxury to chase his/her dreams of higher education. This is ultimately in a true sense the idea of education. 

This is however not to say that JNU as an institution is perfectly fine. There are some important challenges it has to tackle. The JNU central library standing tall as a nine-storey building has not been allocated funds for maintenance in the last two years. Not just the library, JNU as an institution is not receiving enough funds. Students applicable for JRF scholarship have not received fellowship amounts for the last 5-6 months thus severely hampering the quality of research. Increasing instances of sexual assault on girl students are alarming for the flourishing of open culture; something with which JNU has proudly associated itself. In JNU, co-ed hostels have been existing for the last 50+ years, especially in a country where women’s safety is challenged every hour. Rising cases of sexual harassment are a direct threat to the rich academic culture that has existed in JNU, it is a threat to the luxury of a girl student to go at night hours to the library and study assuming she is safe enough. Infrastructure issue in hostels has been a problem encountered for a long time. Ceiling walls have collapsed posing a big risk and fear to students. The rising culture of misogynist songs at random JNU DJ nights or other events acts as a slippery slope for future events of assault to happen on the campus. 

Some other issues like the reluctance of some schools to carry classes in offline mode have been a major cause of protest and dissatisfaction. Students have eagerly wanted the rich culture of dialogue and discussions to happen in the setup of a classroom. Fall in academic standards and quality of student-teacher interactions has been a key pillar of learning in the university. The art of listening, conversing, discussing and debating could get groomed only in a direct student-professor interaction. Reduced PhD seats especially in humanities and introduction of new courses like MBA and engineering without proper infrastructure for the same looks dubious as a policy measure. We in India barely have good universities for research in humanities and a further reduction in seats significantly attacks the rich research potential JNU has had. 

In the last few years, JNU has been repeatedly attacked by the mainstream media houses and its image has been tarnished. It has been branded in a negative light. Even if some unfortunate incidents have happened, to judge the whole university under the same label is something I highly disapprove off. In the last few weeks, JNU and its alumni have quashed the mainstream media image and have proved that students’ caliber just cannot be swallowed under the tukde-tukde gang’s image. JNU alumnus has bagged the prestigious Booker Prize, Won the best documentary prize at Cannes, and got Rank 1 in Civil Services in recent days. Not just this, the present government has two top ministers and many other secretary-level officers as an alumnus of the university. Paying back the ‘tax-payers’ money, JNU alumnus has been involved in top policy-making institutions at both national and international levels. Winning Nobel Prize for representing India on global platforms, JNU alumnus has proved the worth of an institution committed to cheap and affordable education and has clarified why an institution like JNU for higher education is needed. It has been a place that has shaped billions of dreams, reformed and re-channelized young minds and the view with which they see the world. It needs to confront the challenges it has, work upon it and ensure the quality of learning that has been under the sheds of Aravali exists always. 

About the Author- Udbhav Sharma is a Student of Masters in Politics and International Relations at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

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