JNU violence: Indian university’s radical history has long scared country’s rulers

Shalini Sharma of Keele University in this piece tracks JNU’s history. She points how JNU’s policy has been to give admissions to those with deprived background:

Set up in 1969, JNU was conceived at a unique moment in global academic history – something I’ve written about with JNU historian Rajat Datta for a forthcoming book about the radical campuses of the 1960s, edited by Jill Pellew and Miles Taylor, which grew out of series of conferences on the issue.

In the 1960s and 1970s, so-called utopian universities, which brought together staff and students in residential campuses, spawned new programmes of interdisciplinary teaching and research. Spreading from Sussex in the UK to Simon Fraser in Canada, and from Nanterre in Paris to Lusaka in Zambia, these new public universities were spaces which engaged with contemporary social problems. They were also experiments in communal living.

The Indian government mooted the idea of JNU, a new national university, upon the death of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The first vice chancellor, Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, set out JNU’s radical mission of pioneering interdisciplinary academic centres designed to solve problems intrinsic to Indian society: poverty, development and social division.

Students were drawn into this mission from the start. In 1973, student and staff representatives agreed that university admission policy would be worked out by a joint student faculty committee and not simply presented to the students union as a fait accompli.

The students union demanded that admissions at the university must satisfy certain criteria. There must be an expansion of numbers over time, regional parity in the allocation of places, weight given to academic merit, and positive discriminaton for applicants from “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes” in “accordance with the law”.

An innovative points-based admission policy followed, with applicants rated according to their family’s income, caste, region and gender. The university authorities fought back in the decades that followed, denouncing the “unfairness” of positive discrimination. But JNU students constantly tried to improve the admission policy to ensure that more students from deprived backgrounds were given the chance to gain admission.


The January 5 violence was an attack on the unrelenting resolve of JNU students to fight for affirmative action, a fair admissions policy and social justice. It has been successive waves of JNU students who have kept alive the utopian ideals of the university’s founders.

In the face of conflicts over admissions policy, the constant threat of the privatisation of education in India, and the increasing “saffronisation” of education in India to fall in line with Hindu nationalist ideology, JNU students have time and again upheld their interpretation of what it is to be a “national” university. If JNU retains any of its utopian nature, it is because of them.




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