India's political hothouse changes colors

It is late at night in a dim, crowded tea house at India's premier university, and the table-by-table debates are only starting to intensify.

A young Marxist woman with dramatic long hair sweeps the room with her eyes: "We are a model school for this country, which is why we must push back the right-wing Hindutva forces!"

"Oh really," smirks a conservative student leader. "The left really loves human rights in the abstract. What about addressing how bad our student housing is?"

Jawaharlal Nehru University is like no other. A finishing school for the coming generation of India's government elite, it's also an unusual utopian experiment.

Here, you don't study ancient Greek, art history, law, math, philosophy, or biology. There isn't a real swimming pool or sports club. What there is - 24 hours a day, seven days a week - is politics.

In the cacophonous, caste-free environment, where rural sons debate urban daughters, and the gospel had been "Das Kapital," the test for popularity is: How radical are you?

Known as "the red island," it was created by Indira Gandhi in 1970 as a Marxist center of excellence. The campus, with its flowering trees and cascading vines, sits in splendid isolation on a rolling green in the middle of noisy, crowded south Delhi.

Yet even in this academic oasis, things are changing. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Hindu national politics, and the emergence of an Indian middle class, the character of JNU and its politics is dramatically in flux. India is moving further away from the central planning and social engineering of its dominant Congress Party past.

Contempt of commerce ends

Not only are JNU students increasingly cynical about leftist slogans, this year the school ends its "30-year contempt" of corporate finance, as JNU Rector Harbans Mukhia describes it. An ambitious project to create centers in law, humanities, and information technology is under way. Chairs in ancient Greek and Hebrew are pending, part of a new Sanskrit and classical Indian studies program, something never seen on a campus long devoted to the applied sciences, post-colonial studies, and to the creation of Indian civil servants and politicians. For the first time, India's top school is seeking funding from private sources and industry, rather than the state alone.

"We realize the world is changing, and we need to change and globalize as well," says Mr. Mukhia. "Marxist analysis is still strong here. But it has also bred complacency."

Student politics, the campus lifeblood, is also in an uneasy transition. Choices were once among moderate to radical-left parties. But in the past half decade the student body has elected as many Hindu-nationalist-leaning student leaders as Marxists - shocking faculty members who remember heady days of torchlight processions against US imperialism. Last fall, the campus was in uproar over a student who did "puja" - a personal Hindu prayer ritual that had never been openly practiced on the strictly secular campus before - in his room.

"Marx is being replaced by Vivekenanda," says a former faculty member, referring to the 19th-century spiritual reformer and icon of contemporary Hindu- revival movements.

JNU's importance in a country of a billion people is partly seen in its many "onlys." It is the only purely graduate school in India. It is India's only self-contained campus. Other colleges spread throughout one or two cities, and students often don't live together.

Significantly, now that India is a nuclear- weapons state, it is the only school with a science policy program. With the exception of nearby Delhi University, JNU is arguably the only university in South Asia that has standing among Western scholars - its international relations and language programs are unequalled in the region, and its professors are known for their travel abroad.

A world apart

Yet for many of the original generation of "JNU-ites," as they are known, the direction of the college is a story of loss, as well as potential gain. The school alumni are tightly knit, something like a family. They reverently recall midnight debates, progressive ideals, and a climate of camaraderie in which background and ethnicity didn't matter. Students from feudal backgrounds who never saw women and men hold hands - or who grew up touching the feet of teachers - found themselves liberated and broadened by a casual environment that included brilliant professors who wrote textbooks, told jokes, and shared coffee.

"For me, JNU made all the difference. It changed my life," says Digvijay Singh, the Indian minister for railways since last summer's train tragedy in West Bengal. "I come from a family of maharajahs in Bihar. My life was about tennis, hunting, sports, comfort. If I hadn't gone to JNU, that's what my life would have been, rather than public service and trying to give voice to those who don't have one."

"The atmosphere used to be the education," says Renuka Chidambaram, a top civil servant in the textiles ministry. "Being at JNU was an end in itself. We didn't care about food service, we cared about Cuba. We fought like hell in debates, but when we met outside in the tea houses, we were all still friends. I don't think it's like that anymore."

A new societal mirror

Students on campus agree. Times have changed. Debates are still intense, and the faculty largely reflect a liberal humanist bent. But the student body and its politics are fragmented - as in the larger Indian polity. Admission to the college is now seen as a ticket to a lucrative civil service job, not an exploration of new worlds. Many students are disenchanted with their leaders, whom they accuse of insincerely parroting the rhetoric of India's national political parties, rather than developing their own politics.

"The radical left does not live in reality. They can only talk about mass revolution and taking up arms," says student Atish Ghosh, part of the small Free Thinkers Party. "The right is narrow, pro-Hindu, and, in campus lingo, lumpens, who aren't interested in serious issues abroad."

Reflecting on JNU's direction, some faculty point, ironically, to sweeping social justice laws by the government of India in the early 1990s. Known as the Mandel Commission, the laws required an overnight change in quotas - giving lower caste Indians large new allotments of job preferences. This created a backlash among the upper castes, fueled anti-left politics, and put the left in a defensive position it has yet to recover from.

For example, in 1998, a Marxist student leader was accused of beating a campus worker. Yet because the student was a Marxist and a Dalit, or untouchable, no action was taken against him.

"The faculty thought it was politically incorrect to [suspend] him," says Pushpesh Pant, a professor of international relations. "So they did nothing. Appeasing minorities in this way has led to a malaise on the left, and a rise of new politics."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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