In times when the nation treats the public universities as liabilities, we should be crystal clear in demarcating: what is a university and what it is not? A university is not a factory that processes raw materials and brings out finished products. It cannot be reduced into a laboratory that conducts experiments to come up with the desired result. It is also not an outlet for industries that offers trained graduates as employees. Away from the relations of production and consumption, away from consumerist tendencies – it is a space that allows us the freedom to question the ideas that bind our freedom and gives us the liberty to choose our freedom. It nourishes our intellect and sets us free. Books are one way of knowing a university, but not the only way. Research is one way of understanding the dimensions of a university, but a university should not be reduced into a library. The university that nurtures the art of thinking allows the teachers and the students the liberty to question the politics behind knowledge. Any university that falls into the trap of prioritising books over curiosities and quests – is a university in decay. Such institutions fail to acknowledge that knowledge is neither absolute nor static. We compile knowledge, and we analyse them. Our creative zeal, or reliance on reason and logic, makes us question, revisit, and revise this knowledge. At best, a university can be explained with the metaphor of the endless space, where nothing but infinity is the goal.
As opposed to these values, if we treat a university as a factory, we end up measuring the utility of knowledge in a specific space or time. The above image of a university can be juxtaposed with the products manufactured in an industrial outlet, which has its value until the consumer demands and loses its utility when the needs are satisfied.
Can a university be treated as an outlet that shapes the psyche of the nation and has, therefore, a limited role? Or should it be seen as a space that encourages curiosities leading to infinite possibilities?
The goals of a university are realised when thoughts are diverse, when ideas are nurtured not tampered, and when all differing views are offered spaces for dialogue. The fruits of a university cannot be judged by how well the placement cell functions to secure employment for the students, and how certain industrial outlets perceive the students in terms of their utility. It has to be judged by the promotion of free-spirited enquiries. As opposed to this, if the nation starts treating its universities as liabilities, it begins to set limits to the human mind. It draws borders without realising the harms that could suffocate its citizens.
Diversity flourishes when thinking be it of any kind is offered a possibility of dialogue. It blooms when ideas are allowed the liberty to be examined and evaluated. Unfortunately, when we approach a university with technocratic ideas, we suffocate these infinities. When we constrain the university with bureaucratic rules, we start disciplining the human mind. It goes against the very ideas of a social contract, the very principles of realisation of the individual and the collective self. Individuals cannot and should not be allowed to suffocate because, by doing so, we set limits to the organic evolution of the human mind.
In this context, a fitting example is Jawaharlal Nehru University. We do not know what went into the making of this great university. Efforts that shaped it would have been many. From the experiences that we have garnered, we can conclude that this university prioritised the nourishment of human intellect over everything. From classrooms to libraries, from the walls to canteens, from hostels to dhabas – every space gave us ideas that drove us towards infinite quests. These spaces had a profound impact on how we perceive values, situations, and issues. This university was not known for preaching uniformity. It trained us in the art of questioning the assumed ‘universals’.
Of the many fascinations that we have for this university, apart from classrooms, libraries, hostels, and canteens – are the walls. One cannot prioritise one over the other neither can one use numbers to rank them in order of utility. We, the students of JNU are not driven by technocratic ideas. JNU trained us in the art of reasoning; it nurtured our logic and taught us the temperament that promoted rationality. This, therefore, makes us assert that the spaces that drove us the most – were the walls. Looking at the walls in JNU, one could say that it had existed since ages. It is, so intrinsically woven into the reason-driven world of this university, so fittingly carved into the barren spaces turned meaningful.
Walls left barren will merely be a standing structure with bricks, sand, stones, and cement. Quite opposed to this, the walls of this university, like many other spaces, such as classrooms, hostels, dhabas, canteens, and open-air theatres – were conversational. But the technocratic ideas with which our university is being governed would make us believe that students defaced these walls, and they ruined this public property. Were these walls defaced? Does it require a swachhata abhiyaan (cleanliness drive) to clean these spaces?
Students in JNU were creative enough not to do so. They decorated the walls with diverse ideas and made the walls converse – cartoons, graffiti, images, quotes, poems, and stories with many meanings decorated these walls. When left barren, these walls preach monologue. Quite opposed to this – these meaningful walls led to dialogues. Walls in JNU beamed with ideas. It was layered with several colours of intellectual thoughts. It taught us the dynamics of caste, class, gender, religion, race, and all other forms of regional disparities and inequalities that pervades the world. It made us think that an issue of public importance could be perceived differently by different student bodies. These walls served as mirrors to our intellect, it nourished ideological conflicts and made us converse, as well as, debate.
While the notion of ‘cleanliness’ can be a tool for erasing a social ill, it cannot be a way of engaging with a university. If we pervade these walls with the notions of ‘cleanliness’, it would mean that we are setting limits to human intellect. It would also convey that walls would no longer make the students, curious, eager, and converse.
The creative engagement of the students with the walls meant that students wanted to break free from the limits. It was an announcement that we as thinking community wanted to converse. These walls spoke.
Like the infinite quests of the human intellect, the walls were a reflection of these quests. It was a signature to demonstrate that even the sky is not the limit. We hope that in times when countries are trying to mark their presence in unexplored spaces; when missions are sent to outer space, in these times – an assault on walls – would be an assault on our reason. We hope that in times to come, when reason would prevail over the bureaucratic norms, when technocrats would get tired of their technocratic ideas and when a university would not be treated as a factory – we would see more meaningful engagement with the walls. Till then, let us think about the infinite quests that a university stands for, and the many songs we can collectively sing.
Raj Kumar Thakur, Junior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.