What Jawaharlal Nehru University means to me

The author Annapurna Devi Pandey, third from right, with JNU students and others at the screening of her film, Road to Zuni,” at JNU in November last year.

It has been 34 years since I graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Many of my relatives, members of the Indian American community, among others, chide me for being a “rebel and a revolutionary,” a stereotype that most JNU students wear as a badge of honor. I am a proud JNUite and feel indebted to my alma mater for helping me become who I am today.

In November 2019, my friend and classmate Susan Viswanathan, a professor at JNU’s Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS) had invited me to show my film “Road to Zuni” at JNU. I was pretty excited to return to JNU and discuss the film with the always enthusiastic and inquisitive graduate students and faculty. 

Unfortunately the screening coincided with JNU students protest against a hefty fee hike and the ensuing conflict between the students’ union and the university establishment with arrests, campus closing and so on. Since the classes were cancelled and the buildings were locked, a film faculty member sneaked us into her department building. I had the most vigorous discussion after the screening. 

This is the real JNU — not the kind portrayed by the ruling government as a den of left wing disrupters — with its academic spirit still intact in spite of the chaos outside. This is what the founder of JNU envisaged to be.

JNU was inaugurated in 1969 as a tribute to India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was started as a research oriented postgraduate university, the first of its kind in India, reaching out to a diverse body of students and faculty from all over the country. 

Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, popularly known as GP, who served as a journalist and diplomat, was the first vice-chancellor of JNU. He wanted the research university to train the future leaders of India. Being close to the Nehru and Indira Gandhi, he had a worldview which was very Nehruvian. He wanted all-India representation at JNU and make higher education accessible to all sections of Indian society. 

For recruitment of the faculty, GP relied on traditional sources, but for students he followed the model of written exams coupled with interviews conducted by UPSC on an all India basis. In order to make the exam accessible to the students from all over the country and expose them to the capital of India, JNU invited selected students to the campus for a written exam. 

In the late 1970s, it was a thrill for me to get an invitation for the written exam. My train fare was covered and it was a great incentive for me to get out of my small world – comfortable, secure and over protected. I argued with my family to let me travel the long distance three days from Cuttack to Delhi on Utkal express covering half a dozen states (my very first time to the capital city).  

At the age 19, I had finished my final BA exams at Ravenshaw and was idling away my summer wondering whether I was getting married or going for higher education. My fate depended on a good marriage proposal suitable enough for my parents to give away their only daughter in marriage. I was the first generation girl to go to college in my family. University was not in my radar. But a senior in college encouraged me to apply to the sociology program at JNU.

My father was a very celebrated school teacher. But he knew nothing about JNU. My mother was barely literate and was a housewife. But she had a dream for her daughter which I came to know later in life. My parents trusted me and took a leap of faith to send me 1700 kilometers away for higher education. 

JNU was a transformative experience in my life. In retrospect, I realize if I had not gone to JNU my life would have taken a different turn. Later when I started teaching, so many young students, especially women, were enamored of going out of state, and with my support went on to study at JNU. Now, after 40 years, they tell me what a great impact my JNU experience made on them. 

In the Summer of 1977, reaching the sprawling JNU campus spread over more than 1,000 acres took me to a new world. I was scheduled to stay at Godavari, the first women’s hostel on the campus. I shared my room with a young woman from western UP who had come to study French. I realized that six-year language degree courses are offered at JNU. Six-year degree in languages is one of the flagship programs and integral to JNU curriculum. What a novel opportunity for young aspirants in the 1970s!

I was really nervous to start with. I did not even speak English before coming to JNU. I felt like a frog out of the well. Miraculously I passed the written test. Then the toughest part was the oral interview. I was so anxious and my stress hormones were very active. To my utter surprise, I got into the Master’s program at the center for the study of Social System (CSSS). The rest is history. 

I was struck by the quality of education and the diversity of my professors representing different perspectives. My professors were world class, being trained in leading departments of sociology around the country and abroad. I was also introduced to politics on the campus through student bodies like the left-wing Student Federation of India (SFI) and the liberal Free Thinkers. I made friends in both groups and these friendships turned out to be lifelong. 

JNU gave me the courage to think on my feet, helped me to respect my own identity and embrace the world. Even after several decades since I left JNU, I am drawn towards my alma mater. By going to JNU I acquired friendships all over the country and now all over the world. I have developed better appreciation of the diversity of perspectives, and at the same time treat each other with respect and dignity. That’s what a great university does, exposing to a wider spectrum of humanity. I sincerely hope JNU survives the political maelstrom and continues to open minds of Indian students to the world full of ideas and opportunities.

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Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz

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