By Lawrence Liang
In the last two weeks, we have seen a wholesale vilification of JNU by mainstream media which portrays the entire university as some kind of anti-national space. The alternative classroom is one way in which a university can respond in an adequate fashion. Universities are not like mass media. You don't have to rely on an Arnab Goswami shouting model, so the only way that you can actually respond is by opening out the debate in a public manner, in an open space that invites all members of the public to see how a debate is carried out.
People assume that these universities are breeding grounds for all kinds of seditious thinking. Everyone is free to come to these public classes and debates and the reason that they are called “What the nation really wants to know” is to demonstrate that complex issues cannot be reduced to sound bytes, they require a certain nuance and that's what universities provide. There has been an unfair question of the taxpayer’s money being wasted. All these classes are available on Youtube, so let people judge whether that is indeed the case.
The difference between an open classroom and a regular classroom is that it is bereft of the usual teacher-student power dynamic and you open yourself out potentially to sharp differences and hostile attacks. It also shows what a genuine debate may look like.
A few days before JNU I had taken a session in DU where half the people are anti-JNU. While many people probably disagreed with what we were saying, they asked difficult questions about JNU, but they did it in a manner that was extremely open and respectful. And I think my learning from this was that teachers always feed off the energy and enthusiasm of students, and teachers have to be respectful of the differences that students bring to conversations.
The kind of enthusiasm and spiritedness with which JNU students are holding on to their political beliefs is extremely humbling.
In my alternative class, I was critical of JNU’s insularity. It has a tendency to think of itself as some kind of an enclosed space. Now, the last two weeks have opened JNU out to the rest of the country, to the rest of the world. I was critical of the kind of language and political slogans that one hears in JNU. One admires the spirit, but not necessarily the form. I suggested that JNU students need to reflect a bit on ways in which they need reach out to the external world. And I was surprised, and I would say pleasantly so, to find a lot of students responding to that and saying yes, this is something that is troubling us as well. We need to recognise that JNU also has a 40-year history of a certain idea of radical politics. You come here and learn all these Ho Chi Min slogans and all of that. And of course, they are great in a way that they are what gives JNU a particular local flavour, they are important forms of mobilising students — these slogans, posters, protests.
But we also need to be able to adapt to a situation. At the moment given the kind of very anti-JNU sentiment that prevails among ordinary people, who have misconceptions about what is actually happening in JNU, you need to respond to that and you need to reach out. If there are aggressions or some kind of negativity in the neighbourhood, JNU students need to be going to the neighbourhood and talk to people. It is not enough to do narabazi within JNU or in a protest. They also need to engage with people with what is happening, and hopefully get them to see that far from the demonised space that it is being made out to be, spaces like JNU, HCU and FTII and other spaces of dissent are really what will strengthen the democratic ethos of India
As told to Rohini Chatterji
Watch Lawrence Liang's JNU alternative classroom here:
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2017 19:22 PM