Going beyond Pedigree
“Oh, Jihadi Naxal University?” I was taken aback by the first-hand experience. At that time, Jawaharlal Nehru University was in the news for all the wrong reasons and was being defiled by many. But never anticipated such a reception when I was an invitee for an international conference outside the capital. The reaction was the same when I exchanged my visiting card with another senior organizer. Seething in discomfit, when I met the third person in the conference, I introduced myself: “I am from JNU, some also call it the Jihadi Naxal University.” Stunned by my answer, he asked, “What do you do there?” When I explained that I teach Israeli politics, my interlocutor was surprised: “How could you teach Israel in JNU … impossible?” Not to offend my converser, I softly said, “Everyone and everything is not cut in the same cloth …”
This conversation took me back by three decades. My English teacher Elango Sir, as we fondly called, often lamented: “Yes, Yes you can also find some our students in Thorappadi jail.” It was in the early 1980s, and the venue was Voorhees College in Vellore. In those days it was one of the premier Men’s college in the area, and the reference was to the jail at the outskirts of the district headquarters.
Elango Sir was expressing his frustration at the regular and almost ritualistic reference to India’s second President Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan being an alumnus of the Voorhees College. No official event—big or small—could start with a customary reference to this pedigree. For want of better ideas, guests would ad nauseam repeat this in their bid exhort the students to perform better. We often count and compare how many Radhakrishnans in an event. It was immaterial if Shri Radhakrishnan was ever proud of his association!
Not known for conventional views on anything, Elango Sir was reminding that if one takes pride of laurels and pedigrees, then one should also be prepared to share the blames and follies. His favourite rhyme would be, “If you are responsible for Radhakrishnan, you are also responsible for those in the jails.” We never shy of taking credit for good ones but quick to run away from the bad apples.
Same is true for Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has formed the bulk of my life, personality, and my freewheeling character. I knew nothing outside JNU and very little even within this.
Since the elections, JNU is back in the news after inclusion of Nirmala Sitharaman as Finance Minister and former Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar as External Affairs Minister. Some went to the extent of hoping that these two key ministers should remove the tukde-tukde gang (breaking up India) tag associated with it for some time.
Stereotyping is always misleading, dangerous, and false. Misleading because it presents a skewed picture of a complex reality and dangerous because people tend to believe what was widely disseminated without questioning the depiction. Generalizations always tend to be false.
However, there is another bigger problem. We never question positive and favourite stereotyping; Members of an ethnic, religious, or linguistic group being smart, hardworking, intelligent, industrious, mobile, etc., are a badge of honour. Both in private and often in public, we do not think twice in accepting accolades and compliments. Same is not valid for negative stereotyping; when we are told that as a group, we are lazy, inefficient, unorganized, unprofessional, or worse unethical, we all take offense. Social media has become an effective, often irresponsible, forum for many to vent out our anger over perceived insults and ‘treatments’ outside our zones of comfort and in foreign lands. Even a slight look, remark, or comment is enough to vilify the whole society, people or nation as racist and xenophobic.
Same applies to the stereotyping of all institutions. Even if one accepts the good-and-bad binaries, they are never made by institutions, but by individuals who are part of it. Individuals make institutions and vice-versa without either of them having any exclusive monopoly or control.
At the same, negative publicity is not always bad. Sometimes it enables us to take stock of ourselves, our priorities, progress, and make us more accountable to ourselves. Are we generate cutting edge knowledge in our chosen domain? Are our academic progress rests on contributions to our chosen field of expertise? Is our political affiliation and connection determine our academic trajectories? Are administration positions more attractive than slogging in the ill-lite libraries and dirty bookshelves? Is committee membership more lucrative than authorship? Or how often we are googled?
Credits and blames never rests on pedigrees. If we don’t take undue credit over our affinity, we can also escape from the guilt by association. Put it simply, Mahatma Gandhi’s lineage never assures another Mahatma and Godse’s another Godse either.
(The author is a professor at J.N.U.)