Photo Essays | Society | South Asia

India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

Some see the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University as a “den of communists.” Others see vibrant student activism.

Vishal Arora
By Vishal Arora and the Delhi Photo Expedition for
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

Spread over more than 1,000 acres of land on the Aravalli hill range of Delhi, JNU has about 8,000 students, including foreign students from more than 40 countries. More than half of the students live in hostels inside the campus. It is known for leading faculties and research emphasis on liberal arts and applied sciences.

Credit: Amelia Andrews
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

The university is named after India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose vision for the university was: “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas, and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. If the university discharges their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people.”

Credit: Meagan Clark
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

JNU is known for intense political life on campus, where a wide range of issues – from feminism to the rights of minorities and aboriginal people to social and economic justice – are debated freely and fiercely.

Credit: Rajeev Frederick
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

Posters, laptops, and mattresses for sit-ins are found across the campus.

Credit: Atif Khan
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

The JNU campus is a microcosm of the Indian nation, drawing students from every nook and corner of the country and from every group and stratum of society, reflecting also India’s demographic diversity with students from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and other religious backgrounds.

Credit: Rukhsar Ansari
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

Posters by All India Students’ Association, or AISA, a left-wing student organization, and other groups can be found across the campus.

Credit: Rajeev Frederick
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

This poster speaks about Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad in southern India who committed suicide in January, allegedly due to discrimination he faced after he raised issues related to caste hierarchy in India. Activism on the JNU campus accelerated after Vemula’s death, leading to student leader Kumar’s arrest.

Credit: Atif Khan
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

This poster by the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) calls for the freedom of the disputed Indian-administered Kashmir. The Indian government views such demands as “anti-India” expressions.

Credit: Lozaan Khumbah
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

Demands for an investigation by a bipartisan group into the disappearance of student Najeeb Ahmad are currently dominating campus protests.

Credit: Amelia Andrews
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

One wonders if anyone in the government is listening to the question students are asking, “Where is Najeeb?”

Credit: Vishal Arora
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

An open veranda next to the stairs leading to the vice chancellor’s office has been named “Freedom Square” by the students, who gather here in large numbers to hold demonstrations.

Credit: Sanjukta Basu
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

There are many critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies on the campus. The arrest of Kumar was seen as a crackdown on dissent.

Credit: Vishal Arora
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

While JNU has largely been a left-leaning campus, right-wing student groups have also become active in recent years.

Credit: Sanjana Thomas
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

Symbols celebrating the LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex) community have repeatedly been vandalized by anonymous groups on the campus.

Credit: Sanjukta Basu
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

There are some students who do not want at least the doors of their hostel rooms to have posters raising social or political issues.

Credit: Lobsang Yangtso
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

The campus is not just about politics and protests. In 2012, JNU received a grade of 3.9 out of 4 by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.

Credit: Lozaan Khumbah
India’s Most ‘Notorious’ Campus

Despite the government’s crackdown, activism carries on at JNU. After all, more than 500 academics from around the world – including Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk, and Akeel Bilgrami – have expressed solidarity with the students who have been involved in protests as their right to freedom of expression.

Credit: Graham Thaovei Duomai

The typical sight of students, with bags strapped on their backs, walking around on a campus does not arouse a photographer’s interest. However, when students of a prestigious university are accused of being “anti-nationals” and of throwing thousands of used liquor bottles and condoms in garbage bins daily, nothing can stop photographers from sneaking in.

That’s what a group of photo enthusiasts at the Delhi Photo Expedition did after Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), whose alumni include India’s finest intellectuals and bureaucrats, made headlines in India.

The campus has been in the news, including in international media, since the arrest of the JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition for allegedly chanting “anti-India” slogans in February.

Some see the campus as a “den of communists” thanks to its politically charged atmosphere dominated by leftist student organizations. This perhaps reveals the backdrop against which one can see the ongoing clash between sections of the university students and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led federal government.

The news centers on a student who has been missing for more than 40 days after he had a tussle with a right-wing student organization linked to the BJP, a party which apparently views the whole culture of JNU as being “anti-national.”

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“Daily, 2,000 Indian and foreign liquor bottles … more than 10,000 pieces of cigarettes … 50,000 big and small pieces of bones are found – the meat these traitors chew,” a BJP lawmaker told media after the arrest of Kumar. “So are 3,000 used condoms – the misdeeds they commit with our sisters and daughters there,” he continued. “And 500 used abortion injections (are also found). Also found are 100 silver colored papers, which are used for drugs along with lots of useless garbage.”

With this interesting knowledge on their minds and cameras in their hands, the Delhi photographers toured the campus, pointing their lenses at everything that caught their fancy. But to their utter “disappointment,” they couldn’t spot a condom or a beer bottle, although what they did find was not any less interesting.