ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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The Attempt to Murder at JNU - Not Just a Case of Individual Insanity

Divya Kannan(divya2423@gmail.com) is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Even in a campus like Jawaharlal Nehru University, where relative safety and liberal values are guaranteed, the society’s patriarchal notions about women and their standing have not been successfully overcome. The recent murderous attack on a young woman by a “jilted” classmate exemplifies this. 

The recent brutal attack on a girl student by her classmate has shocked the students, teachers and others among the community of people associated with the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. While the girl battles for her life, the campus, in mournful silence, has turned towards intense introspection. Yet, at this moment, there are scores of other voices attempting to belittle university spaces by reducing it to “lawless” and
promiscuous” zones that seem to be straight out of some film made by the Mumbai film industry. This is as disturbing as the violent attack and the circumstances surrounding it.

JNU has always been known, and rightfully so, for its relatively safe environment for students, particularly female students. What is not too well known is that this freedom was not granted as charity by any past administration in the university and has been the result of a long, arduous and continuing struggle by students and teachers of various political and social hues. Gender justice has been a major plank on which the university community, on many occasions, has come together and registered their protest at attempts to scuttle their democratic rights.

Many enrolled students as well as the alumni will vouch for the fact that JNU opens up a whole new world for them as they enter the campus. Not just for the “small town” girls and boys, but for everyone else as well. Students hailing from different socio-cultural backgrounds find themselves in a campus that allows them to interact freely with no rigid code of conduct looming over their heads. This process is certainly life-changing for young students who have been socialised through their adolescence into believing that the segregation of the sexes is a legitimate one. It is all the more difficult for young women who have been repeatedly told since childhood to “behave” in “appropriate” ways in the presence of men.

It is a myth, in an attempt to romanticise the institution, that the campus is immune to problems of all sorts. Such an opinion would be to completely miss the point. Contrary to popular perceptions, JNU is not an isolated island. However, it is a university that tries to engage with developments, both social and political, that occur within and outside its own confines. By keenly following and engaging in larger debates and discourses, the JNU community stands apart for its ability to work towards progressive and secular goals. It provides a possibility to meet various challenges effectively.  This certainly is an ideologically conflict ridden process, involving hours of debate and counter-debates. But never has it happened that a place which provides a reasonably strong support system would be witness to a gruesome incident such as this one. Perhaps, this is why the murderous attack on the girl student has come as a great shock to the student community. 

Education for whom and for what?

Most importantly, this incident has raised two pertinent issues. It throws up questions regarding the condition of women and the state of education in our country. In a highly patriarchal society like ours, women continue to be treated as mere objects and any woman who refuses the advances of a man is doubly vulnerable to emotional and physical violence. This is only one amongst the many planks on which caste, class and patriarchy unite to oppress millions of women and curb their fundamental rights. It largely explains why the 22 year old man thought it possible to pick up an axe and assault a woman who apparently “rejected” him. What is it about the idea of rejection that he was unable to digest? Was it her ability to make her own choice? Or that he felt his “manliness” had been hurt?

Either way, such notions of “masculinity” have only convoluted our understanding of gender relations. While it is only natural to express one’s feelings for another, it is also natural to be rejected and refused. But the inability to accept this and using it as a justification to deprive somebody else of their freedom and dignity marks our society with immense violence.  Besides, if a university such as JNU that generally takes pride in its provision of equal and democratic spaces for men and women was unable to prevent such an atrocity, it also speaks volumes about the larger problems plaguing our system.

Education in a university is not merely restricted to academic, but takes place in myriad forms. It is not simply about formal class room learning. With spaces beyond the classroom acting as grounds for learning and unlearning, it indeed becomes a challenge to be able to impart basic human and social values. Our system of education, both at the school and college level has time and again failed to contribute towards this breaking down of societal biases and prejudices. By emphasising on merit and accomplishment alone, it has in its own vicious ways perpetuated them, creating rats of children and young students in the race for privileged positions. Moreover, in the realm of gender relations, it has done little to oppose the commodification of women, and instead, instituted new forms of patriarchal control.

In short, the actions of a jilted lover cannot be reduced to personal insanity alone. It stems from some deep rooted prejudice that if a man is unable to “own” the woman he desires, then she deserves a wretched existence, and must not “belong” to anybody else. This idea of “owning” and “possessing” a woman aggravates the already existing tensions in contemporary society’s gender relations. Women are judged by a kaleidoscope of labels, ranging from “timid” to “well-behaved” to “ultra-feminist” and “family wrecking” and male notions of their individual selves is measured by how much they can “control” the woman. In this regard, JNU is not immune because even in the university, democratisation and safeguarding of women’s rights is an on-going struggle. It requires the solidarity of not just women, but men as well.

As a society, unless we are able to impart basic lessons of empathy, respect and kindness, the lives of people particularly that of women will continue to be marred by repeated violence and oppression. No amount of university degree for the sake of one shall be able to change it.

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