IIMs and JNU

Some time back I received a link to a “point by point rebuttal” of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech. Not surprisingly, the rebuttal was being given by a person with IIT/ IIM background. I said “not surprisingly” because increasingly, I am finding some clear differences between the stances of people who belong to these two broad categories. Clearly there are variances within each group, but for the moment I am focusing on broad patterns. Also I am using both IIM and JNU in a symbolic sense. Not every JNU type necessarily belongs to JNU and not every IIM type necessarily belongs to an IIM. For example, before joining IIM Ahmedabad way back in 1970, I would describe myself as a JNU type though I had never been there. Let me elaborate.

After flirting with Engineering, I had made up my mind to pursue an academic career preferably in Philosophy. I was studying an unusual combination of Philosophy, psychology and Mathematics. Though I was reasonably good in academics, a large part of my time was spent in college canteen/ India Coffee house, pontificating about all kinds of issues. I was actively involved in student politics and had strong leftist leanings. Much later in life, I realised that these leftist leanings had very little to do with political ideology. They were more an expression of my “romantic idealism” and an innate “anti-establishment” streak. Thus while I revered people like George Fernandise and Madhu Limaye, the same reverence was not extended to Indira Gandhi in spite of the fact that she was fighting against a strong right-wing syndicate within the Congress party and had taken strong measures like bank nationalisation and abolishing of privy purses. Perhaps her being part of the “establishment” had much to do with it. Thus whatever she did was seen as political expediency, whereas whatever likes of Limaye did was seen as an act of commitment and conviction.

However, very soon I got disillusioned with the lack of substantiveness of University life,particularly in the philosophy department and made a compromise decision of joining IIM Ahmedabad. I call it a compromise decision because I had no emotive pull towards pursuing a career in Management. I wonder if any one pursues management education for the love of the subject. Generally speaking their choice is determined more by ambition and issues of  career-success  than emotional/intellectual fulfilment.

I soon discovered that both my romantic idealism as also my anti-establishment streak were not very compatible with the ethos of IIMA. I was surrounded by colleagues who  were very proper in their behaviour,took their studies seriously and had brilliant academic records. While they liked an occasional “Adda”, their primary focus was on their studies, getting good grades and bagging a prestigious job at the end of the course. Further, management as a discipline is much more comfortable with rational pragmatism and tangible empirical evidence than any philosophical enquiry which is based on a different set of beliefs and assumptions about human condition. After all, it will not be very comfortable if managers were to start questioning the primacy of constructs like “cost-benefit analysis” or “increasing market share” or “growth/profitability”etc. Thus “managers are not philosophers” is a statement that has been repeatedly thrown at me both during my IIM days and thereafter. Gradually, my romantic idealism began to wither away and I was in the complete grip of my “anti-establishment” streak. This got manifested in blatant disregard for systemic requirements, mindless arguments and actions of utter self-waste. My stay at IIMA was best captured by a friend in the course-end booklet-

” All night card-games in smoke filled rooms,vehement arguments with harassed instructors, old film songs, impeccable Hindi : that’s Mama. On those rare occasions when he has the time and the inclination he goes to class” ( Mama was my nick name at the Institute)

To cut a long story short, I was a misfit amongst the JNU types and I became a misfit amongst the IIM types. Perhaps there is some perverse romanticism about being a misfit OR may be non-polarisation of ambivalence is such an integral part of my identity that no matter where I am, I become a misfit.This ambivalence has surfaced with great force in the last couple of months while the difference between the JNU types and the IIM types has become very sharp in the social discourse/social media triggered by some recent developments.In this discourse, I hear two very distinct voices both of which leave me feeling ambivalent.

The first voice I hear is of the JNU types. The romantic/idealist in me resonates strongly with their emphasis on humanistic values of liberty, Equality and Fraternity. My anti-establishment streak is reinforced when they talk of all the injustice and oppression that we have inherited from our past and how it is all too prevalent in our present social order. On the other hand, I also start feeling a little uneasy with their emphasis on only the negatives be it of our heritage or of our present condition. It overwhelms me with feelings of guilt and shame as an Indian and particularly as an upper caste Hindu. I ask myself – is caste/gender based oppression the only thing that they see about us? Do they see nothing to celebrate in the Indian reality? While they keep harping on virtues of diversity and plurality, have they ever bothered to ask as to what are the inherent strengths of this civilisation ? If caste/gender based oppression was its only narrative then how could this diversity flourish?

The other thing which puts me off about the JNU types is what I experience as their  intellectual arrogance and the ease with which they dismiss any view point other than their own. The meanings that they give to words like Liberalism or Secularism or their narrative of Indian tradition and history can not be questioned. While they decry the Brahmincal Indian tradition, I wonder if they ever see as to how much of Intellectual Brahminism they display. They come across to me as very erudite people but leave me wondering about the depth of their assimilation of what they are talking about.

Another voice that I hear is of the IIM types. I strongly resonate with their rational pragmatism, with their refusal to be emotionally blackmailed by sentimentality, by their respect for structure/order and their pursuit of progress/development without upsetting the apple cart. My difficulty with them arises when they refuse to look beyond what seems like “common sense” to them -for example when they talk of “meritocracy” without getting into the nuances of “merit”. Listening to them I feel that there are no structural inequities in this world and all will be well provided  there is “law and order” and people did their work honestly and diligently. Needless to say, corrupt politicians /bureaucrats are their favourite punching bags . Perhaps they do not see much difference between running a company and managing a nation state and believe that all that it takes to set things right is  competent and honest leadership.

The other difficulty that I have with the IIM types is their arrogance of success. In their book, the ultimate test of any perspective is “success” which is invariably defined in tangible terms like GDP, FDI, Improvements in infra-structure etc. Any mention of intangibles like social disharmony, ambience of fear/intolerance, ecological insensitivity is either dismissed for “lack of evidence” or treated as minor aberrations or attributed to malevolence of people who want to detract us from our “development agenda”. Also in their world, people are clearly divided as “winners” and “losers” and needless to say, it is only “winners” who are regarded as worthy of listening to.

One of the main differences between the IIM types and the JNU types is the way they engage with the prevalent values and beliefs of their context. For the IIM types these values and beliefs are “common sense” and hence “self-evident”. They strive to play by the established rules and excel. Consequently they seek stability and thrive in it. On the other hand the JNU types believe that the rules themselves are flawed and need to be re-written. Hence they seek to disrupt and thrive in chaos. It is not easy (at least for me) to say as to who is right and who is wrong. I believe both are partly right and partly wrong.

What adds to the difficulty is the propensity of both groups to deploy the logic of “either-or” variety. Both groups seek to bifurcate on the basis of binaries like good-bad, right-wrong, true-false etc. It is another matter that what one group regards as “right”, the other sees it as “wrong”.  Both groups are very sure of themselves and there is very little space for “self-doubt”. Thus one can only agree or disagree with them- particularly when it comes to their basic beliefs and assumptions.The end result is that rather than complementing each other, they end up fighting each other.

It is hardly surprising that some one like me for who “doubt’ has been a constant companion, should feel a bit out of place amongst people who are so sure, so clear, and so certain, irrespective of what specific position that they take. Simultaneously,since I have strong identification (and equally strong reservations ) with both JNU types and IIM types, I try to co-hold them to the best of my ability. Indeed it creates some difficulties, several misunderstandings and considerable confusion. If there is one thing that I am clear about – it is the need to co-held them, or for that matter all such perspectives/phenomenon which seem contrary and mutually exclusive.

Do share your experience with binaries both in yourself and the world around you.








4 thoughts on “IIMs and JNU

  1. When I clicked on the “like”, I wished there was a “love” or perhaps a “resonate” button!
    Ashok, you have (yet again!) captured and presented a perspective that was hitherto unarticulated. I have often felt inadequate and at a loss when in a dialogue with either of the “types” and in feeling so, felt so caught by the shame of “so where do I belong” if neither here nor there!

    While it is comforting to know that I have company in this “no-man’s-land” where people on either side of the border are looking the other way, I am also left with a deep desire that somehow they would look at each other – and curiosity that what would make them look at each other… would they ever look at each other? I dread having to accept that they may never….

    As I read through your note, I was also reminded of a film on partition stories that I saw where the person who migrated at the time of partition said “I feel like a potted plant, you can keep me anywhere”

    I am left wondering what are the binaries that I hold? At a very superficial level of hobbies and interests it is motorcycle riding and poetry or pottery…. in terms of my relationship with the masculine and feminine how I have associated most of my masculine traits from my mother and the feminine from my father…. while these are the ones at the top of my mind, I am sure I will be with this question for a while!

    Many big hugs!

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  2. I agree with Bhavana. That I wish there was a like, love and resonate button. What I like about your writing is that it is very visual, it helps me imagine moments and spaces, it is evocative.

    A few thoughts:
    1). The space of neither here nor there, is a very familiar space for me, in many ways. I used to be an ardent opposer of sex work legalisation movements because I believed very strongly that prostitution is inherently degrading for a human being, and no amount of legal protection or non-stigmatisation can take away the degradation involved in commodification of one’s sexual organs or sexuality. It wasn’t until someone asked me to explore the gender and sexual dynamics in the domestic that I actually could understand what some of the sex workers and pro sex work ideologues were saying. While I still am not sure if legalisation of sex work will help in improve conditions of sex workers, mitigate stigma, fulfil their civil or political rights and combat sex trafficking, I am also less sure that an absolutionist position of ‘abolition (of prostitution)’ is simplistic and linear. There are many things I agree with, in both groups and many things I disagree with. The polarisation itself does not disturb me. What disturbs me is the deafness, of the two groups unwilling to listen, to introspect, to negotiate. I find myself in similar positions when engaging with debates between ‘protectionists’ and liberals amongst activists – and I suspect that while identity based politics and ideologies are very empowering for us at a certain stage of our lives or even in certain parts of discourse building, an unintended and inevitable consequence of it is that after a point of time, one gets caught in believing that one’s ideologies defines the self (and is the primary definition of oneself), defending one’s ideologies, or rather failure of one’s ideologies is a failure or defeat for the self and one becomes non reflexive about challenging one’s ideologies.

    2). I find myself repelled by action orientation that wants to act compulsively. In any dialogue with state or central committees in the social welfare departments, where i am a member, i find that there is no space for reflection, pontification – to explore options and solutions of problems which are deep, endemic, chronic and complex. Whether these committees are deliberating over how to understand and address the phenomenon of child migration and trafficking in children and adults, or whether it is about how to increase social security of rural children, these are mammoth problems that will require qualitative and quantitative information, and ethnographic studies, and require thinking through – and there is an impatience of finding solutions, answers and getting into actions, and ‘not waste time over fruitless discussions’. I find myself equally impatient amongst my academic-oriented friends and colleagues, who may deliberate over the same issues ad nauseum, and will find it very difficult to arrive at any actions, even if experimental, to check on solutions. While one part of me completely agrees with Kanhaiya that the current and past model of governance, whether by the Congress or the BJP, have been based on a structure that has protected and strengthened class inequalities, that has done nothing to equalise services between rural and the urban, where policies and laws have been made and are enforced putting the interests of power holders first, and over the interests of the polity. At another level, the lack of introspection in the Left, to revisit its Bible of ideologies, leaves me disappointed. Even if one were to accept their contention that the fault lay in operationalising and not the premises of its ideologies, it is hardly followed by any introspection on what one has to learn from that failure, as well.

    i wonder if this is the way how forces of nature work, There are the forces, and polarisations, or proponents and its dissent, eventually not very different from each other in its essence. And then there are the centrists, the moderates that may comprise of those in doubt, as well as those who do not have a pull towards either.

    While I had drawn my systems’ map in my internship, I had drawn a pair of scissors with a red blade and a blue blade, the red blade representing the change seekers and revolutionaries, and the blue blade representing the centrists and those who seek ‘progress’ without any disruption. I had placed myself in the red blade, probably at its head, and I experienced a strong distaste towards the blue, but even towards the pivot that holds the two blades and helps the scissors work. Today, I find myself probably more at peace in that pivot.

    With much love,


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    1. Dear Roop, You have raised some very significant issues and I would strongly urge you to develop them further-particulary the theme of relationship of identity with ideology. I believe that high defensiveness in issues of ideology is invariably linked with residual identity issues -particularly cultural identity. Will be happy to join you in this exploration if you wish to take it forward.


  3. Thank you for this Ashok.

    I deeply resonate with what you have written.

    For me though, I think I have tried so hard not to get caught with either because I honestly do believe in holding both, in many instances I feel like I have betrayed myself and possibly the other by not taking a stance. For me, as I have grown older, I feel like I have lacked the courage to agonise over a point of view.

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