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The Art of Campus Protest

Photographs by Sreedeep
Text by Atul Mishra

At the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi, politics has always had this ‘in your face’ quality. Apart from the ‘line’ that student groups – radical left, centre-left, socialist or rightist – push, it is the art that stares at you from its walls which leaves an immediate and deep impress.

As the intent of the posters is to communicate political messages, they in effect provide a check list of themes that animate students at any given time.

Given the traditional dominance of the left and progressive politics, resistance to ‘neo-liberalism’ has been a constant theme over the past three decades – from the time of Deng, Reagan and Thatcher, all the way down to the advent of ‘Manmohanomics’ and now ‘Modinomics’.

Scholars and student activists at the university campus have resisted this ideology through their writings, protest marches and through art. In fact, intensely political and delightfully subversive art has been a most effective medium of contesting the growing de-politicisation of India’s public – political and social – spheres. Art has also bee used to challenge the idea that that lack of governance – not the absence of justice – is the malaise that the country suffers from, which can  be rooted out only by running the country like a corporation, for corporations.

JNU campus poster 3

Many of the posters in this gallery highlight and critique the negative impact of neo-liberal policies across India: the rising cost and privatisation of higher education, the existence of crony capitalism, the media’s unquestioning deference to the political establishment,among others. One poster shows the prime minister wearing a crown and walking triumphantly, a white train attached to his shirt at the back, bearing the logos of various TV news channels. Hidden behind the billowing white train are instances of violence and arson – ‘white-washing’, according to the concerned student group, major human rights abuses with which his name has been associated.

JNU poster 12

JNU poster 11

Other posters depict the ever-widening gap between rich and poor; the impact of the neo-liberal model of development on the human and natural environments; and regressive social practices that continue to stigmatise the lower castes, the ‘untouchables’ and women, often at the cost of their lives.

JNU campus poster 6

An example of an anti-left poster.

Apart from the sea of progressive posters, there are some by non-Left student groups as well. One of their pet themes over the years has been the failure of communist ideology and the crimes of various socialist regimes. In terms of polemical impact, however, they tend to lack the sharpness of their leftist rivals.

JNU campus poster 2

Among international issues covered by these posters, the exploits of the American ‘empire’ is the dominant theme. These posters imaginatively use the text of revolutionary poetry of well-known figures such as Bertolt Brecht or less known ones like Gorakh Pandey with images. Statements made by public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky are also used as a vital base for messaging. In all the posters, the satire is relentless, the mood unceasingly hopeful and the message uncompromisingly political, namely that social forces are the agents of political change and this is only form of change that really matters to us moderns.JNU campus poster 8

JNU campus poster 7The influence of various artistic traditions can be glimpsed in the posters.For instance, the socialist realism of Soviet Russia is hard to miss.  Many posters, in order to give more depth and dimensions to their subjects, experiment with what appears to be a variant of Cubism The ones experimenting with  cartoons are fewer and less impressive. All this may suggest a mid-20th century idea of political art but it is substantive nevertheless.

The posters have a larger purpose of socialising students into becoming progressive political actors as well. They complement the efforts of the student political groups to enrol new recruits by expressing the nature of their politics: the more radical the ideology, the more subversive and bold the posters. The political posters are one of the key elements of JNU’s cultural milieu and they seem to suggest that art divorced from political intent is useless.

As expected, the posters generate mixed feelings among viewers.Visitors from the West are often amazed at the intensity of campus politics conveyed through them. Over the years, many speakers at JNU conferences have begun their speeches by mentioning how struck they were by the posters. Some have been appreciative, others have been amazed that the posters  are tolerated by the authorities. Still others have wondered if they are not just rhetorical flourishes defacing the walls of a prestigious public institution. Such reactions notwithstanding, the posters at the JNU campus continue to do what they are expected to do: make students politically conscious and so confront the Indian iteration of the global ‘anti-politics machine’, namely the neo-liberal model of development, thereby keeping alive the legacy of an idea of India that brought this modern nation into being.

Atul Mishra and Sreedep hold doctoral degrees from JNU. Mishra is a political scientist based in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.  Sreedeep is a Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University

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