Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has always had a special place in Indian academic life, even though, at 50, it is a relatively young varsity. Set up in 1969, the year the Congress party split and Indira Gandhi criticized the “Syndicate", which was preventing her from making radical reforms she insisted India needed, JNU symbolized India’s national aspirations of that time. Its influence grew as the country took a sharp leftward turn, with banks being nationalized, privy purses getting abolished, trade in foodgrain being centralized, and the private sector being increasingly viewed with suspicion. JNU may not have been responsible for these policies, but its academics were in broad sympathy with that era’s leftward orientation, and their thinking was in sync with how the Indian establishment thought and the way the country was being governed. Over the years, senior bureaucrats, lawyers, academics, politicians, journalists and scholars have studied there, and its campus has always been politically charged.

There are other venerable universities across India, and yet it’s JNU that evokes passions. If students and citizens across the country have been outraged over the brutal attacks on its campus over the weekend, it is not because they necessarily agree with the politics of JNU’s students, but because they are horrified that those who think differently and express their opposition peacefully can be treated so mercilessly, and with what looks like impunity.

The intellectual strength of the JNU campus is formidable, and it is what it is not because of its buildings and academic facilities, but because of the quality of its faculty and students, as is the case with any great university. Its being in Delhi, of course, gives it disproportionate influence, just as the perception of its significance has infuriated many who consider themselves rightist, even if they may not have studied there and know of it only through puerile epithets, like “tukde tukde gang". Many of the university’s critics disagree with the so-called Nehruvian consensus—of socialist economics, secular politics and a non-aligned foreign policy—and seem to believe that JNU is the source of those ideas.

Attacking JNU is an old parlour game among its critics, but it used to be of a gentler variety: in the 1980s, politician Subramanian Swamy was to call it “Kremlin-on-the-Jamuna", which sounded witty and cool, except that JNU hardly wielded the political power that Kremlin did in the former Soviet Union. Then in the 1990s, Arun Shourie wrote Eminent Historians, in which he argued that leftist historians had distorted Indian history, singling out, among others, Romila Thapar and Satish Chandra, both of whom taught at JNU, for what he described as their “slavish mentality". Sustained criticism solidified the impression that JNU academics were influenced by “alien" ideologies (such as Marxism) and indoctrinating young minds. The campus became a target in India’s cultural wars.

As Sunday’s savage attack on its campus shows, these are no longer metaphorical wars, but have bloody consequences. The fact that a group of some 50 people could take over the premises for several hours as they roamed around, armed with hockey sticks, cricket bats and iron rods, and beat up dozens of students and teachers, many of them requiring hospital care, showed not only dereliction of duty on the part of those who were meant to protect them, but also possible complicity, as alleged by JNU’s students union. The attackers did not appear to fear the law.

The sustained vilification of the campus has risen sharply since 2016, when campus protests made student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid nationally known. They were accused of raising “anti-national" slogans. Doctored videos were shown on some television networks, and some student leaders were arrested. They were described as the “tukde tukde gang", based on the unproven claim that they had raised, or participated in raising, slogans calling for the dismemberment of India. These rumours spread rapidly and widely on the internet, and nearly four years later, despite there being no direct evidence to implicate the student leaders, the slur appears to have stuck.

To be sure, even if some people raised such slogans on the campus, regardless of whether they were JNU students, there is a larger question: is the unity and integrity of India so fragile that the country cannot withstand such slogans?

The consequences have wounded JNU’s campus. The anger of the lumpen elements that attacked the students shows their deep-rooted resentment of a distinguished academic institution that has given us some of our brightest scholars.

Indians, Amartya Sen said, are argumentative—confronting JNU is fine, but this requires ideas and thoughts, not stones and lathis. The campus’ opponents know only one way to argue: with sticks and stones. A creative way to contest JNU would be to set up a world class university offering an alternative vision. But that requires vision and wisdom, which may prove beyond the capacity of its critics. And so a bunch of goons hide their faces behind masks, get street lights turned off, and terrorize those they cannot debate with.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi