Jamia Millia Islamia University (top) Monday awarded the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (Honoris Causa). The decision came under criticism, and included a petition to Vice-Chancellor Talat Ahmad, which was signed by close to 500 people, including students, professors and activists. They asked the university to reverse its decision, as Erdogan had “won a flawed and fraudulent plebiscite in order to crown himself the unchallenged dictator of Turkey…, stifled dissent, cracked down on the rights of working people, women and minorities…” Also, the petition alleged, he was “destroying universities and intellectual life, and poisoning them with Islamist politics”.
The President won a national referendum in mid-April that gives him unprecedented powers. Since a failed coup against him last year, his government has purged some 140,000 individuals from government and private sector jobs, and shut down 1,500 civil groups. It has targeted teachers, academics and public transport employees accused of having ties with US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Some 150 news outlets have been shut and at least 120 journalists jailed, according to The New York Times.
Jamia isn’t alone in honouring Erdogan. Nearly 40 universities have awarded him honorary degrees since 2004. These include Istanbul University, University of Aleppo, Moscow State University, Qatar University, Addis Ababa University, Pakistan’s Quaid-i Azam University and Recep Tayyip Erdogan University.
Universities the world over confer honorary doctorates to people they believe should be appreciated for their contributions to a particular field. Jamia has in the past awarded such degrees to the Dalai Lama, the former Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, actor Shah Rukh Khan, and the Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The King was honoured with a doctorate in 2006, the same year in which he donated $ 30 million to Jamia.
In 2000, Visva-Bharati, another central university, had honoured Bülent Ecevit, the Prime Minister of Turkey at the time, with the title of Desikottama, the university’s highest literary award. Ecevit has translated Rabindranath Tagore’s work into Turkish.
So, how does a central university like Jamia decide whom to honour with an honorary doctorate? Usually, the administration of a central university presents either before the Executive Council or the Academic Council the proposal to grant such degrees. Once either of the councils approves it, the procedure to award the degree is set in motion. Since the President of India is the Visitor of all central universities, any honorary doctorate needs the approval of Rashtrapati Bhawan.
This has created some confusion in the past. In 2009, Pratibha Patil refused to sign post facto approvals for honorary doctorates awarded by Jamia Millia Islamia over the previous years of her tenure. She challenged the validity of the doctorates awarded to actors Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah. The university had also awarded honorary degrees to art scholar Kapila Vatsyayan and academic Asghar Ali Engineer.
In 2012, just before Pranab Mukherjee was to take over as President, IIT Kharagpur wanted to award him an honorary doctorate. But by the time the proposal was sent to Rashtrapati Bhawan, Mukherjee had become President — and the Visitor. He declined the proposal, saying it would be inappropriate for him to accept it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year declined an honorary doctorate from Banaras Hindu University.