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An Earth scientist, Talat Ahmad assumed office as vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia in May 2014. Ahmad is an alumnus of AMU, JNU, Leicester University and Cambridge University. He served as vice-chancellor of University of Kashmir for three years before taking charge at Jamia. With the Centre questioning the minority status of AMU, there have been concerns about Jamia’s fate too. Ahmad’s invitation to Narendra Modi for Jamia’s January 19 convocation had triggered a strong reaction from alumni. The PM eventually did not come for the convocation.
APURVA: You have said that Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia attract different sets of students. What could be the reasons for that?
I don’t understand. After joining Jamia Millia Islamia (May 2014), when I had my first meeting with the deans, I told them that when I see the education sector in Delhi from outside — from any part of India or abroad — the first two universities that come to a person’s mind are JNU and DU. Why is it that Jamia is not even considered? It is an old university. Why have JNU and DU become famous and not Jamia? I told them (the deans) that we need to do something about it. Fortunately, we now have students applying from Yale and Cambridge. See, unless you make the application process easy for the students, they won’t reach out.
APURVA: After the 2008 Batla House encounter, Jamia was in the news for the wrong reasons. Many politicians made statements about Jamia. Do you think that affected its image?
Even when I was a student at JNU in the 1980s, I did not really consider Jamia… Jamia has not been able to attract students since the beginning because the university was not projected in the right manner. There was nothing on the Web, no information… Maybe the university was content with having students from Delhi and nearby areas, and everybody got admission. But it is a national university and should have people from all over the country and abroad. In two to three years time, we will have them.
APURVA: Right at the beginning of the JNU agitation in February, many Jamia students were seen supporting students of JNU.
The protests were not on our campus. But students and teachers of Jamia are free to go anywhere. We cannot restrict them. If the entire country is participating in an agitation, you cannot block Jamia. They (students and teachers) go if they have to go and express themselves. It is natural.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Why is the minority status so important to Jamia?
I would say that I have inherited this. There are some important factors about Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University in terms of our character, that our mandate is to try and educate people who have not been doing so well earlier, particularly the minorities, and the Constitution allows you to do that. Even if there is a minority institution, it is still open for everybody. There will be 50 per cent reservation for (minority) students, but that too is through competition and not for everybody. Last year, we had 1.5 lakh applicants for 6,000 seats.
We also need to examine the social structure of our country. Why these people (minorities), particularly the Muslims, have not risen, why have they not been encouraged to pursue their education. Some form of special help is needed to encourage them to be like the others, we need to teach them and bring them on a par with the others. St Stephen’s and Khalsa College (both Delhi University) too are minority institutions and there is a provision for such institutions in the Constitution.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Does the presence of a BJP government at the Centre affect a university like Jamia Millia Islamia in any way?
At present, I don’t see see anything happening. Since I have joined the university, the budget we have received is much better in comparison to other institutions. I haven’t had any problems with the ministries.
RITIKA CHOPRA: Do you agree with the Centre’s decision to withdraw its appeal filed against the Allahabad High Court judgment, which held that Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is not a minority institution? Jamia too is established through a Central Act.
There is something called the Minority Commission, which was put in place by Parliament. The commission was authorised to access the cases (documents of universities) and decide whether they fulfill the criteria to be a minority institution. And we got this (The National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions declared Jamia a religious minority institution in 2011). This was through the commission and it has Parliament’s endorsement.
The (AMU) case is now sub-judice; I don’t want to say much, but there is some problem. In AMU, there was some problem with the documentation etc. Jamia submitted all relevant documents and got the (minority) status. See, Parliament needs to take a stand on whether this commission should be scrapped or not, and if they do, then it is not only Jamia that needs to be considered, but all minority institutions of Christians, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, everybody. I am not sure if Parliament will take such a stand.
AJAY SHANKAR: You have studied at JNU. What do you make of the recent controversy?
I have spent a long time at JNU. Even when we were students, there were several activities going on. There were also incidents when the university would be shut for a few days… But this time (the February 9 incident) things got complicated because the administration allowed police to come in. JNU has a proctorial system which has the capability of handling situations. Such demonstrations have been going on in JNU for long, it is part of JNU’s culture. If they (students) don’t accept something, they demonstrate and this is all right.
NAVEED IQBAL: When Indian universities are asked why they don’t feature in QS World University Rankings (an annual publication of university rankings by Quacquarelli Symonds), one of the points raised is that even though there is a lot of research work happening, none of it is uploaded on the website, something QS looks for.
I agree with that, because unless you put all the information on the Web, nobody will take notice. Since the time I have joined Jamia, we have updated our website and put out all the information. But when it comes to international rankings, a lot has to be considered. They (ranking organisations) ask about the number of foreign teachers on campus. But we have so many of our own people and we are unable to give jobs to them, how can we bring somebody from outside?
Universities abroad are getting the best students and teachers from everywhere. If we want to do that, we will need a lot of funds. So foreign students, foreign teachers… for all these criteria, we will get a lower rank compared to universities in the West. But we are trying.
RAKESH SINHA: What do you think about the idea of hoisting the national flag on campuses?
Many universities have already been doing this. I don’t see anything wrong in hoisting the national flag. In many other countries, offices, institutions etc put up the national flag. So I don’t think there is any problem in that. The only difficulty is when I read in the newspaper that the flag must be of a certain height etc. We have not received any information on that.
NAVEED IQBAL: Recently, a lot of academics in Delhi came together and said that these are the most politically polarising times in our history since Independence. Do you agree?
Maybe. But many of the things that are happening now also happened when we were students. When we were students there was the JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) movement (1974-75). It was a very strong movement. It was against the government of that time (Indira Gandhi government). These things happen in a democracy and it is part of the evolution process of the system.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: There was a controversy over Prime Minister Narendra Modi being invited for the convocation ceremony at your university. Can you take us through what happened ?
There was no controversy. Some of our alumni who are in the media put out stories about the PM’s comments on the 2008 incident (the Batla House encounter). But I look at it from the other angle. There is a big difference between 2008 and 2015. Modiji was CM of Gujarat then and now he is the Prime Minister. We have had President Pranab Mukherjee too (for the 2014 convocation). At that time they said Congress wale ko bula liya (you invited a Congress person). But we called him because he is the President.
After the President, the other important person that I can call is the Prime Minister. And I felt that it is a good idea to have the Prime Minister if he agrees to come. But because of some alumni, some teachers and students… They should have talked to me rather than putting out everything in the newspaper.
It was unfortunate and I hope that in the future, people will take the right path. He (PM) could not come because of some time constraints, the event was clashing with his trip abroad. That is alright. Things happen, there is a controversy and then it dies down.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Will you call him again next year?
I will definitely call him. But we have to follow a procedure and send a request again. Most probably I will call him.
SEEMA CHISHTI: When will you allow student union elections in the university and why aren’t they allowed now?
There are many things that I inherited when I came to Jamia, and for now, there is a stay on student elections. Unless the court allows us, we cannot hold elections. The matter is sub-judice. I will be the happiest person if student elections are held. I would be happy to do it as soon as we get some sort of recommendation from the court.
RITIKA CHOPRA: You mentioned about the efforts being made by Jamia to draw faculty from universities abroad. Is there a sense of the standards of teaching dipping?
We have no dearth of good teachers in the country. The youngsters particularly are very well-trained. They are also very hardworking. But you need to make the system competitive. There are now possibilities and openings for our own children who are abroad and want to come back. Also, when these teachers come from abroad, there will be competition with the local teachers. They (local teachers) will feel that if they don’t do well, these other teachers will take their position. Many of our institutions produce high-class PhDs who can be very good teachers provided they get jobs. There are lots of highly talented unemployed children. But where are the openings? There are many factors at play, but that doesn’t mean people from abroad should not come. If the education system of the country has to expand, then we require these people to come.
APURVA: Many PhD students find it very hard to get data for research, they are forced to file RTIs. Shouldn’t there be a system in place to access data for research?
Yes, there should be a system. Data should be freely available, that is, secondary data. The competition in the field of science is immense. If you want to do high-end research and get published internationally, you need to have access to good facilities. For this, we need to have a system in place for students to have access to machines and training. This is being done at a very small scale now.
We as a country need to very seriously think about it (providing research facilities to our students), the way China has done it. Earlier, there were a lot of Chinese students going to the UK. But now most of the British students head to China, because they have all the facilities. You see their (Chinese) publications everywhere. They have spent money on building good facilities and resources. We need to do that.
APURVA: If money is the big problem, will private universities be able to bridge the gap?
With all due respect to private universities, some of them may be sincere in academics, but many of them are just doing business. Why would they spend so much money? It has to be the government or the system as a whole needs to evolve in the country. Industries should have centres in universities so that students get trained.
ARANYA SHANKAR: There is a perception that students are somewhat restricted in Jamia. For the girls’ hostels, there was a recent circular banning night-outs.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of wrong information about Jamia. The 8’o clock deadline (for the girls’ hostel) has been there for a long time. Night-outs were allowed, but the students needed to get permission from their local guardians. This was being misused.
So we made it clear that if anybody has any reason to be out, like when one is doing research or is busy in the lab or has to go to the library, they should just inform the warden and go.
When I was teaching in Delhi University, I had a lab of my own. All my students would rush out after 7.30 pm saying it would get difficult (to get entry into their hostels) after that. So why should Jamia be singled out? Only in JNU there is no time restriction as it is a very secure campus. Have you seen the girls’ hostels in DU?
NAVEED IQBAL: When you joined Jamia, you enacted some administrative reforms. You said professors were not able to teach because they held administrative posts. You said nobody will hold administrative posts for more than two years. Has that paid off?
Yes. If a teacher is holding one post for 10 years, when will he teach? He (the teacher) is a highly specialised person and the benefit of his knowledge should go to the students first. You can put anybody who is capable to run the proctorial department. I also ensured that others got a chance (to hold administrative posts). Now they all feel they are part of the system.
APURVA: You spoke of students coming together during the JP movement. Do you see something similar happening now?
Maybe. Everywhere there is some sort of movement taking shape. It could be for many reasons… rising aspirations of the people, students, things they expected and didn’t get; and at the same time many political changes are taking place. Don’t ask me to explain why, but everybody knows. There is a possibility of some sort of change coming.
SHEELA BHATT: Is there a sense of alienation among students now?
I don’t think so. I don’t think that students of Jamia feel alienated because whatever we got from the previous government, we are getting under the current government too. We are one of the best-funded universities in the country. Given the size of the university, the number of teachers and students, we are doing well. So there is no discrimination.
SHEELA BHATT: Is there a conscious effort on your part to stay away from politics?
Even when I was a student in JNU, which was a politically charged campus, I was content being in the labs. That’s how I am even today. I try to avoid controversies, but at the same time I do whatever is needed to help the university and the students.