Jawaharlal Nehru University Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar speaks to The Indian Express on the deadlock between students and the administration, violence on campus and whether he will take a lenient view on students who have been barred from registering for the new session.
Going by your profile that we published recently, there appears to be two kinds of Prof Kumar – Prof IIT Kumar and Prof JNU Kumar. There appears to be the difference between teacher Prof Kumar and administrator Prof Kumar
In both positions, I am very compassionate towards my students and I do everything possible so that my students grow professionally. So there is no difference between both the Kumars.
JNU has a tradition of long discussions and debates, but it appears that Prof Kumar stands against a big chunk of students who are anti-establishment?
Certainly not. When you say a big chunk of students, I think about the big chunk of more than 8000 students who are struggling to write their end-semester examinations, who are struggling to register for the winter semester examinations because they are prevented by a small cross-section of students who have been agitating in spite of the fact that the JNU administration has remained very very flexible and considered every suggestion and feedback that has come. I believe that the largest component of our university – be it teachers or the students – they are looking forward to see this university to grow as one of the best universities of the world. And I am with them.
But, the impression remains that you are not giving due weightage to students who are agitating or anti-establishment not only about the campus but also against the government of the day. So, you end up coming out as pro-establishment…
See, we have engaged with agitating students at different levels. It starts right at the wardens’ level in the Hostel sector, the provosts, the dean of students, the rectors and then all of us have also met many of these student leaders and we have tried to explain the reason why some of these hostel charges have to be enhanced. So, if anyone is saying that we are not engaging with students in a dialogue, the fact show otherwise.
But, what if these students want longer deliberations (on the Hostel fee issue), say, two semesters, why not discuss it a bit longer?
We have given time for them to discuss for six semesters. Because the issue of Hostel charge enhancement, it was first started in 2016. The first committee to look into all aspects of the hostel expenditure was formed in 2016. And at various levels, within the hostel sector, several discussions took place. It was in September 2019, the first draft was put up on the JNU website inviting suggestions from the students. And it was there for nearly three or four weeks. Then only it was brought to the (Inter-Hall Administration) IHA committee meeting. And that committee consists of 18 Hostel presidents, 18 wardens, the associate deans and the dean of students. So, it is a very transparent and open process. And it is in tune with the JNU ethos of open discussion and debate. So, I fail to see why people say that it was suddenly brought up. Absolutely not.
But the issue has gone beyond and different student groups have reacted differently. However, the impression is that JNU VC acts differently with different student groups.
For me, all the students are equal. All the faculty members are equal. As an administrator, I do not differentiate students and teachers into camps. Yes, I will definitely stand with the students who want to contribute to the academic growth of the University. And I would definitely not welcome if any students want to indulge in any activity which will affect the academic activity of the university. I am very very happy that the largest number of students are on the side of improving and on the side of looking into the future of the university.
You are framing the issue between those who want to participate in academic activity and those disrupting it. But, in a social science campus issues will also be framed along the Left and Right. There is appears, you are ignoring that frame and in this frame you appear coming out against the Left groups
I always believed that agitating or going on a dharna on some issue is a fundamental right of any of our students. In fact, we have assigned a specific spot in the university where any such dharnas or protests can be held. All the time I have been telling that, you can not trample upon the fundamental right of the other students. And the other students would like to continue their academic studies. They want to excel in their programs. How can you close down the schools, how can you stop your own teachers from entering schools and the labs and lecture halls. I think, that is going beyond the civilised way of protesting. And that is what I have been telling my students that I will defend your right to protest but I can not defend your action of disrupting the life of other students.
From outside, one charge is that Prof Kumar is partisan. When your press statement came out, you emphasized the violence in Periyar Hostel, but the violence in Sabarmati Hostel was like a footnote. It appeared that Prof Kumar is conscious of the pain of one set of students not the other.
I have never used any hostel name in my media interactions. I always emphasised the hostel sectors where violence took place. Yes, first, the security guards might have gone to Periyar Hostel and then they might have moved to the other hostel. That was the sequence of events that happened. But, for us, if violence has taken place, if our students were injured in that, our heart goes out to them. I have always emphasised that violence is never the answer to find solution to our grievances. We need to sit across the table and find solutions.
But, the Vice-Chancellor hasn’t gone to meet his injured students
You see, when the students are injured, the first task is to make sure that the first help is provided to students. We immediately shifted them to AIIMS and then when they came back to hostels, our senior wardens, the dean of students ensured that medical help is provided from our medical centre. Whatever is the first task required, we have performed. And we are open to meeting the students. We will definitely meet them.
A gesture of any head of the household putting the hand on one’s shoulder is always comforting in such times.
That is what I have done. As a guardian of this University, I have spoken to the dean of student affairs, I spoke to the wardens to make sure that they remain with our injured students and every care is taken.
There appears a great deal of trust deficit between the Vice-Chancellor and a substantial chunk of students on the campus. What is the reason for this trust deficit?
See, the students have been agitating on the hostel charge increase. That is the only issue on which students have recently agitated. And we have been in discussion with them and we have tried to explain the fact that UGC has clearly told us that this expenditure – electricity charges , water charges and the salaries for contractual staff of the mess – it has to be met from the internal receipts of the University. UGC can not fund that expenditure. Therefore the only choice before us is either students pay or the UGC give us funds. And right from the beginning we have told students that if UGC gives, we have absolutely no problem you don’t have to pay. But, UGC said that it has to be paid from the internal receipts. Then we worked out what could be the possible expenditure. But, when the students said that this expenditure is too high, there are students from poor economical background, we need to take care of their interests, the executive council looked at all these suggestions and came out with 50 per cent concession to all the General students and 75 per cent concession to the BPL students. And also please look at the fact that nearly 80 per cent of our students get scholarship. This nominal increase and paying for your own services, they can easily meet through the scholarship that they are getting. The University also said that if there are any other student who can not pay this, we have Equal Opportunity Office (EOO) that can consider all such difficult case and we can try to help them. Even after explaining all this, the students started stopping the University from functioning. It is very very unfortunate. While you think that your demand is genuine, you are depriving that thousand other students from pursuing their academic goals. And that is where the protest has gone beyond the civilised way of conducting protests.
But, on the issue of recent episode of violence, you have been found wanting on the issue of providing safety and security. Don’t you think that the responsibility falls on you if there are masked outsiders beat up your students.
The first time any protesting students coming with masks for protests was on 3rd January when a group of students came completely masked to attack the data centre of the University. And when we revived the data centre, again on fourth January, another set of students came and tried to gain entry into the data centre and make the data centre dysfunctional. And on fifth we have a scene. That is why I was telling, if your protests is genuine and if it is for a just cause, what is the reason you want to hide your faces. From whom are you trying to escape? This is the question I have put to the protesting students. And also, you see, we are struggling to collect the CCTV data now for the fifth (January) incident because for several hours or data centre was dysfunctional because of he agitating students who tried to damage it. Now, why did they do it on third and fourth? Why did they try to bring down the servers? And then on fifth this incident happen, was there somehting that they were aware was going to happen? These are the matters before the inquiry committee formed by the police. It has to look into and establish the facts. But, the charge that we have not provided enough security is completely wrong. I was here in the office on fifth January right from 9:30 am. Around 4:30 we finished the faculty selection committee meeting. That is when I was told by the security that a group of students maybe around 100 or 120 they were violently moving from the school area towards the Hostel sector. We immediately sent our security guards there. Please understand that our security guards are ex-servicemen, they are highly trained and committed people. And when they assess the situation, around five o’clock they realise that the students were becoming aggressive and number of students were growing. That is when we decided to call the police. I myself called the Police Commissioner, called the DCP and ACP and the police station to bring the police and control the situation. So, if anybody says that we did not act on time or we delayed the action, I think that is completely wrong.
But, you asked them to standby outside that campus while the violence continued here….they were let in only when the violence was over.
Typically, what happens is that University is a free place. We don’t want police to be seen all around here. So, our practice has always been to ask the police to stay at the north gate and then tell them because there are civil dressed policemen also here and in their assessment if they feel the situation is going out of control we always tell the police to please come inside quickly and control the situation. That is what we told on that day.
You are saying that there were security personnel in plainclothes.
So, it was responsibility of them to assess the situation and call for more reinforcements?
You see, reinforcements were already there at the north gate. A large number of policemen came and there were police inside the university in civil dress and we have our own security people. What happens is that in case when situation goes out of hand, immediately our security guards and civil policemen, they inform the police and then they come. This is not the first time we have done. Throughout whenever there was unrest in the university, we always ask the police to wait at the north gate assess the situation and then come into the University. On one side, people say you did not call the police and criticise us. On the other side, when we call the police directly people criticize us saying why did you call the police. Say, on both sides, we become a punching bag. But, primary objective for us is to assess the situation and ensure that our students are not affected. We have done that to the best of our ability on that day.
There is clearly a situation, tension inside the campus, what are the confidence building measures (CBM) you have that will bring down the temperature and starts the academic activities.
You can walk around the campus today and you will not see any kind of tension because the classes have already started. More than 50 per cent of students have already registered in their winter semester and the administration has been very very flexible in facilitating the winter semester registration for the students. At different levels, we had meetings with wardens, meeting with students, meetings with the deans and chairpersons of schools. So, at different levels, meetings are going on. In fact, today at 12 noon, the provosts and all the wardens and dean of students had series of meetings about what steps need to be taken after the incident. Especially, the problem with the outsiders. We don;t want any illegal outsiders in the university, therefore we have requested the wardens with the help of inmates themselves to identify if there are any illegitimate outsiders so that action can be taken. So, we have enhanced the security, we have asked he police, even today, to be ready at the gate so that in case any possible law and order situation arises they are there to help us. So we have taken every possible step.
What about the agitating students? How do you get their confidence and get them back to their classes?
See, not just to the agitating students but to the entire student community, the JNU administration has demonstrated flexibility to go one step forward to facilitate every student to carry on with their academic program. But on the other hand, the protesting students and some of the teachers who are supporting these protesting students are unfortunately their stand had been very very rigid. On one side they say you bring conducive environment in the university but then they bring out calls for non-cooperation with the university and disrupt the research and classrooms activity. This kind of double talk is not good for the functioning of the university. What else can the JNU administration do beyond what it has already done. We have done whatever maximum is possible. It is now time for the agitating students to abandon their rigid stand and appreciate the efforts made by the JNU administration and let the thousand of students study and let them also come and become part of the forward march of this university.
But, you are also being very rigid. You have barred 300-400 students from registering on the ground of disciplinary action notices. As the guardian, you can give one time CBM and diffuse the situation back to academic activities
We don’t automatically debar students. We have a chief proctor’s office. And if any student has been found violating university’s rules, a first notice goes to student to come and explain and defend themselves. If they don’t turn up, a second notice goes. If they do not turn up second time also, a third notice goes. And as per the University’s chief proctor’s office rules, if they don’t turn up even after the third call that is when they are academically suspended. Because they need to cooperate with the chief proctor’s office, they need to explain their side of the story. Only then the inquiry can go forward. And it is because of the refusal of these students, who are not cooperating with the chief proctor’s office, temporarily they are academically suspended. But, if they come forward and give their version truth will come out. They are not letting it happen.
You can always exercise your discretionary powers and waive that off and start from a clean slate this semester. But, you are not exercising that option
The Vice-Chancellor has the discretionary power to waive off if any punishment is given or reduce the punishment given by the chief proctor. But, in the first place itself, if you are not coming and telling your own side, what are you afraid of? If there is nothing wrong what you have done, what is the hesitation in walking into chief proctor’s office and explain your stand. But, students are refusing to do that. I think, on one side, the students are so rigid but on the other side they say that JNU administration is rigid. We will be flexible. If you come and explain to the chief proctor’s office. If an offence is established, if a punishment is given by the chief proctor, we will definitely look at it with possibly in a lenient way. But, in the first place, they have to come and cooperate.
You are saying that, you are open to waive off penal actions from proctor’s office?
Yes. I can waive that off. I can reduce the punishment. There are several ways…
Would you do that?
We have done in the past. If a student makes an appeal…we have all the options open. But, then the students are so rigid. They remain rigid on one side and then they accuse the administration of saying we have academically suspended.
But, it was brokered at the MHRD meeting that the VC will take a lenient view…
We will. I have also said, let us forget our past. Let us look into the future. And according to the record of discussions with the MHRD, that the administration will be lenient. Leniency will come only when chief proctor gives certain quantum of punishment. Only at that time I can be lenient. You can not say that you stop the inquiries, close everything because there could be innocent students also and there could be students who have really committed acts that can be detrimental to the University. So, we first need to establish the facts and that is why the inquiry is being conducted. Students should cooperate in that.
But, what is the guarantee that if they participate, it will not be held against them for all subsequent academic activities in the campus.
Let the inquiry be over. Let the chief proctor recommend whatever he wants to recommend and after that we will take a lenient view.
But, you don’t plan to suspend the inquiry process
See, the inquiry process is the process of the University. That process has to go on. For example, the registration process of students. So, if someone has not completed the academic requirements of their last semester, I can not register them in the next semester. I can only provisionally register them. That is the process available to us. Similarly, as per our ordinances and regulations, inquiry has to be conducted and only when the punishment is given, as an appellate authority I can take a lenient vies.
The other issue is about the authorised representative of students here. There has been elections, but the Vice-Chancellor is not acknowledging legal representatives. Why? Despite students of all shades of opinion participated in and agreed to the results. Why not notify and accept them for a proper channel of communicating with students.
For any issue related to the Hostel sector, we have 18 hostels, we have 18 elected Hostel presidents. We have been in constant dialogue with Hostel presidents right from the warden level, dean of students and even the Vice-Chancellor has met them. But, as far as the Students Union is concerned, the entire thing is sub-judice. According to the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations, there has to be a grievance redressal committee. This looks at all the complaints that has been received and then also looks at the entire procedure used for elections and see whether it has been as per the LCR. Now, unfortunately, some of these student leaders went to the High Court questioning the very formation of the grievance redressal committee. Now, the high court has given the next date of hearing on the May 1, 2020. When you are questioning the very existence of the grievance redressal committee, which is supposed to notify you. Then it is very difficult. It will be contempt of court if this GRC announces them and notifies them as an official body. That is one issue. Even otherwise also, they can always come and meet us and if they have any suggestions and feedback, they can always give us as a representation and we will definitely consider them in statutory bodies such as academic council or the executive council and consider their feedback. I am a firm believer that we must listen to the students and we must take the feedback and suggestions from the students.
MHRD is inviting elected JNUSU leaders, why isn’t the Vice-Chancellor inviting them for discussion?
We have invited all the presidential candidates who stood for the students union elections. So, we are meeting the student leaders who have certain following.
But, MHRD has no hesitation in engaging with the JNUSU. Assuming even if they have not been constituted as per the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations, MHRD engaged with them. Why this stubbornness on the side of Prof Kumar?
We invited the president-elect of the JNUSU to my office. We had a discussion along with other representatives. So, where is the question that we have not invited.
Would you invite them again to break the logjam?
They are most welcome. If they wanted to come and meet, we never said no.
If the MHRD has to intervene and resolve a campus issue, it reflects very poorly on the Vice-Chancellor. Don’t you think that this is an indirect way of suggesting that JNU VC has not been up to the mark in handling the situation?
The MHRD and JNU administration are working together. Because, for both of us, the ultimate goal is to bring normalcy in the University and to make sure that the academic programs of the University is not hampered. So, we are working together.
But, MHRD stepping in could suggest you have not been up to the mark. Don’t you think you should resign?
You see, the demand for my resignation has come not only now but since 2016 when I was new. The first time, a small cross section of students and faculty confronted with the JNU administration was when we said that we have to adopt the UGC gazette to decide to how many research scholars a professor can guide in the University. This is not a new gazette notification. This was issued by UGC in 2009, but in this University they never bothered to adopt that. But, only in 2017 we adopted. Can you believe that in our University professors used to take 30-40 PhD students under one professor, while across the best Universities in the world, including IITs and IIScs, the average number of PhD students is only 3.5-4. When we adopted that there was a shutdown of the university, the admin building was occupied and there were public hearings within the university and they dismissed me from the University. You can see the kind of freedom of expression available on the campus. So, since then they have been saying that this Vice-Chancellor should resign and quit from his position. But, for what? What sin did I commit? This is what I would like to ask. Why are you trying to vilify me? Why are you trying to demonise me so much? All that we did during the last four years is keeping the future of this University on our mind.
This is always my stand that violence should not happen inside the campuses. If there is a law and order situation, we definitely need to provide safety and security. The police can only handle if there is a law and order situation. That has been my stand. But, at the drop of our hat we would not like to call the police into our campus.
You said, the severs were down fater vandalism on January 5, but students got mails from CIS that day…Where was the issue of damage to servers?
Our web server is different and the entire other communication networks are different. So that is why the website was working at that time.
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