The cessation of the present Senate’s term, coupled with the indefinite delay in elections, has propelled Panjab University’s democratic structure in a state of jeopardy. Meanwhile, the varsity’s Syndicate has also been rendered powerless by the Vice-Chancellor. One of the only two educational institutes in India to have an elected executive body, Panjab University has witnessed a flare-up of protests across its vacant halls– which has subsequently poured out even on the roads outside the UT Secretariat.
While the students’ protests have more than often stirred the university, the year of the pandemic has brought the student bodies, syndicate members, senators, teachers as well as the alumni in a unison to form a singular front, the ‘Joint Students Action Committee’. The committee comprises of all students bodies except the ABVP– youth wing of the BJP.
The committee has levelled severe allegations on the V-C Professor Raj Kumar, accusing him of being a “puppet in the hands of RSS-BJP, attempting to destroy the fundamental structure of the university by ending its democratic process.”
President of Punjab Youth Congress and an alumni of the university, Brinder Dhillon, while speaking to The Indian Express alleged that “when we protested and went to talk to the V-C, he told us that he will pursue the matter with the authorities. The situation at the university has never been so grim. There is an absolute lack of intellectualism since the V-C is just a rubber stamp playing into the hands of his BJP masters.”
Why have protests erupted across PU’s executive bodies?
While several issues currently pester the democratic bodies running show at the varsity, one of the major reasons for a unity in protests has been the undeclared but probable dissolution of the Senate- the elected managing body of Panjab University.
The elections for the Senate- which were usually completed by September end once in every four years and were supposed to be held this year were postponed by the Vice-Chancellor for two months on August 15- citing the pandemic regulations. He then postponed the elections for the executive body for a second time– indefinitely.
The university as well as the UT Administration has since recorded continuous protests against the decision of not holding the elections.
Even as the students protests outside the UT Secretariat on November 11 had led to the UT Advisor stating on record that the V-C may approach the DC Chandigarh for permissions for the elections, no such step has been taken by the V-C yet.
The V-C, who had initially cited Covid-19 norms as a reason for the delay in elections, has now stated a lack of funds as the cause behind the delay.
Which other bodies at the varsity are protesting and why?
Members of the Syndicate, the prime governing body of PU– that has been awaiting a meeting since July, with its term set to end on December 31– have been protesting and demanding that the Syndicate meeting be held immediately.
The indefinite delay in Senate elections have raised apprehensions regarding the dissolution of the Syndicate body too, after the current Syndicate’s term ends this year. The members have been striving to have a say in the university’s affairs- as the constitution of the university states, but have not been able to attract the V-C’s attention.
The syndics have alleged that the V-C has been passing all orders without any approval from the Syndicate, citing “decision in anticipation of approval of Syndicate.”
The V-C enjoys the power to take orders without prior approval as per the Panjab University Act, 1947, which says, “Whenever there is an urgency, the Vice-Chancellor may take such action as he deems necessary and report the matter at the next meeting of the Syndicate for approval.” He can also only delay the meetings supposed to be held each month under ‘extra ordinary’ circumstances. The meetings can also be convened by the members of the syndicate reads the Act. “Meetings shall be convened by the Registrar as directed by the Vice-Chancellor or as decided by the Syndicate,” it states.
But in the absence of any Syndicate meetings, the talk of approval on matters is yet to begin. The syndics have pointed out that the V-C is only just a member of the body and enjoys no supreme powers. They have alleged that the V-C, taking advantage of the rule, has elected his favourites at several crucial offices including the controller’s office at the university.
A high-pitched war of words had ensued between the syndics and the V-C twice, after members of the syndicate, hoping to converge a meeting– not officially called by the PU Registrar or Vice-Chancellor—had reached the premises of the university and found all the venues and halls at the varsity locked.
The exchange of words had made no headway, leading to the syndics writing to the varsity’s Chancellor and Vice-President of India, Venkaiah Naidu, requesting intervention.
Punjab University Teachers’ Association too has been protesting for months- demanding that CAS interviews for teachers be conducted. The teachers’ body has now launched an indefinite protest outside the V-C’s camp office till their demands are met. The continuous protest has now entered day 16.
More than 70 teachers of the varsity await their Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) interview, which were earlier scheduled for March and April, but with the outbreak of Covid-19, several of them could neither be held on the scheduled dates nor be rescheduled. A schedule for the interviews to be held in November and December was announced by the V-C after several protests by PUTA, but eventually, no interviews were held.
The association had then declared that they will hold sit-in protests at the university each day till the screening is actually conducted as “no verbal or written assurances by V-C can be relied upon.”
PUTA also questioned the V-C’s intent as these interviews can easily be held online. The members of the teachers’ body questioned the holding of “several 100s of webinars in same university using the same infrastructure, but denying the teachers their rights.”
The teachers’ body has since been holding protests each day, finding new ways to express dissent through ‘rebellious rangolis’, ‘Jaago’ processions, songs of revolution and satirical self-composed poems.
In a letter written to the V-C this week, the association also protested against the residential extension provided to the varsity’s former CMO till 65 years of age, calling it “illegal and out of turn.” The body has demanded a repeal of the order by Monday and issued a statement saying that “otherwise PUTA will be compelled to take appropriate action”.
The student bodies of the university have been highlighting several matters during their protests, especially highlighting the apathy shown by the university towards the students studying at the varsity and those seeking admission amid the pandemic. The students have also been throwing light on the digital divide that the current system has generated.
Matters of reopening of hostels and libraries for research scholars, concession in fees for students facing financial hardship during the pandemic and the issue of the release of fellowships are being taken up by the joint student body committee.
The university has witnessed several peaceful protests, with one of the first joint protests being a candle march observed on November 20 against the absence of the varsity’s democratic structure. The protest march saw the participation of alumni, student bodies and faculties. The united front also agitated outside the premises of the Office of UT Advisor Manoj Parida at the UT Secretariat, meeting ad urging him to grant permission for the elections to be held, with a parallel protest demonstration being staged by several senators outside the V-C Office at the university premises.
The demand for the senate body elections has aggravated agitations across sections of the university. All bodies have written to Chancellor Naidu, but a reply in the matter is yet to be received.
What is the importance of the Senate and Syndicate at a university?
Professor of Political Science at Calcutta University- which too has a functional Senate, Dean Academics Samir Kumar Das insists that even though flawed, the Senate and Syndicate body are a must to remain. “I strongly believe that doing away with the larger legislative body- the Senate and the cabinet body, the Syndicate is not a good idea. Doing away will mean centralisation of powers in the hands of one man, making the university part of an autonomous regime.”
Pointing out the logic and rationale behind the appointment of a V-C at a university, he says, “The vice-chancellors are appointed for providing an academic leadership. They hold responsibility to turn the university tide towards excelled studies and cannot and must not be burdened with the day-to-day tasks that though crucial, are to be taken care of by the executive bodies.”
Das suggests that radical reforms are required in the election of Senate bodies, but he stresses that the executive bodies must remain functional.
What the future may look like at Panjab University?
With apprehensions regarding the university being robbed of its governing bodies beginning January and the New Education Policy (NEP) in play, talks about the constitution of a Board of Governors (BOG) have been doing rounds in the university.
Dr Ronki Ram, senator and professor at Panjab University, says that there is no way that the V-C may function as a lone wolf, without any governing body or council. “As for the matter of a BOG, the NEP is only a policy and not a law. It is a broad guideline and needs to be accepted by the states and the institutions. Even if a new system comes into place, who is to say the old one is to do away with?”
About the uniqueness of Panjab University, he says, “The university is neither central nor falls under a particular state. The university is an inter-state body and unlike any other. One must not live in suppositions and hypotheticals in this matter.”
He insists, the current system must continue in void of a comprehensive outline for implementation of any new structure. “We have our own legal domains and must stand by them at least till a new framework is implemented. Senate elections have been deferred citing the pandemic and must be undertaken as soon as case load goes down,” he says.
History of the university
Originally set up in 1882 in Lahore–the university was re-established in Chandigarh in 1947, after the Independence and the subsequent Partition. While a ‘Punjab University’ remains functional in Lahore, the university set up in Chandigarh was named ‘Panjab University’ to avoid confusion.
The university had remained the sole property of Punjab government until the 1966 partition of Punjab, following which it was turned into an inter-state body, informs senator Rubindar Nath. “While the Governor of Punjab used to be the Chancellor of Panjab University earlier, it was after 1966, that the Vice-President of India was given the charge of the university,” he says.
Currently, the university receives funds from both the Centre as well as the Punjab government. While four universities of India had a senate body earlier on, including Madras University, Bombay University, Calcutta University and Punjab University, only the last two still remains.