In the battle for academic freedom

M.L. Sondhi’s career trajectory is instructive. The political party must move out of the campus.

Written by Vivekananda L. Sondhi | Updated: May 18, 2016 12:01:09 am
M.L. Sondhi (Source: mlsondhi.org website) M.L. Sondhi (Source: mlsondhi.org website)

We have been witnessing a struggle for the political high ground on issues emanating from campus incidents involving the Sangh Parivar and the Left parivar (plus Congress). In this charged atmosphere, it may be useful to go over a few incidents from the life of the one famous JNU academician associated with the BJP.

A serial topper in university exams, M.L. Sondhi had begun his doctoral studies in economics under V.K.R.V. Rao at the Delhi School of Economics in 1956 when he learnt he had come first in the civil services exam and also won the Rhodes scholarship. Opting for the IFS, from 1956 to 1961, Sondhi had stints in Czechoslovakia, the UN and MEA, during which short period he caught the attention of Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon. Dissatisfied with the direction of India’s foreign policy and seeking other ways to serve the nation, he resigned from the IFS.

In 1962, A. Appadorai, director of the Indian School for International Studies (ISIS), hired Sondhi on the understanding that the young scholar would help build expertise in East European studies. Sondhi also took a keen interest in politics and, in 1967, he successfully contested the Lok Sabha election from the New Delhi constituency, where Deen Dayal Upadhyaya helped him secure the Jana Sangh ticket.

In the 1971 election, Indira Gandhi’s slogan of “Garibi Hatao” worked its magic in Delhi and Sondhi returned full time to academia. By then, the ISIS had been absorbed into the newly formed JNU under Vice Chancellor G. Parthasarathi, a confidant of the Gandhi family but with little academic experience. On Nurul Hasan’s ministerial watch, educational institutions started the preferential hiring of Marxists. Given his membership of the Jana Sangh and his outspoken criticism of India’s foreign policy, Sondhi was steadily marginalised at JNU and faced institutional hostility from teachers, students and the administration. The promised centre for East European studies never materialised. On the first day of the Emergency, although Sondhi’s name was on Sanjay Gandhi’s hit list, he fortuitously escaped arrest. The politically pliant JNU administration threatened to sack him if he failed to join duty.

Harassment was routine: Sondhi was passed over for promotion, sometimes even overtaken by former students. When denied the deanship of the IR department in 1989, he issued a public statement: “I was blacklisted from the post because I happen to be a member of the BJP’s national executive… other colleagues of mine also have political affiliations… some are members of the CPI(M) or have strong communist sympathies. I will always support their freedom of political belief as I would expect them to respect mine.” Imtiaz Ahmed wrote to him sympathetically: “…teachers have been reduced to choosing between joining the communists and thereby surrendering their freedom of conviction and speech or remaining content to live on the periphery of university life”. Sondhi moved the courts and, faced with a case they were bound to lose, JNU sought an out-of-court settlement.

None of this came in the way of Sondhi helping to defuse conflict situations. In 1983, he led the teachers in demanding that the administration under Congress-appointed VC P.N. Srivastava revoke expulsion orders on socialist office-bearers of the JNUSU. An obdurate administration called in the police, students were lathi charged, the faculty’s and VC’s houses were damaged, and Section 144 imposed on the campus. Around 300 students were lodged in Tihar, facing charges under 17 counts. Sondhi and his wife, along with a lawyer, visited them to offer assistance.

In 1997, to condemn the murder in Bihar of CPI(ML) activist Chandrashekhar Prasad (ex-president of JNUSU), Sondhi organised a meeting at the IIC. In 1998, by then professor emeritus, Sondhi introduced VC Ashis Datta to Harsh Vardhan, Delhi’s health minister, who prevailed upon the BJP government to clear a super-speciality hospital at JNU. The Sheila Dikshit administration let the project fall through the cracks.

The Vajpayee government’s selection of Sondhi in 2000 as ICSSR chairperson was condemned by the Left as a “saffron” appointment. They raised an uproar when he named an online ICSSR portal after Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, co-founder of the

Jana Sangh and an outstanding scholar, a member of Nehru’s first cabinet, and the youngest VC of Calcutta University. Neither Sondhi’s nor Mukherjee’s scholarship sufficed for the Left. Ironically, Sangh appointees on the ICSSR council also attacked Sondhi, for backing a grant to a left-leaning JNU scholar. In pursuit of peace, he organised the first largescale seminar of Indian and Pakistani social scientists, for which he was sacked by the NDA government on made-up charges. The Supreme Court restored his honour.

These incidents show we have been here before, but at a cost to the nation. Political meddling by the Congress and communists contributed to the decline of many a great university; Marxist dominance led many talented academicians to leave for foreign shores or other professions. Recent university incidents have been cynically exploited with a focus on the electoral cycle. The SC asked for the implementation of the Lyngdoh commission report in 2006, explicitly calling for student elections and representatives to be dissociated from political parties. Ten years later, it would seem all actors in the Kanhaiya Kumar case are essentially in contempt of the court.

Speaking on the 150th anniversary of Madras University in 2006, then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had asked that universities be “…given functional autonomy to realise their full potential”. We can only plead with our political parties to move their battlegrounds out of campuses and give the next generation a chance.

The writer is M.L. Sondhi’s son and a trustee of the Professor M.L. Sondhi trust. He is an investment professional working in the UAE

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