I read an editorial in The Indian Express titled ‘A self-goal’ (February 13), regarding the ongoing protests by students in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Since it seems to have misunderstood the reason for the protests, and then proceeded to characterise them in a rather unflattering fashion, let me explain, briefly, why students, and most teachers, are protesting the recent imposition of compulsory attendance on JNU students.
Most centres in JNU, and their faculty members, have ways of continuous assessment in the courses they teach. This could be in a variety of ways, which is left to the faculty member’s discretion, and can include class presentations, term papers, followed up by tutorial discussions, projects and research papers and mid-term and end-term examinations, amongst others. Since all of these are based on an understanding that students should be engaging with their readings and classroom teaching regularly, attendance is ensured. In order to produce rigorous research, students need to be free to go to libraries, archives or for field work once their course-work period is over. As JNU is mostly a post-graduate university, and the focus has always been on producing carefully-researched and well-argued theses, research scholars have been encouraged to work through a semester and then present their work at the end of each semester in their respective centres. In any case, most scholars are in continuous contact with their research supervisors who are kept abreast of their ongoing work.
This system, which has worked very well in the university, will be destroyed if research students are forced to come in daily and sign registers. Autonomy and freedom are the essence of a good education, and JNU has always retained its focus on creating serious scholars and not just docile subjects.
It is, therefore, completely shocking why a non-issue like attendance has been made into one by the JNU administration. The university has never had a problem in this regard, for the reasons explained above, and there has never been a problem of routine mass absenteeism. The students who are protesting this needless imposition of compulsory attendance are the same ones who are themselves requesting teachers to take classes, without attendance, outside the classroom. Those familiar with JNU’s classes and teaching ethos will know that students routinely credit and audit classes. Often, classrooms are overflowing as students take far more classes than stipulated — the university system has accommodated this by enabling what is known as an “add and drop” method for credit courses. This bureaucratic detail aside, students attend classes and take courses out of genuine intellectual interest. For many like me in the faculty, this is one of the biggest motivating factors for continuing to teach.
A student who is not coerced through a process of compulsory attendance, and attends classes out of her free will as a credit, and especially an “audit”, exemplifies a genuine interest in learning. Under the circumstances, it is shocking that the administration, instead of taking heed of what teachers and students are saying, is laying down conditions to dock students’ fellowships, deny them hostel facilities or threatening to block their registration. Suggesting this to any student is unprincipled, but to those from extremely poor and deprived backgrounds, a substantial number of JNU students, these conditions are unjust, petty and vindictive.
Let me also clarify here that several chairpersons, representing the concerns of the faculty of their centres, have written to the administration rejecting the recommendation for making attendance compulsory. Not only has this not been given credence, this administration, with its characteristic mendacity, has claimed that this was ratified by the Academic Council. Not only is this untrue, it is just another example of the manner in which ordinances, rules and procedures are being steadily overturned in JNU. Quoting UGC regulations as some unquestionable yardstick for universities in matters such as this is unimaginative and small-minded at the very least. Perhaps it may be more profitable all round if the UGC discusses this matter with faculty colleagues teaching in different post-graduate departments in the country; they may find, to their surprise, that this is a common practice in many social sciences and humanities departments all over the country.
Let me end by turning to another issue that The Indian Express editorial draws our attention to — this time appreciatively — that of the public inquiry against the vice-chancellor, M Jagadesh Kumar, initiated under the aegis of the JNU Teachers Association that ended with a resounding verdict by the eminent members of the jury that he should step down as he was found guilty on every charge that had been levelled against him. Be it the manipulation of faculty selections, flouting the Indian Constitution and its mandate for reservations, and the university’s own excellent policy of granting deprivation points to underprivileged students by cutting seats in different subjects in JNU, or summarily doing away with the university’s Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment, the jury found the present VC unfit to lead a premier university such as JNU.
The present policy of imposing compulsory attendance is merely symptomatic of a larger administrative malaise. The JNU community, that is, its students and teachers, reject the proposal for imposing compulsory attendance and demand that these be withdrawn with immediate effect. Only this will enable the university to get back to functioning with trust and normalcy.