September 20 is the birthday of Chandrashekhar, the young leftist leader who was killed in Siwan in 1997. He was a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the president of its students’union. We organise an annual memorial lecture in his name at Patna . This year, we decided to invite a professor from his university to deliver the lecture. She said a cautious yes, as she was not sure if she would be given leave. For the past three years, teachers of JNU have seen their leave applications rejected, not only for popular lectures like the one above but also for seminars organised by their professional bodies or peers. But we insisted that she should try. We wrote her a formal invitation letter.
Before my colleague could submit my letter with her application for leave to the authorities, she herself was sent one by them. It was a chargesheet. She was one of the 48 teachers who were asked to explain why action should not be taken against them for having participated in a protest last year at the administrative block. The chargesheet has been framed under Rule 14 of the Central Civil Services (Classification, Control, and Appeal) Rules 1965 and invokes sections of the CCS (Conduct) Rules 1964. Failing to explain their “crime” to the satisfaction of the authorities can invite penal action.
We knew then that her application for leave would not be accepted. She is one of the foremost scholars of her field internationally, a respected public voice and a much-loved teacher. But in the eyes of the authorities of the JNU she is merely an “employee” they can discipline with rules. Teachers had always thought that they were not government employees. Vice Chancellors also knew that they do appoint teachers but they are not their subordinates. Teachers are regarded as minds which function best when not constrained. So, a good vice chancellor aspires to be accepted by the teaching community as their academic leader. The duty of a good leader at an academic institution is to create an atmosphere of collegiality.
Things have been changing in the last five years, more so in JNU an university envied by its counterparts in India for its informality, openness and freedom. The two universities at the two corners of Delhi had contrasting styles. The teachers at the JNU had more freedom in designing their courses. The students had a more democratic relationship with their gurus, one Delhi University students could never imagine. To be at the JNU was a matter of joy.
But the JNU teachers have not been agitators like the Delhi university teachers. Its academic council meeting never made news like the one in DU. Similarly, JNU students’ politics was not done by flaunting muscle and money power as in DU. JNU students loved endless debating. So, a Kanhaiya with no organisational base — someone who did no deliver speeches in English — could win the hearts of the students by his oration and become their president. Like Chandrashekhar. The walls of JNU will tell you that politics here is more poetry.
If you ask the people who have served as the vice-chancellors of JNU,they would talk fondly about the cordiality they felt as bosses. It was an honour to be accepted as by the community of people which included scholars such as Bipan Chandra, Romila Thapar, Namvar Singh or Tanika Sarkar. But the current administration in the JNU treats the teachers as its “employees”. The invocation of the civil services rules to discipline them is the latest in the list of its atrocities. To tell a teacher that she cannot air her views freely, cannot write or speak publicly without the permission of the “competent authorities” is to take away from them not only their rights but also their fundamental duty.
In democracies, people take decisions. But they do not have the intellectual wherewithal to examine the claims of the “powers” which seek their consent to rule them. Academics with their long engagement with knowledge have the tools to test the political and policy promises offered to people. They must share it with the public to help them take informed decisions. So, they need freedom, not for their own sake but for the good of the society. Academic freedom is slightly more than the freedom of expression. It is a basic necessity without which the business of knowledge cannot be conducted. All democracies therefore resist the temptation of controlling the campus. Peers decide and not the state bodies. All democracies therefore resist the temptation of controlling the campus. Peers decide and not the state bodies. When Romila Thapar refused the Padma honour, it was this principle she wanted people to understand: Recognition by peers and not the state is what a teacher aspires all her life. A teacher who is found in government bodies but not sought by her peers is a sorry figure.
We have been lucky to get a replacement for the lecture. But the damage done to the life at JNU, if it goes unchallenged, could affect affect university life elsewhere in the country. Indian campuses might resemble the campuses of the Stalinist era and academics would function as government spokespersons.
There is more happening at the JNU which should attract public scrutiny. Creation of management, engineering and medical schools to marginalise the humanities and social sciences, the automation and vulgarisation of the admission process and the taking away of powers of the faculty in the appointment of new faculty and violating the principles of seniority is destroying the unique character of the university.
After the classes, it is the chambers of their lawyers and courts that the JNU teachers have become familiar with. The most recent ruling of the High Court of Delhi asking the JNU authorities to appoint the head of the Centre of Linguistics from within the centre itself and overturning its decision to appoint a person from another centre as its head is only one of the numerous instances as proof of the destruction of the time tested processes of the JNU.
It is beyond the capability of the faculty and students of the JNU to save it from an administration which is at war with it. It is the duty of the society, not only its alumni, who are in powerful positions to speak out but also those who have never been to it, for the very existence of spaces like JNU have helped us in thinking about possibilities which can become realities. Collapse of the JNU is like lungs of the body of the nation collapsing. Allowing it to happen is a crime, a suicide or turning ourselves into a nation of zombies.
This article first appeared in today’s print edition with the headline: Killing JNU. The writer teaches Hindi in Delhi University.