In 2017, the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University had sought the help of two central ministers to have a tank installed on campus, ostensibly to strengthen the nationalist fibre of the student body. The ridiculous plan fizzled out. But in the east, another vice chancellor has succeeded in his slightly less ambitious quest for central armed police on his turf, the Visva-Bharati University in Tagore’s Santiniketan. In his letter to the HRD ministry in October, Bidyut Chakrabarty had sought the induction of the Central Industrial Security Force, while commending their “steadfastness and commitment to the nation”. Now, Visva-Bharati will be the first campus in India with a permanent police presence — in a polarised political climate, it may not be incidental that it is in an Opposition-ruled state. The university will pay the expenses, though in September, Chakrabarty had declined to pay arrears of the Seventh Pay Commission because it was in financial trouble.
That had sparked off unrest on campus. This year, there was also a confrontation over transfers, and a gherao by students following a 20 per cent hike in the cost of admission forms. But these are symptoms of administrative incapacity, and rather than a threat perception, amount to an admission that the vice chancellor’s office is isolated from the university. A vice chancellor who needs protection from his own staff and students cannot possibly serve the institution well, or iron out points of friction. The function of a university administration is to nurture an environment of learning, in which students and teachers can think freely and collaborate to create fresh knowledge. A university fails its mandate if it becomes a place where teaching is a top-down process and students must be kept in line.
The modern university is a Western construct, and one of its fundamental beliefs is that it must be self-regulating, and not under the law and order apparatus of the state. Traditionally, the forces of royalty and parliaments were consciously kept off campus, because academic thought cannot flourish if it must be constantly mindful of the politics of the day. While many campuses worldwide have their own police, answerable to the administration, regular police cannot enter except at the request of the vice chancellor. This could be countenanced only in extreme circumstances — in recent times, there was much debate in Greece about violent anarchist movements sheltering in campuses, for instance. However, differences of opinion in Santiniketan scarcely qualify. It only indicates administrative ineptitude, and the need for a review and rethink at the top.