In Kafkaesque JNU, teachers & V-C at cross-purposes

JNU V-C M Jagadesh Kumar, has arrogated to himself the power to determine who is an expert in every field of study in the university, and to call only those he has named to be experts to Selection Committee meetings.

Written by Ayesha Kidwai | Updated: October 24, 2017 8:13:15 am
JNU, JNU Vice chancellor, kanhaiya Kumar, jawaharlal nehru University, kafka, JNu achievements, M. Jagadesh Kumar, BJP, BJp government For close to six decades, JNU has striven towards these goals, forever critiquing its own efforts, forever trying new and better ways to do so. (File photo)

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been in the eye of the storm since the BJP government rode to power with a big majority, for one reason or another. Student agitations, led by Kanhaiya Kumar and others is one aspect of all not being well with India’s premier university, but when teachers begin to challenge their own Vice-Chancellor on a sustained basis and come up with a brick wall, then the agitation strikes at the very root of the University’s foundations. After all, we are both supposed to be on the same side and want the best for our students.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case with JNU for several months now. Now, we believe, we need to take matters into our own hands and hold “public hearings” against the V-C on seven charges, which we believe violate the Jawaharlal Nehru University Act of 1966. The hearings will be held from October 23-27.

What makes JNU, JNU

So what is it that makes JNU, JNU ? The university is ranked among the top universities in the country and highly regarded the world over for its teaching and research. It is particularly lauded for its all-India character (its entrance examinations are conducted in 76 centres across the country), its commitment to social justice through its unique system of deprivation points given to ameliorate regional, economic and gender backwardness, along with adherence to all national reservation policies. But JNU’s greatest achievement is that has remained true to the objectives with which the university was set up, as reflected both in its Act of 1966, and the Parliamentary debates around it in 1965 and 1966.

At a time when universities are either seen by governments as glorified bootcamps or cafeterias, in which all that is to be produced and consumed is obedience, it is reassuring that neither Government nor Parliament saw JNU in this fashion at its inception. In the imagination of parliamentarians at the time, a space free of “partisan pressure which might stifle intellectual creativity” was to be created; a community of students and teachers, in “a continuing membership of minds devoted to the tasks of learning and of the good life, inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” (H N Mukherjee and P K Kumaran).

It was not to be a university “intended for children of the rich”, rather it would “get the most talented boys and girls from all over the country, however poor they may be” (M C Chagla); it would be “a residential university restricted to one thousand students of the highest calibre,” (G. Ramachandran). It would be the first research university, teaching all that is new and current, and inculcating in students “a world perspective” (M C Chagla). It’s teachers and Vice-Chancellors were to be men and women of the highest calibre in learning and research.

For close to six decades, JNU has striven towards these goals, forever critiquing its own efforts, forever trying new and better ways to do so. Some of these goals are intellectual, others social, but they have all required the same intensity of passionate engagement and democracy of decision-making. While acrimony and dissent is to be expected, it must be met with respect rather than repression. Decision-making must be consultative and democratic, and channeled through fora in which everyone must get their say. We believe that there isn’t much difference between doing original research and making an admission policy — if there are no unassailable authorities in the former, there can be none in the business of life.

JNU under Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar

While no Vice-Chancellor would ever have the arrogance to claim to have rendered exceptional service to the JNU Act, Prof. M. Jagadesh Kumar is an exception. In less than two years of being in office, he has managed to ensure that almost everything that JNU set out to be, and was, has been negated. Admissions to JNU’s M.Phil. and PhD research programmes have been cut by 83% from the previous year. Actual admissions are reported to be less than half of the 194 seats. From what data is available for the admissions, less than 100 seats have actually been filled.

None of these decisions about intake have been deliberated upon by the Academic Council, the only forum empowered by the JNU Act to do so. Far from adhering to the national reservation policy, which has been violated with impunity with confirmed admissions of only 3 Scheduled Caste, 2 Scheduled Tribess, and 13 OBC candidates for the 2017-18 admissions. The JNU system of awarding “deprivation” points – extra points given to candidates from remote parts of the country, as well as belonging to the lowest social strata — has been dispensed with entirely for research admissions.

A university’s academic reputation is substantially built by the teaching and research staff it recruits, as it is they who set the standards of research that students must aspire to. An impartial, rule-bound recruitment and promotion process is essential to ensure quality, and one which respects the parameters laid down by the funding agency, the University Grants Commission. Recruitment (and promotion) in JNU currently is not bound by any of these safeguards.

The JNU Vice-Chancellor has arrogated to himself the power (which the UGC or the JNU Act does not give him) to determine who is an expert in every field of study in the university, and to call only those he has named to be experts to Selection Committee meetings. In a Selection Committee for international economics, for example, political scientists have been considered to be experts, while dance practitioners appear on Selection Committees for music aesthetics.

Persons who have not even hear of the leading journals in a field are being allowed to reject candidates who have published in them. Any protest at these violations by ex-officio members in Selection Committees, such as heads of departments or Deans, is met with swift reprisal and disciplinary action.

Kafka would have loved to visit JNU today.

Teachers’ promotions have been held up for nearly two years. Instead of implementing the decisions of the Executive Council based on the relevant UGC Regulations on counting past service, the Vice-Chancellor has decided to revisit every aspect of their applications and to overturn every decision that had already been taken. In one case, a colleague is being harassed because her joining report was on a Monday, rather than a Sunday 13 years ago, when she returned from a post-doctoral stint in Harvard.

All norms that have ensured democracy of functioning have been ruthlessly abandoned. The appointments of Heads of departments and Deans of faculties no longer takes place by the principle of seniority by rotation. In the School of International Studies, the third seniormost Professor was designated Dean and in the School of Social Sciences, the sixth.

Far from living the good life of the mind and the pursuit of knowledge, JNU faculty and students yearn for the freedom to even think and the privacy to disagree. The JNU’s Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment has been abruptly wound up and replaced by a committee of VC-nominated faculty. The guarantee of due process has been permanently withdrawn, be it to an individual, a department or a whole school. While dissenting students and teachers are routinely penalised, certain others are let off very lightly, such as those who an administration-endorsed inquiry found guilty of assaulting Najeeb Ahmed before his disappearance.

About 25 wardens have been summarily told that their services are no longer required and they must vacate their quarters in six months to a year (the normal term is two years). Teachers’ grievances against those who preach animosity towards them for their religion/caste/ethnicity/beliefs lie unacknowledged and unaddressed. The relentless hostility of the surveillance apparatus in the university, the explosion of malafide inquiries, the signboards that mark out 100m perimeter periphery beyond which protest is disallowed, create an extremely hostile working and living environment for all constituents.

All these decisions that have brought about this desperate state of affairs in JNU have been either taken by the JNU Vice-Chancellor on his own, or with his approval. Because while totalitarianism of this sort is always banal, in Hannah Arendt’s conception, it is also “thought-defying”, and universities are places where thoughtfulness is cherished above all.

Ayesha Kidwai is a professor at JNU’s Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies and president of the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA). She tweets @ayesha_kidwai

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