One can only sympathise with the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University when she denies the originality of her ideas to defend herself. When attacked for thoughts expressed during a lecture on BR Ambedkar and gender on August 22, she said in exasperation, “I am only a professor, not an original thinker.”

Which meant that she should not be held responsible for what she had said in her speech. She was merely quoting Ambedkar with regards to women’s issues. Her critics should attack Ambedkar, debate with him if they disagree with him. Why quarrel with the speaker, who is merely a professor?

In her speech, Professor Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit’s observations about the deities Hindus worship and revere could be considered explosive by the contemporary guardians of Hindu standards.

It is quite audacious for a person in a position of authority like Pandit to declare that all Hindu gods, if they are considered anthropologically, are non-Brahmins. She even said that Lord Jagannath was a tribal and that Shiva was definitely not a Brahmin.

She went on to comment about the treatment that women were subjected to in traditional Hindu society. She even went to the extent of saying that women were seen as shudras by the Manusmriti.

It was very trusting of Pandit to believe that she would not face questions (or more) the morning after this talk, that she would not have to write a supplementary note to defend the lecture. Surely she is aware of the ordeal faced by Professor Nivedita Menon in 2017 when she displayed a map published in Himal magazine during a lecture titled “History Reconstrued through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture”.

Menon teaches at the university Pandit is now heading. She had not drawn the map. She merely used it to illustrate a point. But she was attacked, called anti-national and faced an FIR. A defamation campaign was unleashed against her, which continues even now. It is no small consolation that no criminal cases have been filed against Pandit for her remarks, even if they were originally made by Ambedkar.

She has been spared the tribulations that ordinary mortals like Nivedita Menon and former Delhi University professor Ashok Vohra had to go through. The attack on Vohra in 2015 was supremely ironic. It took place during a lecture titled “Religious Dialogue – Need of the Hour” at Mohanlal Sukhadia University in Udaipur. He quoted from some western scholars to critique what they had written. He too protested that he was merely reporting what others had written.

Similarly, Snehsata Manav of Central University of Haryana was attacked in 2016 for doing something that was not original. She had merely adapted a short story by Mahashweta Devi for the stage. But an enquiry was instituted against her and she was harassed for months.

There have been numerous examples like these from the world of academia during the regime of the man who Pandit recently thanked for “breaking multiple glass ceilings” by appointing her as the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

It is quite another matter that the prime minister, technically, is not procedurally involved in any manner in selecting the vice chancellors of Jawaharlal Nehru University – or any other central university for that matter.

Pandit has tried to defend her profession by pleading that professors only profess – they do not think. It can take Brechtian cunning to save oneself. But her line of defence has serious implications. After all, nothing is original in this universe. Everything has been said somewhere in some other way. We only repeat. And yet there is a novelty in this reiteration. We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.

But does that mean that we cannot stand on our own? It is the duty of the professors to expose students to the existing world of knowledge. But they would fail in their duty if they do not, within their classrooms and outside it, add to this corpus of knowledge in their own fields. Even when they quote from their predecessors or contemporaries, or repeat them, it matters. What they select is important.

Namvar Singh, another professor at the university Pandit heads, once said that a critic need not write a treatise. Her work often is merely to underline or put her finger on the writings before her. That is where her originality lies.

JNU students and others during a protest in February 2016. Credit: Reuters.

Is this not what all professors are supposed to do too? They are not there to merely present to the students what is already there in the books and not deviate from it. They try to help students use intellectual instruments to dissect ideas and create new knowledge.

But in our times, when teachers also interpret what they report, they face trouble. The mere act of reporting or repetition is seen as bringing to light something that should have been left buried. We do not need to be reminded of what Ambedkar said about inequality being intrinsic to Indian culture and not a deviation from it.

Of course, the act of quoting or repeating is a clever way of using the cover of an officially recognised figure to propagate your own ideas. It seems that Pandit was trying to do that, but got caught. That’s why she had to plead not guilty.

Despite her claim to merely repeating the thoughts of others, the history of universities shows that they have produced great thinkers. They were also professors. What about U R Ananthamurthy? Or Romila Thapar? Or GS Ghurye? Or A K Ramanujan? Or Hazari Prasad Dwivedi? They were all professors and at the same time original minds. It is the quality of the professorial mind and also its will and ambition that decides if it will be original or not.

A great advantage that professors have over other thinkers is that they get the opportunity to constantly interact with new minds. They work in a community of knowledge. That is where knowledge is renewed. An original mind knows what to report, repeat, quote, question, challenge. And also be bold enough to say something that has never been said before. That is also what society expects from professors.

Pandit takes pride in the training that she received at her alma mater, Jawaharlal Nehru University. A professor can only be true to her vocation if she does an honest survey of the poorva paksha, an opponent’s point of view in a debate. But she will fail in her duty if she does not have an uttar paksha, an interpretation or refutation of that point of view, in which she has invested herself. Hopefully, Pandit will restore the confidence in her campus to be able to do both.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.