Academic appointments in India are rarely the subject of press or public attention. SK Sopory, the distinguished botanist about to retire as Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University is, like most of his predecessors, not well-known outside academia. The news of his retirement, and the fact that the post of VC had been advertised on August 15, was not reported by any website or publication. Yet for much of Wednesday “JNU VC” featured prominently on the list of topics trending on Twitter in India.

This was down to a PTI report that claimed that Subramanian Swamy ‒ economist, maverick politician, cult hero on the right ‒ had been sounded out for the job. The only newspaper that carried the report was DNA. The DNA story was picked up on Twitter, and quickly went viral. The PTI report was a travesty, either wholly false or at best a ludicrous misrepresentation of the facts. The fact that it has gone viral reflects poorly both on Indian Twitter and on our press corps.

On reading the report, Dr. Swamy’s fans, who for pure devotion outdo those of any other politician, were exultant. JNU, known both affectionately and pejoratively as the Kremlin on the Yamuna, exemplifies the “Nehruvian ecosystem” (despite having been created after Nehru’s death) that the Hindu right seeks to first destroy and then replace. Its humanities and social sciences faculty has traditionally been dominated by Marxists and fellow-travelling Congress leftists. Outside academia, it is known for its long association with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – the current General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury, and his predecessor, Prakash Karat, are former presidents of the JNU Students’ Union. Swamy’s fans were certain that their hero would both cleanse JNU of all forms of leftism, as well as “instill nationalism” into its students. And there was much schadenfreude, such as this tweet from Sadanad Dhume, who writes on India for the Wall Street Journal: 

The story then attracted the attention, on both right and left, of those all-purpose experts on everything who owe their celebrity to the rise of the TV panel discussion (in this sense, the TV panel serves the same function in India as the reality show does in the United Kingdom). Rahul Easwar hailed Swamy as a modern-day “Arjuna”:

Kavita Krishnan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) promised that JNU students would rise up in revolt, like the striking Film and Television Institute of India students before them:

Subramanian Swamy himself, displaying his particular genius for attracting and amplifying attention, issued a brilliantly crafted non-denial:

He later suggested that his “pre-conditions” included renaming the university after Subhash Chandra Bose, and the freedom to “rusticate anti-national students”. The original PTI story was carried, a day late, by the Times of India, and reported in modified form all over the print and digital media. “Why Subramanian Swamy doesn’t deserve to be JNU vice-chancellor” was the headline of an opinion piece on the DailyO.

Some facts

Nowhere – not in the original PTI report, nor elsewhere – was it pointed out that Swamy is ineligible for the post of vice-chancellor. The retirement age for Vice-Chancellors at Central universities like JNU is an inflexible 70. As the VC’s term is five years, the official advertisement states that applicants should be “not more than 65 years of age on the last date of receipt for applications, 15 September. Not only is Swamy 11 years too old – the date for applications has closed, so there is no question of him being sounded out for the job now, or for any offer, formal or informal. “Non-story” might be putting the whole thing too mildly. Swamy himself, as a former professor and Governor of IIT Delhi, is well aware of all this, of course.

When this snag was put to some of Swamy’s fans on Twitter, the reaction was predictable – the rules be damned, let him be appointed anyway. But as a practical matter, this is essentially impossible. So what on earth was behind the original PTI report?

My own suspicion is that the report confused the position of VC with the ceremonial post of Chancellor, for which there is no retirement age. The current Chancellor, the physicist and former ISRO head K Kasturirangan, was an apolitical and uncontroversial appointment (he received his Padma Vibhushan from the last National Democratic Alliance government). He is 74, younger than Swamy, and there has been no talk of his retirement. But it is possible, even plausible, that Swamy has been considered as a potential replacement.

Swamy being appointed Chancellor of JNU would have little or no practical consequence for the faculty or students, but it would elicit protests on a scale even greater than the FTII strike. It would be not so much waving a red rag at a bull as installing a large Manchester United banner at Anfield, home of Liverpool: purely symbolic but infuriating. Even a government with as low an opinion of JNU as this one might well see such a move as more trouble than it is worth.

The whole episode illustrates many of the more unappealing aspects of our public discourse. He-said she-said journalism in which claims are reported without being subject to the slightest scrutiny (it would have taken the PTI reporter a few minutes to check the facts). Collective ignorance on what ought to be basic matters, such as the retirement age and eligibility for government posts. The tendency on Twitter for an entertaining lie, rather than the prosaic truth, to go viral (this is not unique to India, of course; David Cameron and #piggate is another example). And the refusal, both on social media and on elsewhere, of so-called experts to let an ignorance of the facts get in the way of the desire to comment. As a 21st century Niels Bohr might say, “Never tweet faster than you think.” In this case, the journalists and TV panelists who are supposed to enlighten the public have, instead, misled and misinformed. Or perhaps we ought to be more careful with whom we trust as the deliverers and interpreters of news.