If the worst of times could turn into the most terrible of times, it was in the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016. This annus horribilis began with a regime change of a kind from which even an institution like the JNU may not easily recover. The blows have come from many quarters, but it cannot be mere coincidence that all hell broke loose within 10 days of a new vice chancellor taking over.
The iron law of Indian institutions, some say, is that some great genius/scholar/administrator sets up an institution, and when he passes away (and alas, thus far, it has usually been a he), the institution, built around charisma and personality, tends to erode, and the descent to mediocrity begins. But sometimes, great single-handed effort goes into dealing the death blows to institutions, as Prof Dinesh Singh demonstrated in the case of Delhi University.
Fortunately, like all iron laws, this has not been the case in many places. Serial institution builders like VKRV Rao or NR Madhava Menon have left lasting reminders of their efforts, and we are all the beneficiaries. Individual institutions like the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata or the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru have flourished under a series of good or indifferent, sometimes visionary directors, but are respectable academics.
JNU had thus far defied the iron law in other ways: while the “Vice” in the vice chancellor usually gets the better of him (and once more, it is usually him), particularly in the matter of appointments, the university had for four decades shown that appointments can be fair, above question and usually (though, it must be admitted, not always) deserving. For the most part, the institution moved from strength to strength, with lively, thoughtful and energetic programmes and courses, a rigorous, even taxing, semester schedule, and an enviable research profile, particularly in the social sciences.
This is because, like all good institutions, JNU has functioned by respecting the rule book as well as long-tested institutional norms. What marks off JNU’s record thus far, as attested not only by the legions of bureaucrats, lawyers, journalists, teachers and such like that it has produced, is that its student and teaching community have together devised a set of norms for fair, inclusive, just, and relatively transparent admissions and appointments. Vice Chancellors in the past have respected and built on these norms.
‘Vice’ in the Vice Chancellor
The uncontrollable urge to change JNU was revealed by the current vice chancellor even before he took over, when he declared on his blog that JNU teachers were good researchers but needed a few lessons on how to teach! Why change an institution that works, or initiate changes even before you analyse what doesn’t work as well? Because Prof Jagdeesh Kumar has begun with the template of turning JNU into the Indian Institute of Technology. But his experience at the IIT Delhi has turned into a tunnel vision, both literally and metaphorically. Institutional “adjacency” must lead to institutional similarity, or so Prof Kumar believes. Among the events that revealed this conviction was the Open Day recently organized for school students to “see how JNU academics work”. However, turning a research university like JNU, with very few undergraduate courses, into an observable lab animal even for a day speaks of a bankruptcy of vision.
Prof Kumar has also arrived with another mission: to redraw JNU’s profile as the “gadfly” of the state. So from that fateful day on February 9, when a student cultural event was quickly turned into a nationwide chorus for shutting down JNU or at minimum, clearing up that “Red Redoubt”, the vice chancellor has played the role of willing accomplice. He has, in an uncanny resemblance to Prof Dinesh Singh, declared war on the institution he heads, and charged, with his very light brigade, against the formidable bastion. He has undermined those vital norms which successful institutions are built on.
In short-circuiting democratic norms, he follows the trend being set by the Central leadership. The list of his attacks on JNU’s long tested norms is long and growing. Undermine your own institutional structures by dismantling a proctorial enquiry (the normal institutional routine for student misdemeanours) within hours of setting it up, and putting in place a High Level Enquiry Committee consisting of hand picked faculty.
This happened following the February 9 events which led to the arrest of three JNU students on charges of sedition. Senior faculty, deans and chairpersons, who are usually consulted in such grave crises, were given the go by in favour of some individuals. In the end, it was the courts that came to the rescue of JNU students.
A study in contrasts
While acting with alacrity on some institutional problems, the new JNU administration has dragged its feet on others. The police arrived on the campus and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar in an unprecedented show of force on February 12. Yet a student goes missing for two months before, again on the court’s orders, the police arrive with their sniffer dogs.
Scurrilous attacks on the JNU faculty, which were far from anonymous, and open calls by visiting MLAs to enter homes and root out JNU teachers, have gone uninvestigated and unpunished despite repeated requests. The university’s own institutional process, which found that a faculty member had been grievously wronged by students filing counter charges to ward off university action against their lighting a fire in the hostel room, has been given the “slow-by”.
In a university where seniority determined who would head schools and centres as deans and chairpersons, a well established and respected norm, the vice chancellor has demanded “vision” statements and interviews to assert his authority. Now, seniority may certainly have its drawbacks, and JNU has certainly seen some good, bad and indifferent administrators. What has made the system work, in addition to being representative in the best sense of the term, is the centrality of collective and consensual decision making in JNU. Only rarely did deans and chairpersons act in any arbitrary fashion themselves. The new VC has made arbitrariness the new norm.
In a university where student politics, and the protests that come with it, have been tolerated, making it one of the rare places where elections are held without the use of money and muscle power that stain elections elsewhere, the new vice chancellor has done everything in his power to undermine these traditions. Not only is he slowly squeezing the spaces and times for dissent and disagreement, he has literally built an “architecture of fear” in the cages that surround the administration building, the site of protracted student and teacher protest in the last year.
New norm of anti-intellectualism
In a university which prides itself on a rigorous, five tiered discussion of new courses, in which some are even rejected or reworked in the light of discussion and debate, a new norm of anti-intellectualism, again the favoured trend of the current government, has been inaugurated. By ramming through a politically palatable certificate course on Proficiency in Yoga Philosophy, the door has been opened to an alarming new cultural requirement of universities to genuflect rather than critically analyse. Consider how the course is introduced:
”Yoga, a great discovery of Vedantic seers, is an unparalleled and unique science of humanity. Now it is all known and accepted fact that Yoga is not only useful for meditation and spirituality but for all aspects of life such as good health, business and corporate endeavor, excellence in management, development and science and technology, establishment of sustainable society, realization of truth etc.”
A Sanskrit centre thus introduces a course on Yoga, the current panacea for all ills, which focuses only on English and Hindi translations of Patanjali and the Bhagvad Gita, sidelines the rich non vedantic, and non sanskritic, traditions of yoga, and distorts the complex history of such practices, including its modern revival. JNU course or tourist brochure, we may rightly ask?
Enough said. Democracy is a time consuming, but rewarding process, Prof Kumar may yet need to learn. And technical skills cannot compensate or stand in for the crucial social skills so essential to institutional governance. But it is now clear that Prof Kumar has as little use for these skills as a fish has for a bicycle.
Janaki Nair teaches History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University