It’s the mildest of months in Delhi. The smog has lifted, a soft breeze is blowing and the flowers are beginning to bloom. But once again the gentle month of February has brought gale-force winds to the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus.
Two years ago, February was marked by enormous protests in this university. While the media’s vilification of some students – through doctored videos, as it turned out – led many to think of JNU as “anti-national”, the absurdity of charging student leaders with sedition for chanting slogans that they did not raise also brought a great deal of sympathy and support. Today, the uproar on campus is caused by the administration’s new rules for mandatory attendance, which students and faculty have opposed.
In this fight, it is harder to get the public perception on our side as many have mistaken our refusal to take or give attendance as a refusal to attend classes or to teach them. This is not at all the case. Since the start of this semester, many of us have been taking photographs to show classes in full swing while refusing to fill the attendance sheets drawn up by the administration.
In an article I wrote on Tuesday, I illustrated how mandatory attendance in a research institution is downright counterproductive, by citing the case of one of our PhD students. She is a young lecturer in Delhi University and is now seven months pregnant. She is allowed by her university’s rules, and ours, to keep her job while doing research. She gets no fellowship since she has a job, and she lives far away from campus. Under the new rules, she is expected to come to JNU daily to sign a register before she goes to teach her classes or takes the rest that her doctor has advised.
But the protest is not primarily about attendance rules: the rules have only become the rallying point for protests to erupt on a campus simmering with anger over months of mismanagement and worse. These have become the rallying point because, unlike many of the other changes to the university in which we have been powerless to intervene, the attendance sheets put some agency in our hands. We are being asked to fill sheets of paper and we, students and teachers, can at least refuse to do that.
The teachers’ association has called the new rules “unnecessary and arbitrary”. That is polite; the rules are illegal. All the circulars issued by the administration ordering us to take attendance claim that these rules were passed in the two highest decision-making committees of the university, the Academic Council and the Executive Council. I was present at the Academic Council, where the matter was not discussed. The Executive Council meeting in which they say this was passed has not been even held.
On a downslide
The attendance rules must first and foremost be opposed because of the way the administration has imposed them through falsification of the minutes of meetings that took place and the invention of meetings that did not even occur. The university is on a rapid downslide as the administration acts at will, subverting every procedure that had been put in place.
In the last few months when I have been the dean of a school, I have had to attend several meetings that have left me alarmed at the way they are conducted. We are not allowed to speak at the Academic Council which I remember as a place of vigorous academic debate. If by chance a dissenting voice member gets the microphone, her views are brushed aside as “opinions that have been noted” rather than as issues that the meeting needs to be discussed.
“A decision has been taken, we will move to the next item,” the chairman says, without even articulating what this decision might be. To learn this, we have to wait for the minutes of the meeting to be circulated. I certainly have not been able to see much resemblance between what transpired at the meetings and the minutes that are written up. Accepting this method of functioning sets a dangerous precedent for all our futures, where administrations of any colour will be free to change any rule at will.
Of course, the attendance rules are not the only or even the most significant change imposed on the university through falsified minutes of meetings and high-handed unilateral decisions. There are many other such, some of which raise suspicions of different kinds. Some of these moves have been successfully challenged in court, some are sub judice and some are beyond the capacity of ordinary members of the university community to contest. Enough has already been written about the way faculty has been appointed in recent months. The press has also written about the way the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment, or GSCASH, was dissolved when, as students murmur, there were cases pending against high-ranking officials.
Meanwhile, if some departments are starved of funds and others are awash with them we cannot do much about that. We watched in quiet dismay as an excellent librarian who overhauled the JNU library was given marching orders. Similarly, when the vice chancellor announces his new schools of engineering and management, we can only ask politely about the need for these. But as these new schools are forced to come into existence suddenly without any ready infrastructure or staff for them, it becomes clear how existing schools will suffer to make room for them.
Existing schools are actually being prevented from introducing new MA and MSc programmes to make space in the hostels and the classrooms for the future students of management and engineering; distinguished faculty in the science and social science departments who have joined the university to teach and conduct research at the post-graduate level are openly told they will be conscripted to teach engineering undergraduates.
These are some of the lesser-known issues for which we have been writing polite letters of request or dissent that bring absolutely no response or dialogue from the powers that be. Far from engaging, the administration has been issuing notices that are daily becoming shriller in their pitch. A circular issued on February 8 tells students that they will lose their fellowships, their hostel rooms and even their university enrolment if they do not mark attendance. Today, however, if the administration is blowing its whistle, the February winds are howling right back.
Kavita Singh is dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.