On Tuesday, Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid said the institution’s authorities had refused to let him submit his PhD thesis. This despite the Delhi High Court’s instructions to the university less than a week ago not to take coercive steps against Khalid. Khalid had moved the court challenging the university’s decision to rusticate him for a semester in connection with a campus event in February 2016 marking the death anniversary of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, at which students had reportedly raised “anti-national slogans”.

Can things get more bizarre than this – that students have to run to the courts to get their fees deposited or theses submitted? Of all the universities, could one expect this to happen in JNU?

In the new India that has been crafted in the last four years, we are getting used to such absurdities. That JNU blocked Umar Khalid even after being reprimanded by the High Court shows its impudence towards its students.

The Delhi High Court had used very strong words on July 20 as it set aside a Rs 10,000-fine imposed by the university on former student union president Kanhaiya Kumar in connection with the same event in 2016. The court had said the action against Kumar “suffers from vice of illegality, irrationality and procedural impropriety”. Justice Siddharth Mridul had observed that “the court was of the prima facie view that the decision was unsustainable on innumerable counts”.

After the rebuke, the counsel for the university had told the court that it was recalling the penalty.

Mridul had similarly directed the university on July 18 not to take any coercive steps against two other students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, though it did not pass any order in their case. Bhattacharya was rusticated for five months and barred from pursuing any course at the university for the next five years.

The court order came as a relief to Kumar, who too had been stopped from submitting his PhD thesis by university authorities. The harassment of Khalid and Bhattacharya continues.

In any other circumstances, the judgement and the observation of the court would have instilled sobriety in the administration. But we are living in new normal times. The university authorities do not feel the need to review their decisions and moderate their attitude towards students. Last week, we learnt that a JNU student had been fined Rs 10,000 for shouting “Jai Bheem” and questioning the vice-chancellor at an event last year. In the last two years, the JNU administration has handed out punishments to students for protesting too close to the vice-chancellor’s office, for their behaviour at a meeting of the Academic Council, and for holding meetings on campus, among others.

The Indian Express reported on Monday that JNU has fined 29 students close to Rs 4 lakh in various disciplinary cases just as it gets ready to start a new semester. This despite the High Court’s strong observation against it. It seems to be taking the view that the students are free to approach the courts for relief , as Kanhaiya Kumar did. But is this the way universities should behave?

Even more bizarre is the penalty imposed by JNU on its teachers and heads of various centres of learning for expressing dissent at selection committee meetings to appoint faculty members and for pointing out problems in administrative and academic bodies. Deans have been removed from their positions and debarred from holding posts.

Damaging changes

Jawaharlal Nehru University has turned into a battleground. My friends there tell me that they wake up every morning fearing a new notice from the authorities, and that they are now forced to spend a good deal of their time consulting lawyers and attending court hearings.

Courts are slow. Benches are unpredictable. So, they pray for a judge who understands the nature of universities in general and is aware of the unique character of JNU, who knows universities are not merely administrative entities, a set of rules and procedures. That even when the vice-chancellor has all the powers conferred on him by the Act of the university, he uses them rarely for he is not the owner of the university. He is merely a trustee for a defined period of time and he must earn the trust of the faculty, students and others to be able to administer the university.

Jawaharlal Nehru University, at least on this count, was an exemplar for others. The presence of the vice-chancellor and other authorities was mostly benign. This is the first time JNU has had a vice-chancellor who thinks he owns the university and has the sanction to change its fate. The vice-chancellor is supposed to work through established procedures and statutory bodies, not through a coterie. But this is what has happened to JNU.

Living on the other side of the same city, in a university as famous as JNU, I know how different we were. We have the experience of overbearing and eccentric vice-chancellors with a very low opinion of their teaching colleagues, a teacher politics sharply divided on party lines that seldom speaks in one voice, and student activism dominated and owned by the muscle and money power of the country’s two major political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. Yes, there are student organisations with jhola-carrying, slipper-wearing activists fighting for the construction workers or daily-wagers on campus or even the war against Iraq. But they do not define the student politics of Delhi University.

Then there was the freedom teachers at JNU had to design their courses, which the faculty at Delhi University never had and which made us envious of them.

That jealousy and yearning has now been replaced by sympathy and pity. Jawaharlal Nehru University is being de-shaped and if it continues for some more time, we will not be able to recognise it.

We are told that the JNU authorities are filling selection committees with pliable experts, disregarding the suggestions of the faculty, which has been the norm. This has led to scores of appointments with dubious academic credentials. This is the most decisive and cruel step, a death knell for a university, as these faculty members will be there for the next 20 years to 30 years and will appoint more people of their kind.

In the last two years, the JNU administration has punished students for protesting too close to the vice-chancellor’s office or for holding meetings on campus. (Credit: PTI)

An unequal war

When a government declares war against a university and a large section of the media manufactures popular anger against it, it has little chance of survival. The JNU community is facing an unequal war. A friend from Gandhinagar in Gujarat once told me about a conversation he had with his driver. The driver asked innocently whether JNU stands for Jinnah National University – the reference being to Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. We were having this chat in 2016. In villages in Madhya Pradesh or Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, you come across people who are convinced that JNU is a den of anti-nationals. There are people who believe students and teachers there waste the money of taxpayers.

How did this image get entrenched in the popular mind? Let us go back to 2016. Just after the event commemorating Afzal Guru, which was turned controversial by a media house in collaboration with the government, Home Minister Rajnath Singh declared, “The incident at JNU has received support from [Lashkar-e-Taiba founder] Hafiz Saeed. This is a truth that the nation needs to understand.”

This message spread to every corner of the country. A word from the home minister carries some weight. He would speak only after he has credible information: this is how common people think. And this is how there was an overnight change in the popular image of JNU. Its teachers and students became anti-nationals conspiring to break the nation. If the students are being supported by terrorists on the other side of the border, they lose all their rights as citizens and as living beings. If the teachers are supporting these “criminal” students, they also turn into criminals.

Kanhaiya Kumar became the leader of the gang. The past three years have been especially trying for him and for student leaders Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid. They are feted by some and hated by many outside the university, but on campus they have been busy writing their PhD dissertations, facing penal action and dealing with the authorities’ refusal to clear their theses.

One cannot comprehend the threat they face in their daily lives. A colleague told me that during a chat with a co-passenger on a train journey, the conversation turned to Kanhaiya Kumar. When my colleague tried to defend him, the co-passenger became so enraged that he whipped out a revolver.

It is a pity that the courts have had to step in to give them relief. It is a shame that there is no outcry from the academic world. Instead, we have seen a clever and silent distancing of this academic world from JNU. Scholars from JNU are not welcome in academic programmes, their names do not figure in selection committees, degrees from JNU have become a disqualification in interviews for various jobs.

However, JNU has reason to rejoice even in these trying times. If you are speaking or writing somewhere and your thoughts betray some independence of mind or freshness, the audience or organisers automatically link you to JNU. In 2016, a young teacher at the Central University of Haryana adapted a story of writer and activist Mahasweta Devi into a play, locating it in present times. The very next morning, she turned into a hate figure, an anti-national. An enquiry was set up against her by the university. Members of the enquiry committee asked her, “Are you from JNU?” She replied that she was educated in the state universities of Haryana. “You do not have to be from JNU to have a mind of your own,” she protested. Her records backed her claim of no connection with JNU, but in a strange way, JNU had won the day.