In February 2016, marooned on campus with about 3,000 students and staff as the Jat agitation for reservation raged outside, OP Jindal Global University’s vice chancellor, C Raj Kumar, reflected on what he had signed up for: “There we were in the middle of Haryana, a global university, students from across India and staff from 20 countries, trying to deal with this extraordinary situation.”
They stayed put for the first few days. But as food started running out, the protests grew violent and the Rapid Action Force took over parts of the campus, students were sent home. On February 22, buses taking rural roads instead of the highway, dropped them to Delhi. “RAF’s presence may have made us a target but Jindal is also representative of everything the protestors felt they did not have – opportunity, education, privilege,” said Srivatsan Mannivannan, newly graduated in international relations. Indeed, students and teachers are acutely conscious of the gap between the “happy bubble” they live and study in and the world outside.
For expensive private universities aspiring to global standards, the location of Jindal and Ashoka University in rural Sonipat is unenviable. Despite their insularity, and the near-absence of stimulating diversions in the vicinity, they have managed to draw both staff and students. Academics from India and abroad – from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, even Iceland – have agreed to stay on campus and teach. Some students have picked the Sonipat universities over public colleges. Most speak highly of college life – they can choose their courses, are treated as adults and move freely on campus. They also have the comfort of being with peers from similarly privileged backgrounds.
Some among the Indian teachers are troubled by this homogeneity and feel conflicted about teaching at these universities. But they say they were drawn by the promise of academic freedom, generous research funding and an opportunity to shape a new institution. Unsure how their administrations will react to them speaking to the media, most teachers and students who Scroll.in spoke to requested anonymity.
Despite a strong impulse to tread carefully and protect their brands, the two universities have been able to provide a measure of academic freedom. Jindal has been “generous with resources and quite open-minded”, said a teacher who joined two years ago, after earning a PhD from a top British university. It jointly ran a course on a subject as contentious as South Asian history with a university in Lahore, Pakistan, and the vice chancellor himself helped secure visas for the Pakistani group. A course was also offered on Karl Marx to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The activist Teesta Setalvad, relentlessly hounded by the Hindu Right, taught a crash course on hate crime. “There are no restrictions on who we can or cannot call,” said another teacher.
Designing courses is a dynamic exercise that responds to events outside campus. Jindal students read BR Ambedkar on caste after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student, at Hyderabad Central University in 2016. Rabindranath Tagore’s views on nationalism were recalled when the “sedition row” brought Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to a standstill in February 2016.
The freedom to design their own courses is cherished especially by those who have moved from public universities. “In my own department, I cannot think of anyone who has wanted to offer a course and not been able to,” said Nayanjot Lahiri, who moved to Ashoka in 2016, after two decades teaching history at Delhi University. At Ashoka, the faculty can also devise their own attendance and evaluation policies.
Lahiri also appreciated the speed with which “things get done” – courses are cleared, books procured, new programmes introduced. By way of example, she said a new research programme was “mentioned to the founders” in August 2016 and it was started the next academic year. Ashoka offers annual research grants. Lahiri has “spent large chunks of it travelling with [Emperor] Ashoka across parts of Southeast Asia – trying to understand the interplay of history and memory in relation to that emperor”.
At Jindal, each teacher gets up to Rs 20 lakh a year for research and attending conferences in India or abroad. “Everybody gets it,” said Raj Kumar. “There is no pool or fixed amount that everybody competes for.”
Teachers either live in the limited faculty housing on campus or are placed in flats rented in housing estates close by. Almost everyone under 40 escapes to Delhi as often as possible, said Raj Kumar. Older staff have made peace with Sonipat.
But other aspects of life and work have caused disquiet. Some have noted that the administrative sections function like business corporations. Both universities have separate teams for human resources, admissions, outreach, scholarships and speaking with the media – activities performed by academics at most public universities. “You cannot expect to participate in the entire administrative and academic life here,” complained a teacher at Jindal.
Service conditions vary. Jindal has some visiting and adjunct faculty, but all its 300 full-time teachers are permanent appointees and not on term contracts. Ashoka has tenured faculty but also many who are on contracts and feel vulnerable. “I assume I will be fired every three years,” said a teacher. “If I am, I will try to ensure it is over important things. Post-Kashmir petition, everybody has been sensitive. Any kind of radical organising on campus does not feel easy.”
The reference was to a 2016 petition by a group of students condemning the alleged state repression in Kashmir. It was signed by three staff members, one academic and two administrative. Eventually, all three resigned. Ashoka has insisted it only ever objected to the use of its name in the petition and that the employees’ departure had nothing to do with it. But several students and teachers who were on campus at the time indicated otherwise. “The right to dissent gets more robust protection in public institutions where there are rules on how and to what extent teachers can be punished,” said the same teacher.
The university’s administration does not think teachers have reason to feel constrained. “You cannot put a guideline on thoughts,” said Ali Imran, vice president, external engagement. “We are not policing. This is a democratic set-up and it allows dissent. I have not met too many inhibited people. But if you express an opinion that is yours, you cannot attach Ashoka’s name.”
Both universities have elected bodies of students and teachers but they do not function as unions. “A union will push when it is not heard and take up issues,” said a teacher, implying the existing bodies do not. Imran essentially confirmed this. “The students’ government and the management are not in opposition, they work together.”
Salaries are much higher – the standardised payscale of public institutions “is not even a benchmark”, said Raj Kumar – but also variable. Describing it as a “sore point”, a Jindal teacher said, “It seems to depend on individual negotiation and hard bargaining.”
Ashoka follows the same policy. “I imagine that there is a baseline with some space for negotiations depending upon the experience and the publications of the concerned candidates,” said Lahiri.
Students’ opinion counts. Their feedback, collected regularly and in detail, is a major factor in how teachers are assessed.
In 2016, Jindal law student Parvaz Lamba did a stint with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a human rights organisation in Kashmir. He returned to organise a series of lectures on the situation in the Valley. This year, from February to May, he ran a reading group on Kashmir. Jindal allowed him to use a classroom every Tuesday night. “Students can do anything,” said Lamba. “We have a faculty coordinator for administrative purposes but space is made available.”
Similarly, Manivannan “consolidated the LGBTQI community” on campus which now has its own annual Pride parade.
Though student residences are gender segregated – Jindal enforced it after experimenting with mixed hostels for a few years – there are no restrictions on moving around on campus. “It was like a resort,” said a young woman who has just completed Ashoka’s Young India Fellowship. “I could go swimming every evening. The campus is quite safe. I forgot how to always remember to be careful.”
Other students agreed. “No one looks at you,” said a student at Ashoka who is planning to opt for computer science as his major, the discipline he will get his degree in.
That is another feature undergraduates appreciate – the space to be a little confused about which discipline to study in depth. Students study a wide range of courses from different disciplines before picking one to graduate in, typically at the start of the second year. A third-year political science student at Ashoka was grateful for that extra time to decide between political science and psychology. “But the courses I am taking, like on art and censorship, are not part of a conventional political science syllabus,” she said.
Since there is little to do outside campus, the universities have focused on keeping students occupied with a steady stream of talks, workshops, clubs. They have also made getting away to Delhi easy; both run shuttle services.
Scholarships and diversity
Students come from similarly educated, privileged backgrounds. Most of the students Scroll.in spoke to agreed that these universities are “elite institutions”. They certainly are expensive: an undergraduate degree at Ashoka costs over Rs 6 lakh and at Jindal between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 6.5 lakh. Both universities, however, say a large number of their students receive financial aid.
Private institutions are not required to reserve seats on the basis of caste, therefore, as an Ashoka student noted, “Caste diversity is almost nothing”. Having come from public institutions, postgraduate students are especially struck by this. “The environment was difficult to take in although I was expecting it,” said an MA Economics student at Ashoka. “Everyone was from a similar family background, exposed to similar types of schooling. The place felt extremely homogenised.” A survey of 2016 Young India Fellows found only 3.5% of the randomly selected sample were Dalit; Adivasis, Dalit Muslims, Dalit Christians and the disabled had “no representation”. A Jindal student called his “a ridiculously bourgeois, spoilt campus”.
This troubles at least some teachers. “I wonder what the entire intellectual resources of the university serve,” a teacher said. “An overwhelmingly large number of students come from well-off backgrounds. Their parents may own a law practice of their own – these are students who are not worried.”
Both universities say they have a range of scholarships to ensure diversity. Ashoka’s brochure claims over 50% of its students get some financial aid and that it has “provided need-based scholarships to over 1,600 students” since it launched in 2014.
Jindal spends over Rs 25 crore a year on scholarships. “Almost 70% of our students are on scholarships but we still need to do more,” said Raj Kumar. Apart from this, both are required by law to offer 10% of their seats free to students domiciled in Haryana.
But even with scholarships, some students may feel excluded in this rarefied environment. “Clothes, language invisibly enforce a kind of segregation,” an undergraduate at Ashoka pointed out. A Young India Fellow from 2017 recounted how others did not want him in their groups for projects and ignored him because he was not fluent in English or, worse, cut him off from discussions by switching to English. “English is a weapon,” he said. “Earlier, our experience of discrimination was physical, now it is mental.”
Imran said recent board meetings have included discussions on diversity, not just need-based financial aid but other forms of assistance such as jobs. “This agenda is front and centre,” he said, and adjustment on both sides is “a part of learning”. “We admitted a child who was completely blind,” he added as an example, “and then worked toward an accessible campus.”
Still, the university’s attempt to change its scholarship policy by adding academic performance as a factor along with household income led the students to protest, Ashoka-style, with an “email blast”.
On neither campus do elected student bodies engage in the vigorous activism of public universities. “It is the difference between performing on stage and on street,” as a former Young India Fellow put it. “Delhi University has an active political scene. At Ashoka, we did engage with political material but if you do not see it coming alive in your environment, it can lose its meaning.”
So, the manner of registering protest is different as well. “After the Kashmir petition issue, instead of protesting we had a vigil,” said a student. A group of students pushed for reservation for two years but made little headway. “The administration fears bad publicity so they try to meet us halfway,” he explained. “They will take you on board but then take so long to bring change, the delay will wear you down.”
This view is not universally held, though. Other students say their campus may be quieter but they do get their word in. After the violence at Ramjas College last year, Ashoka students were let off for a day to join the protest on Delhi University’s North Campus. In 2016, dozens of students from Jindal marched in solidarity with the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union. Another student said that “at every talk there will be a select few who you know will ask difficult questions”.
Today, discussions are ongoing about having at least a block of mixed-gender hostels and on sexual harassment, which students on both campuses are grappling with it. A case of rape and kidnapping from Jindal is in the courts. Raya Sarkar, who last year compiled a list of alleged harassers teaching in universities, studied at Jindal. Cases have been reported from both universities, with students and even a few teachers accused. Nearly everyone Scroll.in spoke to – students and teachers – listed sexual harassment as one of the problems the universities must do better at dealing with.
Imran, however, said “every process that is required is followed and there is very strong awareness of the anti-sexual harassment policy”.
Raj Kumar, the vice chancellor, echoed him. “We have zero tolerance towards any form of violence and have all the legally required mechanisms, but that is not the most important thing,” he said. “That is to create an environment in which people do not feel vulnerable and are open to sharing their concerns with people.”
Teachers and students said the two universities have tried to take some measures against harassment. Recently, Jindal’s registrar put together a team of staff members to make hostel rounds, not to police but to “hold closed-group interactions”. Last semester, the university piloted a compulsory course on gender sensitisation.
“Action has been taken against people, students have been expelled and rules are being tightened,” said a teacher.
However, many point to an alleged tendency to take cases to internal disciplinary committees rather than sexual harassment committees, which are legally required to report such case to the University Grants Commission.
A student remarked: “When it comes to the image of the university and a sexual harassment complaint, the university’s image will always come first.”
This is the second part of a three-part series. Read the first part here.