In continuation with the gross procedural violations that have now become routine in JNU, the UGC Human Resource Development Centre (HRDC) (formerly the Academic Staff College) has summarily taken the Refresher Course in Women’s Studies away from the Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS), School of Social Sciences, in JNU.
What is worse is that this decision, egregious as it is, was not communicated to the centre, nor have the CWS faculty members been provided with any kind of explanation for this act of extreme highhandedness. Rumour has it that it is now being coordinated by a faculty member in the School of International Relations, who happens to be a woman.
This is not the first time that the CWS has been targetted by the present JNU administration. In 2016, it tried to prevent the centre from constituting its own Extended/Full Centre Committee, a reviewing body that monitors and ratifies the functioning of every centre. Instead of the highly regarded scholars in the field, and in social sciences, suggested by the centre, the administration’s attempt was to substitute them with two colleagues from within JNU, competent in their own areas (international relations and life sciences) but with no relationship to women’s or gender studies. In that instance too, the faculty members chosen by the administration happened to be women. Both these instances are direct attacks on the centre, its institutional autonomy, academic and intellectual profile, faculty members, and the very field itself. It is particularly offensive as this is happening in a university that has been hospitable to women’s studies, and in recent years has ensured this very important field an institutional space within the university system.
Here it may help to understand what Refresher Courses are, and the functions that these perform within the university system. Refresher courses have been an integral part of the UGC’s capacity building initiatives. While these are presently linked to a system of tenures and promotions in universities, and are mandatory for colleagues in an early stage of their career, in their best form they can be a space for intellectual debates, discussions and provide the promise of opening up new areas of research, curriculum development and pedagogic interventions. The UGC started Refresher Courses in Women’s Studies quite recently, mainly as there are few full departments of women’s and gender studies in the country. Yet in places where scholars and academics in the field have managed to carve out an institutional space for themselves, these courses have been on offer, and are increasingly popular with colleagues in all areas and subject fields in the humanities and social sciences. As is quite obvious to many of us in the field, as it is an interdisciplinary area of study and research, it requires the expertise of scholars who are located within it.
The idea of Refresher Courses (in any subject or field of study) is that these will expose participants (colleagues in colleges and universities across the country) to new research, debates and literature in the area. If run well, these can provide a very useful resource for developing both research, and teaching, interests of those participating in the courses. In turn, their feedback, about the structure, courses, content, and discussions is invaluable for the departments that run the Refresher Courses. From the point of view of organising a Refresher Course, the department concerned and the coordinators that it selects from among the faculty, have full freedom to conceptualise the course, and select resource persons and speakers who would be suitable to the theme chosen.
The CWS in JNU had applied for a Refresher Course as early as the Tenth Plan, as part of developing its own academic profile and activities; due to bureaucratic and other delays, this was given to the centre in 2016. Between November 11 – December 2, 2016, the CWS ran an extremely successful Refresher Course which received very enthusiastic and encouraging feedback from the colleagues who participated in it. Many were delighted to know that we were running another this year and have applied again in the hope of participating in it. Disallowing CWS, JNU from running its own Refresher Course, and reallocating it in this summary fashion violates both the academic integrity of the centre and its research and teaching interests, and also all norms of gender based rights in the workplace. This is particularity offensive as one would expect that the university would recognise and value, the work done in centres such as CWS for its enormous contribution intellectually, in helping nurture a broader field of scholarship, through innovative interventions in teaching and research.
The reallocation of the Refresher Course to a department in international studies is also a sign of the scant respect that the JNU UGC-HRDC has for the academic and research interests of the participants who have applied this year. This is nothing short of institutional misogyny, a summary sidelining of an internationally well regarded university centre specialising in the field, an attack on its autonomy and academic freedom, and an undermining of the integrity of a highly respected field of study such as women’s and gender studies. For those who have been intellectually and politically enagaged with the decades long struggle to establish women’s and gender studies departments in Indian universities, much of this may not come as a surprise. In JNU however, this can only be seen as a frontal attack on a centre that has departmental status, and has in the relatively short history of its existence in the School of Social Sciences, created a vibrant academic environment, cherished by those within, and outside the university.
The director of UGC-HRDC, JNU is answerable not only to the CWS and JNU, but also to the university and intellectual community at large about why such a decision was taken. He must also, at the earliest, restore the Refresher Course in women’s studies to the Centre for Women’s Studies, as it is an integral part of the CWS’s academic activities. Otherwise, this can only be seen as a sustained attack on academics and intellectual formations that are integral to the development of critical thinking and new modes of research, other than simply being feminist phobic. Besides, would any serious scholar in the country take a Refresher Course run by the UGC-HRDC, JNU seriously after an incident such as this – revealing as it does an utter lack of commitment to any academic or intellectual content or rigour – not to mention accountable forms of institutional functioning?
Arunima G. is professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, JNU.