After VC Replaces Seven Chairpersons and Deans, JNU Stuck in the Eye of the Storm

The latest turmoil comes after JNU’s vice-chancellor removed at least seven chairpersons/deans for not complying with the mandatory attendance system in their respective centres/schools.

New Delhi: The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is on the boil again. Over the last two days, the larger academic community – comprising students and teachers – has launched protests against a recent order that punitively removed deans and chairpersons of schools who objected to the compulsory attendance decree issued by the university administration a few weeks ago.

In what the students and teachers call a high-handed and vindictive action, the JNU’s vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar removed at least seven chairpersons/deans for not complying with the mandatory attendance system in their respective centres/schools.

The faculty members who faced the axe were those who have either been writing dissenting letters to the administration or have been speaking in the media on multiple procedural violations in the current VC’s tenure.

A group of faculty members from JNU allege that while the order looks vindictive, the deans/chairpersons who were removed have been replaced by people who are either close to the administration or belong specifically to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party camp within the university.

Two such allegedly indiscriminate instances are worth mentioning. The dean of school of arts and aesthetics (SAA), Kavita Singh, who has been quite vocal about the compulsory attendance rule, was replaced by one Professor Mazhar Asif, who teaches in the Centre for Persian and Central Asian Studies and has no relation with specialisations of SAA. Asif has been appointed as the acting dean of the school.

Similarly, Centre for English Studies chairperson Udaya Kumar has been replaced by Professor Dhananjay Singh, against whose appointment Professor Kumar had written dissenting letter to the VC, pointing out several procedural violations. Singh, as a student of JNU more a decade back, has been the presidential candidate for Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student’s wing of RSS.

Meanwhile, students have started to protest in their respective centres against the decision. For instance, on March 15, students of the centre for historical studies (CHS) observed a lockdown against the removal of Professor Sucheta Mahajan as the chairperson.

“Prof Sucheta Mahajan was summarily dismissed and replaced by Prof Umesh Kadam in a move that did not follow any procedural norms. The intention behind Professor Kadam’s appointment was to clamp down on the student boycott of attendance which began in January 2018. The student body unanimously decided to lockdown the centre office to register the protest against this arbitrary move and demand the chairperson’s solidarity in the boycott of attendance,” the CHS students issued a press statement, while appealing to Professor Umesh Kadam, Mahajan’s replacement, to reject the chairpersonship, which, they said, “was a result of your colleague being dismissed overnight, disregarding many established procedures.”

Even as the trust-deficit between the academic community and JNU administration continued to escalate over the issue of compulsory attendance, seven women students lodged an FIR against a Professor Atul Johri of the School of Life Sciences, who is seen as an aide of the VC, for allegedly sexually harassing them.

In a statement issued to the media, the students who filed the FIR,  said, “The professor often makes sexually-coloured remarks, open demands for sex and comments on the figure of almost every girl. If a girl objects, he holds a grudge against her. There is a financial nexus between the professor and the administration. No instrument has been purchased for years, but still crores of rupees have been spent.”

However, Johri refuted the claims instantly and accused the students of being politically vindictive.  “The girls, who have levelled the allegations against me, had received a mail from me on February 27 regarding their irregular attendance in the lab. So, they are targeting me,” he said, adding that all the students who filed the FIR were Left-leaning students.

A group of faculty members, too, issued a statement on March 16, supporting those who reported the case of alleged sexual harassment. 

We…are deeply distressed to read about extremely grave allegations of moral turpitude against Prof. Atul Johri, amounting to charges of sexual harassment, academic dishonesty, and financial misappropriation… Coming on the heels of recent media stories that Prof. Johri was involved in the forgery of assent by leading scientists in a signature campaign, we are appalled by the university’s silence about an individual that it has vested with so many offices. Prof. Atul Johri is the Director of the University’s Internal Quality Assurance Cell, the Director of the Human Resource Development Cell, a warden, and the Vice-Chancellor’s favourite nominee on several committees. We demand that Prof. Johri be immediately removed from all these positions, as the allegations against him bring great disrepute to the university. We expect the university to take all the requisite measures to investigate the charges that may be brought against Prof. Johri and to pursue them to their logical conclusion.”

It rued the fact that the the erstwhile elected body, Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) was dissolved by the VC and was replaced by a nominated body, which, they alleged, comprises only those close to the VC.

“We support the complainants’ exercise of their rights to approach the police…This is the second such case when allegations about sexual harassment have been filed under the IPC, because complainants do not have faith in the autonomy, impartiality, and commitment to complete confidentiality of the JNU ICC,” the faculty members’ statement added.

The JNU Teachers’ Association also issued a statement on the matter, after holding a general body meeting:

“The GBM notes the very serious criminal charges of sexual harassment, abuse of power and financial misappropriation that have been brought against a  Professor, who has been holding multiple administrative positions, by a number of students. The GBM demands that the teacher concerned should be immediately removed from all administrative positions he holds on campus pending the due process, to ensure safety and security of the complainants.”

The VC has clearly indicated that everyone should fall in line or be ready to face the consequences, most faculty members feel. On the other hand, the protesting students and teachers have refused to comply, as recent developments suggest. With battle lines drawn between the academic community and the administration, the current impasse in the university is unlikely to resolved soon.

Note: This article has been edited as the earlier version erroneously attributed a statement from a group of faculty members to the teachers’ association.