Allegations of Political Bias in Faculty Hiring the Latest Battleline in JNU

Faculty members have alleged that vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar has been flouting norms to get candidates close to the Sangh parivar appointed, in the process putting the quality of education in jeopardy.

New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice-Chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar coming out of his office at JNU on Thursday after being gheraoed by students protesting over missing varsity student Najeeb Ahmed. Credit: PTI (PTI10_20_2016_000287B)

Jawaharlal Nehru University vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Several faculty appointments made in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) under the current vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar’s tenure have added a new dimension to the already fraught situation at one of India’s top educational institutions. The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) has alleged that the VC has been indiscriminately using his discretionary power to flout various procedures and norms in order to get only those candidates who are close to the Sangh parivar appointed, in the process compromising the quality of education imparted in the prestigious university. Kumar’s supporters, on their part, deny the charge.

Around 30 faculty appointments have been made so far in Kumar’s tenure. But the JNUTA began raising concerns in mid-2017 after some existing faculty members started to show their dissent against the hires in different centres of the university.

Most of the dissenting teachers objected to the VC’s decision to invite his own external experts as interviewers from outside the recommended list. According to the laid down procedures, the department sends an exhaustive list of experts to the board of studies, which then sends the list to the academic council (AC) for approval. Once the council approves the list, the VC chooses three members from the list to be invited as interviewers. This decision through all the stages is taken keeping in mind the subject expertise in a discipline and the nature of the vacant position.

The department’s opinion in appointing teachers is taken the most seriously, as it is considered best-placed to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular course structure and aim to fill the gaps accordingly.

However, since mid-2017, senior professors from at least seven departments – Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), Centre for English Studies (CES), Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory (CCPPT), Centre for Korean Studies (CKS) and the School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA) – have written dissenting notes against the way the VC has used his discretionary power to flout procedures, allegedly to get a candidate of his choice appointed. 

Selection committee members not approved by academic council

For instance, Kunal Chakrabarti and Ranabir Chakrabarti, senior professors of CHS, recorded their “note of dissent” on the selection of a new faculty member in the ancient India sub-department of the centre. They said in a note: “The composition of the expert panel of the three members is irrelevant and unsuitable as the members were not subject experts, none of them specialises in the history of Ancient India. The panel of the three experts were not drawn from the database of the panel of experts (created in accordance with Regulation M18), already approved by the relevant statutory bodies of the university.”

“There were at least four candidates, who were interviewed who were far superior to the selected candidate, Birendranath Prasad, in view of their expertise in the primary sources, source-critiquing ability, analytical skill, critical acumen, domain knowledge, research output and publications and articulatory communicative skills – all the above being absolutely essential for the appointment of an assistant professor in the CHS with specialisation in the history of ancient India,” they added.

The three panel members for the interview were Kapil Kumar from IGNOU, Adhya Bharti Saxena from Baroda University and Aruna Sinha from Banaras Hindu University. While Kumar and Sinha’s names were not approved by the academic council, Saxena figured in the list of experts in medieval Indian history with no research expertise in early India for which the position was advertised.

Also read: JNU VC Bent on Destroying Principles of Social Justice

Similarly, senior professor and eminent economist C.P. Chandrasekhar, too, objected to the appointment of an assistant professor in CESP in August 2017. In his letter to the VC, Chandrasekhar, who was the dean of the School of Social Sciences at the time of writing, said, “To the best of my knowledge, not all of the external experts represented in the selection committee were from the panel of experts recommended by the faculty of the CESP and approved by the relevant bodies of SSS, JNU…My presence in the meeting as a member of the committee was not not an endorsement of this violation of statutory requirements.”

Two members of the panel – N.K. Taneja, who is the VC of Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Meerut, and Mohan Lal Chhipa, former VC of Atal Bihari Vajpayee Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Bhopal – were not approved by the academic council.

The same was the case in CPS, where Anupama Roy, who is the chairperson of the centre, and Kunal Chakrabarti, the acting dean of SSS, expressed their “deep anguish at the composition of the selection committee for the post of assistant professor in the CPS”.

“Only one member of the selection committee, Professor Rumki Basu, was from the list which was discussed and approved by the faculty… and approved by the AC. Both the other members, Professor Gopal Reddy and Professor Sanjeev Kumar Sharma from Osmania University and CCU, Meerut, were not from the approved list. As members of the selection committee in our capacity….we did not give any dissent since we consider it a constitutional obligation to fill a post reserved for the PWD. We would, however, through this letter, wish to convey our dismay at the disregard shown to the collective wisdom of the faculty of the CPS and the AC,” their letter said.

The JNU campus. Credit: PTI

The JNU campus. Credit: PTI

Removal of professor Nivedita Menon as chairperson

The two most controversial appointments happened in CCPPT and CES. In CCPPT, professor Nivedita Menon was removed from her position as the chairperson of the centre soon after she vociferously objected to “procedural improprieties in the selection process” of an assistant professor. Following a decision taken in an executive council meeting, she was removed from her position for her “unruly behaviour” during a selection committee meeting without being served a show-cause notice.

In a terse letter to the VC, she said that she was treated unfairly and not given a chance to explain her behaviour in the meeting, where, she thought, she was only objecting to the procedural fallacies and VC’s high-handedness in selecting the candidate who had performed the most poorly.

She alleged that that she was “shouted down” by the VC when she raised concerns over multiple violations, which included disregard for the recommended expert panel. But what comes out in her letter is more serious in nature. While the selection of a candidate is generally decided by the average marks each candidate receives at the end of the interview, she alleged that the marks were fudged deliberately to select one particular candidate.

“After all the interviews were completed, you (VC) asked us to mark the candidates on the forms given to us, and informed us that the marks given to all candidates by all selection committee members would be added and the ‘average mark’ for each candidate would be calculated by the administration personnel. After this, all our mark sheets were taken away from the room…When after an hour or so you returned to the meeting room, you brought a list from which you read out the names of 8 candidates with ‘average marks’ above 50. The candidate with the highest ‘average mark’ was one who had performed very poorly in the interview, his presentation being largely about some NGO work he had done. He was unable to answer simple questions from two of the experts, on political theory which he had said was the field he wanted to be questioned on. He did answer one question on the relevance of B. R. Ambedkar’s thought, but again, when questioned on the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), his research topic, he fumbled for an answer. Nor did he have any publications worthy of note,” her letter to the VC read.

“I asked if we could see everybody’s mark-sheets and know the list of top three candidates of each expert. You refused this information to the selection committee, and simply said that we should ‘trust’ you, and that there was ‘no need’ for everyone to see one another’s marks as it would be ‘embarrassing’, the letter added.

Also read: For Indian Universities, Merit Must Come First in Faculty Appointments

A Sangh parivar activist double-promoted to post of professor

In the English department, JNUTA alleged that a sitting assistant professor who does not have noteworthy publication and who is known to be a Sangh parivar activist, was directly double-promoted to the post of professor.

“The University Grants Commission (UGC), the statutory governing body for central universities, allows such promotions only when the person is a distinguished scholar and is known globally for his research. But the person who was promoted here does not meet such standards by a distance,” a faculty member in the economics department of JNU told The Wire on the condition of anonymity.

The chairperson of the department, Udaya Kumar, too, objected. “Dr. Dhananjay Singh (who was promoted) was not shortlisted by the screening committee of CES because he does not have five published papers in UGC-approved journals which is a condition for the supervision of Ph.D students by professor. This was formally adopted as a condition for shortlisting by the UGC M.Phil/Ph.d regulations in 2016. However, he was included in the shortlist, despite repeated clarifications by the centre. The experts invited to be on the selection committee were not from the panel approved by the statutory bodies of JNU.”

Interestingly, Singh had also applied for the post of associate professor, which was required to be filled first. While he became a professor, the post of associate professor remains vacant until now.

In another such matter, following disagreement between the faculty and the VC, at least two vacant positions remain unfulfilled in the school of arts and aesthetics for months. The JNUTA claimed that a new appointee in the music department of the school is an artist but lacks the required research-based training to teach theoretical dimensions of music as is needed in academics.

Similarly, in CKS, which teaches the Korean language, JNUTA said that a person has been appointed who does not know the language, and yet has been hired as an assistant professor.

Interview proceedings

While JNUTA alleges that multiple procedures were violated according to specific situations, the most common being the VC’s unilateral decision to invite experts outside the recommended list, the interviews themselves happened in strange ways too.

According to a News18 report, a candidate, who now teaches in Delhi University (DU) and had appeared for an interview in one of these departments, was asked questions entirely unrelated to his field of research.

The candidate claimed that while initially the VC asked him to talk about his research on the “aesthetic regime as proposed by the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere”, he soon lost interest. Rather, the VC told him, “You should pay more attention to different kinds of ethics like baby ethics and animal ethics.”

The candidate told him that his work has found a mention in the prestigious New Literary History, but other members of the expert committee asked him to shift from “foreign thinkers” to thinkers of “our own tradition”.

The teachers body, exercising its powers under the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) constitution, set a three-day deadline for the VC to submit his defence. Credit: JNUTA

The teachers body holds a protest. Credit: JNUTA

The candidate reportedly told them that he had some expertise in Bengali literature, particularly in the early novels of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, only to be shot down. The member concerned apparently said that by Indian thinkers, he meant Panini and Bhartrhari.

The report also said that Devesh Birwal, an economics faculty member in DU, had to face a similar situation. Birwal, who had applied for the post of assistant professor in CESP and whose expertise is in livestock and the economics of animal husbandry, was asked questions like “Have you visited a gaushala? Is there a gaushala around your work area?”

“In my interview all the interest was on my visit to gaushalas. I was surprised that just because I have studied livestock and animal husbandry I was asked about gaushalas. This was also shocking because the government is very seriously working on doubling farmers’ income, in which livestock plays an important part. There could have been questions on my work or the disposal of cattle,” Birwal told News18.

Is there a pattern?

JNUTA claims that most appointees in 2017 and the external experts whom the VC chose have clear affiliations with one or other saffron organisation. A member of JNUTA, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “Look, Birendranath Prasad and Dhananjay Singh were leaders of the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) when they were students in JNU. Dhananjay even contested the JNUSU election as ABVP’s presidential candidate in 2004-05. The CPS appointee, Tapan Kumar Bihari, too, was a well-known ABVP activist in the Hyderabad Central University. The highly-controversial appointment of Parvesh Kumar was a member of the RSS-affiliated teachers’ union, National Democratic Teachers’ Front. Clearly, the VC is prioritising ideological affiliations over merit. One would not have these problems had he also kept in mind the suitability of a candidate.”

“Similarly, the experts the VC invited are only known for their association with the RSS and not academic credentials. At least four of them are a part of the list of teachers who protested against the nation-wide students’ movement after Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s death,” he said.

“The whole exercise of faculty recruitments looks like the VC is acting on the behalf of the RSS, which has always hated JNU for its vibrant liberal traditions. Why else would he promote Dhananjay as a professor by openly flouting norms. Only a professor can be a part of various administrative committees which bring institutional changes in an university. Perhaps, there is a larger scheme in the recruitments. We will have to wait and watch,” he added.

While the charges are serious in nature, The Wire could not independently verify them as questions to the VC remained unanswered at the time of writing. The story will be updated if and when his response comes.

Response to JNUTA allegations

Responding to JNUTA’s allegations, however, Professor Dhananjay Singh said he would not be able to comment on procedural violations in his appointment in the CES as he was not a part of the selection process. “I was a candidate and met the requirements for professor’s position. I was already teaching at the centre as an assistant professor for more than 11 years. A professor, according to the UGC, should have at least ten years of teaching experience, 400 API (Academic Performance Indicators) points, which I had. I have also been supervising PhD students for a long time.”

“I am not aware of JNUTA’s allegations too. Of course, there is a political context to such allegations,” he added.

He said that he was not aware of the centre’s chairperson, Uday Kumar’s objections against his appointment, but added that “if he has done so, it was not discussed with other faculty members of the centre.”

Also read: The VC’s Job is to Enhance the Academic Quality of JNU, Not Promote ‘Love for Army’

“Even minor matters like courses to be taught in each semester are discussed at the centre as part of the democratic process. If the chairperson has written a letter to the VC objecting to my appointment, it was not [after consultation] with others at the centre,” he said.

Similarly, Tapan Kumar Bihari, the appointee in CPS said, “I was called for the interview and I was selected. I am not aware of who the experts were in my selection panel. The VC would be able to better answer about procedural violations. But if my centre’s chairperson, Anupama Roy, has written a dissenting letter against the selection process, I will first discuss the matter with her to know her view.”

With two differing viewpoints, there is a clear logjam between faculty members and the vice chancellor over the latter’s frequent use of his discretionary power, supposed to be exercised only in emergency situations, and the alleged procedural violations that have happened over the last one year. This does not portend well for this illustrious university’s academic environment. In light of a sustained attack on JNU over the last two years by the political right and a long-drawn battle between the VC and a large section of the academic community, the developments assume great significance.