The Delhi high court on November 27 instructed the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) administration to pay salaries to Rosina Nasir and myself, Kaustav Banerjee, faculty members at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion – now renamed as the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy.
The case (Kaustav Banerjee vs JNU) pertains to myself and Dr Nasir not having been paid our dues since October 2017.
The JNU administration stopped paying us salaries even as we continued to teach and supervise PhD and M.Phil students, besides executing our duties as hostel wardens.
Denying us our sole source of income was an administrative ploy to get the teachers to leave the university. In its petition to the court, however, the JNU administration argued they did not have the adequate funds.
The University Grants Commission (UGC), over the past decade, has provided grants-in-aid for the country’s social exclusion centres and commission’s lawyer said in court that lakhs were disbursed to the JNU administration in May to meet salary needs. Curiously, JNU’s financial decision makers ‘adjusted’ this grant to past debts.
The Delhi high court judge thus instructed JNU to clear the dues within four weeks, failing which the registrar was summoned to appear in person. The judge also instructed the UGC to release the grant – if not already done – within two weeks of the hearing date. The university was thereby stripped of the ingenious plea of not receiving UGC funds.
The judge remarked in passing that the JNU VC, also a committee member in the UGC, can mutually sort out the problem. But that the teachers must be paid.
The two of us started M.Phil/PhD programmes in the centre with two other colleagues in 2013. The centre now has 70 students working on various aspects of discrimination and exclusion. Almost 20 students have submitted their M.Phil and three their PhD dissertations under our supervision.
The urgency to suspend our salaries from October 2017 onwards seems to be connected to the administration hiring two new faculty members to fill permanent positions created in the School of Social Sciences.
The interviews for these posts, which were held in early October 2017 under the new dean, ran into serious controversy. The dean was accused of bypassing several senior faculty members and was instrumental in handpicking the new recruits. According to some newspaper reports, the fresh entrants faced allegations of plagiarism. It was also alleged that they lacked specific degrees required for the positions.
Similar allegations have surfaced in many fresh appointments. But this case is especially stark since two serving faculty members could lose their jobs to accommodate the new recruits.
The court has, however, righted one wrong and the due salaries will now possibly be paid.
Even as the court intervention provided collective relief, I resigned under duress and moved to another university. Rosina Nasir continues to teach at JNU.
While this sordid saga might seem like an internal JNU matter, it actually has far wider implications. The UGC is indifferent to all 35 centres spread across the country. Even though it funds them, the centres are either monetarily starved or do not have regularised faculty. In the last five years, UGC has thrice tried to close down these centres, especially the one at JNU.
Last March, the UGC sent a letter to the centre ordering its closure. Later, the UGC clarified that the letter was forged and an investigation is underway to probe it.
Amid the furore last March, the centres were given a year-long extension.
However, the extension, formally notified only in July 2017, was pared down to six months, subject to a review by UGC. Not only did the staff at these centres suffer job-loss anxieties, but we were also not paid salaries for several months.
On two occasions in the past – first in 2013 and then in 2017 – the UGC withdrew its closure notices saying the centre’s work will be reviewed. Reviews, indeed, are useful for the government to formulate inclusive policies.
The centres were again sent a letter dated September 27, 2017, seeking details of the quantifiable outcomes. They were further requested to send within one week the details of the last five years’ work.
Even the Sangh mouthpiece, Panchajanya, targeting the centre, published an article titled ‘JNU – Daraar ka garh’ (loosely translated as JNU – the fortress fomenting division), where it framed the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion and the North East India Study Program as part of a larger “conspiracy,” with “leftists and Christian missionaries” corrupting minds of the educated class.
Failure to close down the centres led to the next option – undo the centre’s academic character: appoint unqualified candidates if only because of their loyalty to the present government.
My extension along with that of Dr Nasir was scheduled to end on September 30, 2017. The UGC, however, extended our tenure till March 2019 vide a notice dated October 17, 2017. The centre in the meantime held interviews for two permanent positions on October 13, 2017. Two new faculty members were hired. The only way the administration could have made us leave was by stripping us of our salaries.
Under duress, I finally resigned on July 31, after not being paid for ten months.
I teach at a university and not a gurukul system. I teach ekalavyas to not cut off their thumbs and tell them how to wield pens.
JNU taught me to doubt almost everything. From questioning one’s own disciplinary boundaries to the irreverent run-ins with authority, the university taught me to experiment with many truths.
Kaustav Banerjee is currently associate professor, Global Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi.