The Many Reasons Behind the Anger in JNU

The JNU community’s list of grievances are based on objective facts, ones that are made visible by the data that the university administration itself generates.

Credit: PTI

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is in the news again, for the protests that are roiling the university following the compulsory attendance farmans (as they have been christened by the students’ union) unilaterally issued on the authority of its vice-chancellor, M. Jagadesh Kumar. In what has become a familiar pattern to the university community, every instrument that can be invoked to repress students’ and teachers’ dissent, immediately has – students have been threatened with the withdrawal of meagre fellowships, hostel and medical facilities, police complaints and FIRs, and disciplinary action has been initiated against the students and the students’ union.

Even a place for the ‘nation’ has also been found in this discourse by Kumar, on the slightly bizarre thesis that the performance of a daily obeisance to JNU VC’s diktats is sufficient to reassure the nation’s indigent and working peoples that their tax rupees are being well and responsibly spent.

What has been heartening, and by now expected, is the JNU community’s and a section of the public’s response to this attempt to misrepresent its protest as one in favour of absenteeism. While JNU protests are incomplete without slogans and human chains, teachers and students have fought with their minds and their pens most of all. The sheer volume of perspectives presented in the opinion pieces that this issue has brought forth could easily be published into a manual on how to think about university-level pedagogy; but it would be a mistake to see the resistance holding out so determinedly as merely just about a single pedagogical issue or arising from the left-liberal inclinations of the people who speak out the most regularly. In fact, the JNU community’s list of grievances is based on objective facts, ones that are made visible by the data that the JNU administration itself generates.

Faculty appointments and promotions

In October 2016, the VC of JNU arrogated to himself the power not only to nominate experts (from a pre-approved database) for selection committees for faculty recruitment and promotion but also to name individuals as experts in the first place. That this move is in transgression of the UGC Regulations 2010 as well as the JNU Act has not stopped him in his tracks, nor has the argument that the VC cannot have expertise in every subject taught/researched in the university made an impression. In fact, the JNU administration has flatly refused to show the minutes of selection committees to the members of the executive council — appointments/promotions in JNU are, therefore, now made with information being withheld from the appointing authority. The media has already reported widely what this policy has reduced JNU selection interviews to.

The table below shows how widespread this tampering is, with 47% of the selection committees in 2017 comprising experts whose name had not been proposed by the schools/centres involved. In many selection committees, all three of the required experts so chosen by the VC are not from the approved panels.


School/Special Centre

Selection committees held Appointments made Positions left vacant Selection committees tampered
Life Sciences 4 3 1 1
Computer and Systems Sciences 7 4 3 1
Environmental Sciences 3 3 0 2
Arts and Aesthetics 2 1 1 2
Nanosciences 2 0 2 0
Molecular Medicine 2 1 1 0
Study of Law and Governance 1 1 0 1
Language, Literature & Culture Studies 15 12 3 6
International Studies 5 4 1 4
Social Sciences 10 9 1 7
Total 51 38 13 24

(Information source: Academic and executive council minutes, which euphemistically record the VC’s addition of experts to the database as his having ‘finalised’ it.)

Currently, the number of advertised positions that have yet to be interviewed stands at 274, and if these are filled in the manner that has been followed since January 2017, the academic quality of the university is set to be compromised for a very long time indeed.

To make matters worse, promotions have all but stalled, even though scores of JNU faculty are eligible for promotion, and many have applied. In all of 2017, only 17 selection committees have been held for promotions, and of these four colleagues have been denied promotions on extremely flimsy grounds, as reported in the press earlier. Even though one of these colleagues has obtained an order from the Delhi high court for a reconvening of the selection committee, the court-mandated deadline for this has long since expired and no interview has been held.

This is particularly demoralising for faculty at the level of assistant professors, whom UGC regulations doom to a 12-year stagnation. This period is punctuated by several intermediate stages that have to be cleared, and a delay in jumping through the hoops means an unconscionable delay in promotions. But far from attending to this basic responsibility, in the JNU of today, there are attempts to undo the promotions already made.

School/Special Centre Promotions applied for Promotions denied
Biotechnology 2 1
Computer & Systems Sciences 2 0
Language, Literature & Culture Studies 6 3
International Studies 1 0
Social Sciences 2 0
 Total 13 4

Violence to the university’s research character

JNU has always been a very small university, primarily dedicated to research. Its student intake underwent a 54% increase by 2012 in keeping with the requirements of Central Educational Institutions Reservation Act of 2006, but the seats for research students (henceforth, intake) – to integrated M.Phil./PhD and M.Tech./PhD and the standalone Direct PhD programmes – have never crossed 1,000.

In March 2017, the VC unilaterally cut the intake to JNU’s research programme by 83%, citing that the supervisor-student ratio had been exceeded as prescribed by the UGC in 2016. What was purposely ignored was that the relatively high number of research students per teacher by 2012 was because of the mandated 54% increase in seats over the 2006 figures, by the Central Education Institutions Act. This increase was accomplished in a phased manner in JNU by the academic year 2012-13, and since then, had never been reversed because it was required by a national level reservation policy. Until 2017, that is.

The seat-cut in JNU was a form of cruel punishment in lieu of accolades because even as JNU teachers responsibly bore the brunt of the expansion of reservation without a concomitant faculty expansion, most other universities did not even implement the CEI Act for research degree admissions. A rise in the percentage share of SC/ST/OBC students in total students from 19.7% in 2005 to 51.2% has correlated with a rise in the supervisory load per faculty from 7.3 to 9.2 students.

Faculty Strength Research Students Total Students SC ST OBC
2005-06 396 2882 5264 669 370 NA
2006-07 449 3061 5506 703 425 288
2007-08 469 3241 5454 742 410 290
2008-09 491 3699 6025 837 461 772
2009-10 497 3668 6153 837 495 1029
2010-11 470 3864 6665 913 558 1214
2011-12 452 4359 7304 988 598 1468
2012-13 478 4609 7677 1058 632 1948
2013-14 522 4846 7677 1058 632 1948
2014-15 565 4990 8308 1201 643 2434
2015-16 565 5219 8432 1118 632 2568

In the 2017-18 admissions, not only were the seats cut but even of the 290 seats for which 4,289 people wrote the examination, 131 were not even offered for admission. Of these, 100 were reserved category seats, even though there were enough applicants to fill all of them. This colossal failure of admissions was effected by the JNU VC’s unilateral implementation of an admission policy that removed the award of deprivation points for research programmes and set highly unrealistic cut-off marks for the written examination at a blanket 50% across open and reserved categories.

The outcome of all these measures is that the 2017-18 admissions have changed the university’s student composition drastically. Where once an average classroom of 50 students in a research programme had a roughly 50-50 distribution of reserved vs open seats, for the 2017-18 batch, the number of reserved category students has fallen to just under six. This is because in the final seats offered for admission, the reservation for SCs is at 1.3% rather than the mandated 15%, for STs at 0.689% rather than 7.5%, for OBCs at 8.27% rather than 27.5% and the physically challenged at 0.34% rather than 3%.

The withdrawal of the JNU special policy of deprivation points (the award of up to 12 grace marks given to ameliorate regional, economic, educational and gender disadvantage) from research degrees has resulted in the loss of an all India-character of JNU, with only students from 15 states/union territories joining JNU, as compared to an average of 34 states/UTs over the preceding three years.

The 2017-18 admissions show a sharp reduction in the percentage of rural students and economically disadvantaged students. The university is more decisively urban than rural in 2017-18, and the share of students coming from poor and economically weaker backgrounds has declined drastically.

Rural Urban Not Specified
2014-15 42.70% 57.29% 0
2015-16 38.41% 44.04% 17.53%
2016-17 48.30% 51.58% 0.11%
2017-18 28.24% 71.75% 0


Income < Rs 6,000 Income < Rs 12,000 Income > Rs 12,001 Unspecified
2014-15 24.18% 20.02% 55.78% 0
2015-16 23.37% 19.37% 50.32% 6.92%
2016-17 25.50% 20.54% 53.38% 8.91%
2017-18 7.63% 12.21% 58.01% 22.13%

Why does the JNU community care so deeply about the change in the nature of its student population? First, a pro-poor, all-India character of the student and teacher populace is one of the main objectives that the university must meet, one clearly defined in the first schedule of the JNU Act.

Second, there is a concern for the maintaining the intellectual legacy of the institution built up over five decades. If today the university is regarded highly for the contribution its students and teachers make in studying a great range and variety of research questions, this is primarily because its research students come from communities and region and with experiences that makes them salient questions.

Third, being primarily a research university, JNU is conscious of the fact that it trains not only researchers but teachers in higher education for the country as a whole, and the violence that is being committed through this change in admission policy has a direct national impact.

But most of all, the universal concern is for the university’s legacy that another vision of higher education is possible – where the sets defined by social factors like the ‘poorest of the poor’ and intellectual parameters of ‘ablest of the ablest’ are not rendered mutually disjoint by a competitive admission process.

Rampant authoritarianism and wilful ineptitude

Since virtually the first day that Kumar has taken over, students union representatives have borne the brunt of a punitive administration. In 2017, JNU students protesting the university’s callousness in addressing the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmad and the very many illegal changes to the admission and other policies of the university have been made to pay fines ranging from Rs 5,000 to 20,000, totally a figure close to Rs 5 lakh.

Most if not all of these offences relate to activities like students wishing to meet the VC and/or members of his team, after repeated requests for appointments have failed and all democratic expression in meetings like the academic council and the standing committee on admissions has been muzzled. In none of the alleged actions has there been any physical violence or damage to property the charge. In fact, the only incident that has been visibly demonstrated as a violence targeting JNU property has been led by the ABVP, but no inquiry has been initiated into it.

The university’s much celebrated Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment was illegally dissolved on September 18 last year and replaced by a committee packed with the VC’s nominees that inspires no trust amongst the very persons whose grievances it is supposed to redress. The net result of these efforts has been that JNU has become officially sanitised of sexual harassment – the newly constituted Internal Complaints Committee does no gender sensitisation activities, no disciplinary action for sexual harassment has been publicised yet, and there are disturbing reports of violations of confidentiality, with public notices being pasted on doors of women students issuing them peremptory instructions to make them appear before the committee.

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But the punishment being meted out to students is not the only thing that is rotten in JNU, as the violence being done to its democratic institutions is nothing short of cruel and unusual. The manner in which the academic council is run has been the subject of much protest since mid-2016 – professor Kavita Singh’s description of proceedings of the 144th AC captures the general atmosphere for all meetings held now. An entirely new power has been invented to ram through decisions that have no takers — the power of the VC “in his capacity as the Chairperson of the Academic Council”. Whatever strikes the mind of the VC is now an academic council decision, and overwhelming dissent is represented in the minutes as the disagreement of a “few” unnamed members.

As a consequence, there is utter mayhem in the management of the academic affairs of the university. Seats for intake are based on a complex and long drawn out bargaining interaction with one or the other henchman of the VC, as the VC has determined a policy that is based on soothsaying rather than principle – for example, a teacher is to be denied any M.Phil. students, because once the students complete that degree, they may choose to do a PhD and the teacher may end up supervising more than the UGC-mandated maximum number of students.

That students frequently leave after M.Phil. degrees, or that PhD students may deregister or discontinue, is not in the realm of possibility. To top it all, each decision is given retrospective effect at the very beginning. This illegality – accompanied by rampant ungrammaticality that only confounds the message further – characterises the (il)logic of every single circular on admissions, M.Phil./PhD ordinances, and most recently, attendance and Skype vivas. A good example of this retrospective mayhem can be found in the university’s two recent losses in the courts, including on the delinking of the MPhil and PhD degrees.

Most of the chaos in JNU is wilful because the intent here is to publicly present that the outrage that follows every such decision as just the screams of agony of Left-liberal privilege brought to a just end by a saffron wrecking ball. All potential challenges to critique within decision-making bodies are quickly being eliminated, with the principle of rotation by seniority being abandoned at both ends – neither is seniority being respected nor is rotation, as not only are certain favoured individuals being appointed deans/chairpersons, bypassing one more eligible colleagues, others are being re-appointed.

No. of faculty affected by centre
Seniority – dean 2 5 1 1 1
Seniority – chairperson 3
Rotation – chairperson 1 1 1

This restriction of all important administrative posts is a university-wide plan, with a handpicked few being entrusted with more than one major administrative post. A hostel warden is also the head of the university cell responsible for the recruitment and promotion of faculty and the head of the UGC human resource development cell; one chairperson of a Centre is also concurrently the finance officer, while another chairperson simultaneously heads the university’s advanced studies fellowship Centre; a professor appointed a couple of months ago is also nominated to the JNU’s Executive Council as an external member and is also a hostel warden, while still on probation.

In this last feat, he is not alone, as some other appointees on probation have also garnered university positions within very short periods of time of their appointments. The band of friendly followers is quite small and decidedly gender-imbalanced – the chief proctor had to resign on the afternoon of September 18, 2017 to take over as the chairperson of the Internal Complaints Committee that abruptly and illegally replaced the GSCASH, but efforts to grow it are ongoing. Although terms of wardenship are specified by the rules as two years, a total of 18 wardens have been renewed for second terms ranging from six months to a year, presumably to make way for housing for preferential allotment to a select few.

A great deal has been invested in packaging the attack on JNU as primarily an ideological one, reflected in the VC’s requests for installations of army tanks and play-acting at military marches through the JNU campus. Whether or not the Indian public has been persuaded by this nationalist pageantry is not easy to determine, but no one who has been in JNU these past two years knows that the hatchet that is being taken to the university has any other ideological motivation than the destruction of the institution itself. It is for this reason alone that the resistance in JNU remains loud and vibrant, and in being so, it is an important defender of the idea of the Indian public university.

Ayesha Kidwai teaches linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.