JNU Academic Community Slams VC's Decision to Host Retd Armyman for Saraswati Civilisation Talk

Teachers and students of the Centre for Historical Studies have formally dissociated themselves from a topic that the latter says 'has no relevance'.

New Delhi: In the latest disagreement between the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar and the faculty and students of the institution, the latter – particularly those of the Centre for Historical Studies – have objected to the allegedly unilateral decision of the administration to host a webinar featuring the retired Major-General of the Indian Army G.D. Bakshi.

A few days ago, Jagadesh Kumar announced on his Twitter handle a webinar by Bakshi, also an outspoken supporter of Hindu nationalism who frequently participates in television debates, on the well-settled early Indian debate about the Saraswati civilisation.

Also read: How JNU VC Lost His Own Institution’s Trust

The poster that the VC posted said that the webinar titled ‘The Saraswati Civilisation: A Paradigmatic Shift in Indian History’ was being hosted by CHS on June 13 and had been organised by the centre’s professor Heeraman Tiwari, the chairperson of the centre professor Umesh Kadam, and professor Dipendra Nath Das, the dean of the School of Social Sciences (SSS) which oversees the functioning of CHS.

The VC has been widely criticised for allegedly taking the decision to host a webinar unilaterally, without following the due consultative process with other faculty members of the CHS.

Faculty statement

On Thursday, a majority of the faculty members and students of CHS dissociated themselves from the webinar. Senior faculty members and prominent historians like Kumkum Roy, Supriya Verma, R.Mahalakshmi, Rajat Dutta, Najaf Haider, Indivar Kamtekar, Radhika Singha, Sucheta Mahajan, Sangeeta Dasgupta, along with many others, wrote a letter to the VC indicating that they had not been kept in loop while the chairperson decided to host the webinar, and this itself was a violation of the established code of conduct at the centre.

They said that seminars, conferences and workshops at the CHS are decided by “a set of nominated faculty members who coordinate the Centre’s weekly seminars, usually held on Wednesdays at 3 pm” and these members get the speakers endorsed in a formal faculty meeting.

“The lockdown has given no reason to dispense with this system because the faculty has not decided to do away with this arrangement and faculty meetings have been conducted by the chairperson on Zoom. It would be useful for us to know whether this procedure was followed in the present instance, and if not, we would like to know under whose authorisation was this bypassed,” the letter, which was endorsed by 14 of the 19 teachers in the CHS, said.

Alleging that they were not informed about the webinar despite being available on “mail, WhatsApp group, and other mechanisms”, the senior faculty members said, “In the long-term interests of the functioning of the Centre, it is important that we all remain committed to established practices and norms, and not dispense with them without due process.”

“If this is an individual initiative on your part, then you are being requested to issue a clarification so that the name of the CHS is not used for a programme that has not been endorsed by the faculty,” the letter said.

A “political-communal” move, say students of CHS

The students of CHS were more direct in denying association with the event. “The Centre has always been committed to ensuring that all such speakers possess professional knowledge in their field and base their arguments on historically accurate facts,” a statement written by “Students of CHS” said.

Calling out the redundancy of a webinar on Saraswati Civilisation in the discipline of history, they said:

“Scholars of early India have rejected the attempt to collate the Harappan Civilisation with Rig Vedic culture. It has been done based on the existing chronological gap between the two cultures, the difference in material cultures of Harappan Civilisation and material milieu depicted in the Rig Veda. Currently, this debate has no relevance, except in the minds of those who seek to advance their communal agenda, through an attempt to superimpose the mythical Sarasvati over the well excavated Harappan material culture.”

Also read: Saraswati: The River That Never Was, Flowing Always in the People’s Hearts

The Saraswati civilisation has gained political focus after the BJP-led Narendra Modi government came to power. The BJP and its ideological parent the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have always attempted to establish the existence of Saraswati civilisation in pre-Vedic age, dating back to the period of Harappan civilisation. Their ideological goal has been to show that a glorious Indian civilisation existed in continuum since the Harappan civilisation, through the Vedic and Puranic age, until Muslim “invaders” took over.

However, they have not been able to produce any historical evidence to support the argument. In contrast, independent professional historians have produced both archaeological and textual evidence to debunk what they viewed as only a politically-convenient claim.

Against this backdrop, the students of CHS condemned the event “as a move that can only be inferred as the administration’s blatant disregard for scientific principles, empirical evidence and the pursuit of truth.”

Their statement also objected to the VC giving an university platform to Bakshi who “has often been in the limelight for making sexist and communal statements, apart from the constant vilification he has subjected JNU and its students to.”

“Previous speeches and comments made by Bakshi have been flagged for their hate-mongering nature and factual inaccuracy. Under such circumstances, it is alarming that the university administration chose to invite this person and give him a stage,” the students’ statement said.