Jawaharlal Nehru University – We are Dying, Mr. Vice-Chancellor

We are now mere employees, not self-reflexive, autonomous, dignified teachers and researchers.

I have been teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University since 1990. Possibly, the nilgais, trees, butterflies and even stray dogs that characterise the landscape of the university recognise me, and say ‘hello’ to me as I roam around the campus. However, the administration looks at the world somewhat differently. It suspects; it classifies; it disciplines. No wonder, recently, I was blocked twice by the security guard hired from a private agency. Fortunately, I was carrying my university identity card with me. He looked at it carefully; and then he observed me from top to bottom. Finally, he allowed me to enter the campus. I do not blame the security guard – possibly, a migrant from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh somehow surviving in this heartless city;  he has been instructed to do his ‘duty’. True, for some time I felt hurt; but then, as a ‘pragmatic’ citizen I told myself: “Come on. Don’t you allow every part of your body to be touched and scrutinised by the cops in the airport and the railway station? Don’t you realise that surveillance is desirable and normal for your safety, and the safety of the nation? Accept it. Cool down.” Yes, we are all learning to accept. Possibly, it is not far away when we will accept special dress code for us; we will accept CCTV cameras in our classrooms; and we will allow our lectures to be recorded by an ‘external agency’. We will prove ourselves as disciplined/loyal employees. And everything is for the glory of the nation!

A ‘saviour’ amid disempowered teachers

As a student, I joined this university in 1979. K.R. Narayanan was our vice-chancellor. Let me recall an incident. He was delivering a lecture on India’s foreign policy. After his brilliant speech, he invited young students and researchers to ask questions; and with absolute comfort he responded to their questions. The incident made me feel that a self-confident/dignified vice-chancellor is one who treats even young students as potential colleagues and intellectual partners. These days I am not very sure whether I can retain the similar expectation from the vice-chancellors of our universities.

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

There are moments when in the absence of an environment conducive to a dignified communication, many of us do not get an opportunity to know our vice-chancellors. Well, I met my VC only once when he came to our Centre to chair a special meeting. Possibly, I too have to be blamed for this. I teach; I do not ‘socialise’ much. My ‘public relations’ skill, I suspect, are terrible. Moreover, in recent times there were two functions that I chose to boycott – the functions where the vice-chancellor, as the notification suggested, was supposed to be present. Let me state my reasons. I feel that Sadhguru – the ‘spiritual guru’ who sells the package of ‘inner engineering’ – was not the right person to be invited on the occasion of the Nehru Memorial Lecture, and initiate a constructed ‘real’ conversation on ‘youth and truth’ . Likewise, I was not very enthusiastic to be taught the lessons of bravery and patriotism by a noisy/hysteric retired Army General for celebrating the ‘Surgical Strike Day’.

At times, I see myself as a character that Franz Kafka would have loved to depict – a cog in a machine receiving only circulars and ‘show cause’ notices from the administrative ‘castle’. There is no communication, no dialogue in which two colleagues participate as equal partners and debate whether the autonomy of the course teacher – sustained through the fusion of horizons in the process of a dialogue with the colleagues in the respective centres – is sacred and important in the domain of advanced teaching and research, or whether without the bureaucratic practice of mandatory attendance it is still possible to evolve appropriate pedagogic practices to make both teachers and students perpetually alert, accountable and responsible. Instead, it is almost like an army command. Reflect on the kind of notices/circulars that invade our mental space almost everyday.

The Dean is requesting each faculty member of the school to provide the course outline and reading list, the mid semester question papers and term paper questions in soft copy for every paper being taught by him/her, to the Dean’s office, through the Chairperson by October 8, 2018.


As desired by the Dean, you (the chairperson) are requested to please provide the names of those faculty members who have not been taking students’s attendance in their lectures since January 2018, by 10 am of Monday October 8, 2018.

Also read: The Danger That Lies in Academic Bureaucrats Taking Over Our Universities

At times, what worries me is that the administration has eventually succeeded in its endeavour. Yes, fear is all-pervading. When you target 48 teachers (by issuing show cause notices) out of not less than 200 teachers who participated in a peaceful demonstration for articulating their concerns relating to academic/pedagogic issues, you try to nurture the psychology of fear. One begins to think: “Well, this time I am saved. But if tomorrow I participate in yet another protest march, they may target me. Hence, it is better to be careful.” Yes, fear is of different kinds – fear of salary cut, fear of service break, fear of not getting the sabbatical or even duty leave, fear of being evicted from the warden’s residence, fear of not being appointed as a  chairperson or a Dean. And this fear, I suspect, would be cancerous if the administration imposes the Central Civil Services Rules on us. As fear spreads, the administration succeeds in dividing – and dividing negatively – the teaching community. I tend to believe that as teachers we can classify ourselves into following categories:

‘Silent’ teachers – those who retain the pretence of professional ‘value-neutrality’, and express no opinion on the issues affecting us, be it the proposal of introducing the biometrics, or the seat cut for research programmes. This ‘silence’ can be forced or even diplomatic.

‘Well-adjusted’ teachers – those who think that as teachers we should not make noise; instead, we should adjust and continue to lead our ‘normal’ lives with our decent middle class comfort.

‘Strategic’ teacher – those who think that smartness is the need of the hour. The best strategy, they believe, is to wait till 2019. In case Rahul Gandhi comes to power, something might happen…. Meanwhile, they wait, and smartly separate their ‘Marxist/subalternist’ scholarship from everyday practice.

‘Loyal’ teachers – those who believe that it is always good to be friendly with those who are in power. The emperor, they think, can never be naked. They love to find themselves in all sorts of committees. They smell power and confuse its temporality with something eternal.

‘Mad/idealist’ teachers – those who, because of the burden of conscience, create problems, raise their dissenting voices, express their agony and pain, and without being diplomatic continue to dream of the idea of a dialogic university enriched by academic autonomy, enabling administration and symmetrical teacher-taught relationship based on trust, not surveillance.

File photo of JNU vice-chancellor M. Jagadeesh Kumar. Credit: PTI

Apart from this division, what further spreads poison is the changing nature of collegial relationship. It is forcing the chairperson to behave more like an administrator rather than a colleague representing the collective voice of the Centre; and the Dean too is required to exist just like a mediator between the administration and the chairpersons. It creates the culture of the sub-group of ‘like minded’ people; it destroys the element of basic trust among the colleagues; the psychology of whispering and gossiping causes a toxic social environment. Faculty Committee meetings become noisy; and Academic Council meetings lose the slightest trace of transparency. The irony is that even many of us who have been teaching here for quite some time tend to suspect ourselves. We want to believe that we are essentially irresponsible and hence the administration is right in thinking of the biometrics. We say that the essay type/subjective questions in the entrance test are faulty and hence we must immediately accept the online MCQ pattern of examination. We feel that we ought to be perpetually tutored by the Deans; and hence we must submit the course outline, reading list and even mid-semester/end-semester question papers to them for the final approval. With such chronic self-doubt many of us have begun to believe that everything that used to happen in this place was wrong, and hence the present vice-chancellor is a saviour: the best thing that has happened to this ‘troubled’ public university!

We are dying…. It becomes difficult to concentrate, read a book and think of the lecture because responding to the ever-expanding circulars is becoming our first priority. The other day a student of mine teaching at Mysore University invited me to deliver a talk in a seminar she would be organising in the month of November. I refused because I was not very sure whether I (already stigmatised through a show cause notice) would get the duty leave. Yes, we are broken. We are now mere employees, not self-reflexive, autonomous, dignified teachers and researchers. Mr. vice-chancellor, it seems, this is your victory. Celebrate it at the cost of the fall of an iconic institution.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU.