An Appeal to the JNU Vice-Chancellor to Come Walk with Students and Teachers

To stop the core foundations of JNU from eroding with each new punitive proposal or rule, a teacher makes a heartfelt request to the VC to soak in the spirit of the university and become a fellow colleague.

With intense pain and agony, I am writing this piece. This is both personal as well as collective. It is personal because the university that once nurtured me as a student, and enabled me to evolve as a teacher/researcher is in crisis. Its core foundations with which we grew up seem to be crumbling.

Instead of love and trust, critical thinking and creative research, philosophic debate and life-affirming dialogue, I find myself in a changed world characterised by all-pervading fear, suspicion and surveillance. Where is the time to talk about books and ideas?

Every morning begins with negativity-yet, another imposition of a bureaucratically designed rule, yet another round of warning to students and teachers, yet another notice of removal of deans, chairpersons and hostel wardens. Moreover, this agony is also our shared destiny. None seem to be happy. I see students uncertain about their future; I see them angry, depressed and helpless. And then I see my colleagues suffering; with the delicacy of satyagraha they are protesting, and trying to persuade the administration to restore the original spirit of the university – its decentralised form of democratic governance, its faith in the autonomy of the teacher and its liberal values.

Yet, the administration behaves like a heartless machine. As I see this insensitivity on the part of the administration, I feel like making yet another attempt: appealing to the Vice-Chancellor to initiate a healthy dialogue with students and teachers.

This is possible only when the Vice-Chancellor chooses to see himself as our colleague, a teacher/researcher like us, and an eternal student. However, if power constrains him, and his chamber becomes like a Kafkaesque castle, it would be difficult for him to understand our agony and pain.

However, I would like to imagine that at his finest moment of contemplation he would understand that he too is a teacher capable of comprehending what another teacher is saying and feeling. I have been teaching here for last 28 years. And there are teachers who are more experienced than me. For the Vice-Chancellor, JNU is a new experience; and there is no harm if with humility (and humility is the virtue of a good teacher as well as a good administrator) he listens to us, and takes some suggestions.

I have learned three things from this university. First, intellectual freedom and the autonomy of the teacher make a university truly a vibrant centre of learning. Yes, at JNU this creative freedom has enabled its teachers to excel, to experiment with pedagogy and curriculum, to engage with new frontiers of research. That is why, the courses we teach are always fresh-enriched by new ideas, new books, new writings. The courses are always in the process of becoming. This has distinguished the university from a traditional university suffering from the dead weight of old fashioned syllabus and teaching methods.

Second, as a confluence of diverse knowledge traditions, our university has always been experimental; its goal is not mere ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’-something that the market-governed institutes of technology and management take for granted. A university is a domain of ideas, dreams, utopias and new possibilities.

No wonder, JNU could emerge as a learning space that, together with sciences, can nurture a historian like Romila Thapar or Bipan Chandra, a political theorist like Gopal Guru or Sudipta Kaviraj, or a sociologist like Yogendra Singh and T.K. Oommen. They inspired young minds, and created the ground for the birth of truly responsible citizenship, not a bunch of ‘anti-nationals’ as the ruling establishment propagates.

Third, political sensitivity is an integral component of meaningful education. If politics is about a constant reflection on power-the way it is possessed, disseminated, exercised and shared, no student/teacher (irrespective of the academic discipline) can escape it. JNU has always encouraged this kind of responsible negotiation with the domain of the political. A debate on gender and caste, Marx and Gandhi, Ambedkar and Phule, state and nationalism, ought to characterise the spirit of studentship. Unlike many traditional universities, the political culture in JNU, far from being violent and lumpenised, is filled with the richness of ideological debate and culture of resistance that enables one to interrogate the official truth or the dominant common sense. 

If the Vice-Chancellor begins to appreciate this spirit of JNU, he would be able to rethink many of his proposals and rules.

For instance, I would like him to realise that the issue is not about attendance. Is there any teacher who would not like his/her students to come to the class? We all want vibrant classrooms. However, we believe that with our engaged pedagogy and constant dialogue with students we are capable of assuring voluntary participation. The very idea of mandatory attendance is oppressive; it introduces fear and inauthenticity; and it crushes the ethos of trust that ought to prevail between the teacher and the taught. Yes, every morning we all have to work on this art of responsible freedom – the freedom to learn and attend classes without regimentation and surveillance. The spirit of JNU is precisely this project-learning without fear.

I would appeal to him to come to our classes, and personally see how with absolute sincerity, enthusiasm and enriched dialogue we learn and unlearn. I admit that we are not perfect; we have to remain self-reflexive. However, a non-dialogic/bureaucratic principle of regimentation destroys the possibility of organic growth from within.

I would also appeal to the Vice-Chancellor to see and relate to students as human souls, not objects of surveillance and discipline. It is not that I agree with every move they take, every slogan they utter. However, as young learners they are filled with extraordinary creative energy. As teachers, our primary task is to engage with them, touch their souls, and persuade them to choose a path that is non-violent, academically rich, politically mature and ethically sensitive. If the Vice-Chancellor loves to rediscover himself as a teacher with conscience, he himself would see the absurdity of the punitive measures he is taking-from charging heavy fines to registering FIRs against them. A good teacher, let him realise is self-confident; he/she does not need punitive measures to ‘discipline’ students.

My final appeal: Mr Vice-Chancellor, please do not see it as a ‘left’ versus ‘right’ conflict. At this stage, it is essentially a struggle for restoring the idea of a university – a liberal university that values epistemological pluralism, freedom from fear, autonomy and dignity of the teacher and the basic trust between the teacher and the taught.

The founders of JNU, and all of us in our own ways created this university with our blood and hard work; and it has transformed people’s lives.

The time has come for the Vice-Chancellor to make a crucial choice – whether to become a fellow colleague, and walk with students and teachers for taking the university to greater heights, or to annihilate the foundations of an academic culture that, as history records, many illumined young minds, researchers and teachers have emerged from. Power comes and withers away; but the Vice-Chancellor should not forget that history judges us on the basis of our ideals and practices.     

Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.