Will Centre's 'Reform' See Panjab University Lose Its Democratic Structure From November 1?

With the final date of the university’s current elected Senate drawing closer and no fresh elections so far this year, stakeholders are protesting the imposition of the New Education Policy’s provision of a board of governors nominated by the chancellor.

When the four-year term of the Senate, the highest governing body of the Panjab University, Chandigarh, ends on October 31, 2020, it might mark the last chapter of the university’s autonomy and democracy since it was set up under the Punjab University Act of 1882.

From November 1 this year, according to a letter dated October 20 from the University Grants Commission (UGC) under directions from the Union Ministry of Education, Panjab University is to begin the process of governance reform under the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020. This essentially means that elected governing bodies like the Senate and its executive arm, the Syndicate, will be disbanded and replaced by a board of governors nominated by the chancellor.

The present Senate was notified in 2016 by Hamid Ansari, then vice president of India, in his capacity as chancellor of Panjab University. The senate has six ex officio members, including the chief minister of Punjab, the chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana high court and officials from the finance and education departments of Punjab and Chandigarh, 49 members elected from constituencies such as professors, associate professors, assistant professors, principals of colleges and graduates of the university and 36 members nominated by the vice-chancellor. Fifteen members of the Senate comprise the Syndicate. The Syndicate’s term ends on December 31 this year.

The election of senators from the various constituencies is usually completed by the end of September every four years, but this year it was officially postponed for two months by the vice chancellor on August 15 with the COVID-19 pandemic as his excuse and then postponed again indefinitely by the Chandigarh administration on October 17.

The Senate and Syndicate as they exist today are not in tune with either the present government at the Centre or the university’s appointed vice chancellor. Thus, when the October 20 letter from the UGC arrived, it became clear to university teachers and senators such as former Chandigarh MP Pawan Kumar Bansal that the democratic structure of the university will be demolished and it will meet the same fate as the central universities of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), coming directly under the control of the Ministry of Education and RSS-inspired vice chancellors with oppressive and anti-academic administrations.

Panjab University’s students’ centre. Photo: Sanyam Bahga/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 3.0

A long history of democracy

Of all the universities in India, only Panjab University, Chandigarh, has a fully democratic governing structure. Remarkably, this structure has survived intact since the university was founded in 1882.

At present, there are nearly a thousand universities in India, which include more than 400 Central and state universities. The autonomy of the university was a pious concept, which expressed itself through every university’s own act. Since 2014, however, the concept of autonomy has been undermined. This has been emphasised by this year’s so-called New Education Policy, which insists upon a single type of governance of all universities, Central and state, which is a direct assault not only on the autonomy of the universities, but even on the federal structure of the country and the rights of the states.

The University of Punjab was the only Indian university to be divided when India was partitioned by the British in 1947. Since it was based in Lahore, the nascent government in East Punjab set up the East Punjab University via an ordinance on September 27, 1947 and the Panjab University began functioning from October 1, 1947.

However, in both Lahore and Chandigarh, the university maintained the original structure of governance, with the elected Senate as its highest governing body. The Senate page of the Panjab University website says: “The Senate shall have the entire management of, and superintendence over the affairs, concerns and property of the University and shall provide for that management, and exercise that superintendence in accordance with the statutes, rules and regulations for the time being in force.”

But the structure of the Panjab University, Chandigarh, has more complexities. After partition, the 1947 Act provided for the governor of Punjab to be its chancellor, but after the creation of Haryana in 1966, when the colleges of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were affiliated to Panjab University for a few years, the Central government changed the Act and made Panjab University an inter-state university – the only inter-state university in the country. The chancellor’s position was now no longer held by the governor of Punjab, but by the vice president of India.

After the states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh set up their own universities, which left only the Punjab colleges affiliated to Panjab University, Chandigarh, the university was not returned to the state of Punjab as it should have been. Though Punjab claimed the university, its location in Chandigarh, which is claimed by both Punjab and Haryana and thus is still a union territory, means that it remains an inter-state university, not the state university of Punjab, with the vice president of India still serving as its chancellor.

However, university finances are shared 60:40 by the Centre and the state of Punjab. So Punjab has a heavy stake in the shape of the university and no change in its governing structure can be done by the Centre without taking the state of Punjab on board. In the past, every time the Centre tried to convert Panjab University into a Central university, the move created a political storm in the state. Now, if the university’s governing structure is arbitrarily changed by the Central government, it will become a political issue as well. Already the people of Punjab are up in arms against the Centre’s ‘anti-farmer’ laws. Any arbitrary change in Panjab University’s governing status is likely to be seen by the people of Punjab as an encroachment on the state’s rights.

The resistance 

Despite these facts, well-wishers of the university are anxious. They believe that the Centre shows no concern for the feelings of the people and does as it wishes without bothering about the niceties of procedural propriety. The subdued judiciary makes the Central government more arrogant. Doing away even with parliamentary procedure without resistance on the roads makes the government bolder.

As the final date of the current Senate’s term draws closer, those involved with the university have begun their protests. The Panjab University Teachers’ Association has written to the administrator of Chandigarh, asking him to ensure that the senate polls are held immediately. At the same time, 15 senators from Panjab University have also asked chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh to intervene in the matter.

The Central government has so far shown no qualms in crushing the governing structures of other universities. Though the elected teachers’ association, the students’ union and employees’ associations of Panjab University are all opposed to the change in the university’s governing structure, it seems clear that the Central government is determined to destroy this great university as they earlier tried to destroy JNU, Jamia and AMU.

A view on the JNU campus. Credit: Kiran Jonnalagadda/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The JNU campus. Credit: Kiran Jonnalagadda/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Democratic governing structures are conducive for research and creative development of the human mind, for knowledge generation and for producing good and healthy citizens devoid of hatred. But the present rulers of India appear to want no thinkers, only followers.

Punjab University, both in Lahore and Chandigarh, has produced exemplary personalities in fields ranging from politics to the various disciplines of academics, including former prime ministers Manmohan Singh, Inder Kumar Gujral, writers Mulk Raj Anand, Balraj Sahni and Bhishm Sahni, historian Romila Thapar, Nobel Laureate scientist Har Gobind Khurana, scientist Satish Dhawan and many more.

Whether the people of Punjab, who are charged with Bhagat Singh’s rational thought, will allow the Centre to subvert Panjab University’s autonomy and democratic governing structure only time will tell.

Chaman Lal, a retired professor from JNU, New Delhi, is a chancellor-nominated fellow and elected Dean, Faculty of Languages, at Panjab University, Chandigarh.