The Battle for JNU's Soul

The administrative regime is simply following the government’s policy of rampant privatisation of public resources. Such a process is anti-democratic in its imagination and punitive in approach.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is now in a new phase of life. Known as ‘comply or perish’ to us insiders, not a day passes without the administration issuing some circular demanding “compliance” from the faculty or students of the university.

Since most of these demands range from the absurd to the counterproductive, like enforcing students and faculty attendance or arbitrarily rescheduling the academic calendar, most do not comply. Often the faculty, after protracted discussions in the general body meetings of the teachers association, resorts to different modes of protesting this compliance enforcement raj. These protests are then promptly followed by threats and punitive action meant to “discipline” the ‘non-compliant’ – much in the fashion of bullies and thugs. These range from petty and vindictive methods – like docking leave and not processing medical papers – to issuing legal instruments like show-cause notices.

Legal threats are usually issued to just a few, perhaps with the aim of frightening the many. More importantly, issuing more than 150 notices at any given time also exposes the well-known fact that most in the university are opposed to the administration and find laughable the constant threat of disciplinary action against those who refuse to cow down. Those not in JNU or any other university in the country do not immediately understand what is being undertaken here.

Also read: I Was Forced to Quit JNU After Being Denied Salary for Ten Months

Some even wonder why the JNU faculty and students seem to continuously be in protest mode. There are two ways of responding to this. Let’s begin with the counterfactual.

Why did the university not witness this kind of anti-administration protest prior to February 2016? The answer is simple: because such anti-academic and anti-university measures had never been attempted by the administration prior to 2016. The present VC and his administrative coterie are not simply undoing every functioning structure of JNU, they are vandalising the idea of the university.

Here, the second reason to understand JNU’s protests becomes important. The faculty has consistently stated that the changes being made to the university’s structure are not only unnecessary, but also in repeated violation of ordinances and the very Act of parliament that created it. The ongoing protests demonstrate the present administration’s consummate disregard for democratic procedures and well-established conventions, which is deeply injurious to every aspect of the university.

These involve, among other things:

  1. An attack on the admission process (from reducing numbers of students admitted, dismantling the Constitutionally mandated affirmative action policies, or replacing excellent systems of entrance-tests designed to gauge research potential with laughable models of ‘multiple choice questions’);
  2. Drastically reducing funds to the university’s library, so much so that there may be no electronic resources available, come January;
  3. Reducing discussions to a farce in the statutory academic bodies of the university, like the Committees for Advanced Study and Research, Board of Studies and the Academic Council;
  4. A steady interference in all institutional matters, like the appointments of chairs, deans, and the recruitment process.

The space and freedom to teach, research and write in peace –  the very essences of university life – have all been severely jeopardised by such administrative vandalism.

Why has the JNU administration steadily harassed faculty and students?

Why are the demands – be it marking of daily attendance (soon to be biometric) or online entrance examinations, followed by threats and punishments exemplifying the worst kinds of managerial practices?

The answer, once again, is obvious. Privatising a public university requires that its very character be changed completely. JNU was created as a research university in 1970, and has always maintained a very special character. It has provided a very high standard of higher education to students from different regions of India, belonging to any social or economic strata, at minimal cost.

The decades following its creation saw at least two kinds of developments in the university. One was a very high quality of research output, both of the faculty and of young researchers. This also helped in creating many generations of teachers who are presently employed in colleges and universities in India and abroad.

The other was an organic emergence of an extraordinary university culture that synthesised the intellectual and the political – enabling students not only to find their feet as scholars, but also articulate their selfhood as citizens. Students in JNU have historically debated everything from American imperialism, the many failures of the Indian state, to what the university itself ought to be.

The ability to knit this criticality into the very fibre of the university, by creating a space for student engagement in institutional processes (through department level student-faculty committees, or students union representation in boards of study or the Academic Council meetings), is what made JNU a truly democratic university.

Also read: For Sake of Protecting the Idea of a University, JNU Teachers Must Rise

The new tightly-managed and privatised university will not have space for any of this. We can already get glimpses of this in numerous such universities that have mushroomed all over the country. At the outset, they have a prohibitive fee structure that will keep out hundreds of brilliant, though poor and marginalised students, for whom higher education will become unaffordable.

Even ordinary middle class families will not be able to afford such an education. Besides, many new private universities have a biometric attendance system in place; they also do not permit any of its members – faculty, students or the non-teaching staff – to form unions. Contract structures are also beginning to reflect how the private is different from the public – at its most worrying, differential pay scales are being put in place – which will eventually create salary-driven divisions between colleagues appointed at the same level. This will also occur between Indians and non-Indian faculty.

The carrot usually dangled in front of the faculty is that they will have the space to create their own courses. For those of us quite used to doing so for decades in a public university like JNU, the stick that accompanies this privilege seems more like a police baton.

Inherent violence in government-led privatisation of public resources

The present administrative regime is simply following the current government’s policy of rampant privatisation of public resources. Such a process is perforce managerial and anti-democratic in its imagination. The JNU instance makes clear that compliance enforcement and punitive measures are knitted into its very approach.

The only unexpected element in this is how JNU’s university community – its students and faculty – have resisted all attempts at this wanton destruction of a nationally important public institution. They have not succumbed to the management’s speak of becoming “stakeholders”; they know what the stakes are, and continue to fight back as a community of scholars.

The battle for JNU’s survival matters not only to those who work or study there – it has grave implications for the intellectual and political future of the country. Public higher education is a democratic right of all Indians. It is precisely for this reason that all who care about India’s future, and wish to make it safe from ugly corporatisation or bigoted cultural agendas, must fight for the survival of the public university.

Arunima G. is professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, JNU.