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In some academic and even non-academic public circles, it is widely believed that India’s premier central university, Jawaharlal Nehru University, was badly mired in controversy until the advent of its present vice-chancellor in February this year. Such a promise is sadly belied and is, in effect, in danger of being inverted if one goes by the words and proposed deeds of those at the helm of that university’s administration.
There is public assertion by the present V-C, repeatedly and egoistically stated by her, of being the first woman incumbent of that office and also that she is a proud JNUite having earned her postgraduate degrees at that university. One gets the unmistakable feeling that these are, according to her, not only necessary but sufficient credentials for being a deservedly excellent leader for this nationally and internationally reputed institution. What is more, in her self-assertion she takes credit for the fact that many government functionaries, bureaucrats and political leaders are ‘products’ of the university she now heads.
The V-C’s appropriation of the JNU through reflected glory doesn’t just end here; she strongly implies that her appointment by the Union government has been achieved by its consonance with the selfsame authorities’ stated goals of democracy and development (the first two D’s in her ‘Five D’ formula; interview in the Indian Express dated August 22, 2022). Furthermore, she has publicly expressed the view of having acceded willingly to a hierarchical structure in which JNU itself is bound in compliance with the authority of at least three governmental bodies, viz., the UGC, the education ministry and the home ministry.
The patron-client relationship of the Union government with JNU is reciprocal and a cosy one (sample the very recent invitation by the Ministry of Social Justice and Women Empowerment to the V-C, JNU, to deliver the B.R. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture). Two clear implications follow. One, the cherished ideal of university autonomy has gone for a six. Two, the head of an advanced academic institution assiduously apes the current ruling dispensation’s delegated tactic of (mis)appropriating and (pseudo) justifying as its own the legacy of achievement and sacrifice of its national luminaries.
The Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri has justly remarked that we Indians have a penchant for extolling icons rather than their works. And, in this process of blind veneration, the thought and work of these icons gets warped and misshapen. The JNU V-C’s reported public statement that our gods (by which she means only the ‘Hindu Gods’) are not Brahmins and that there are Kshatriya, Shudra and even aboriginal gods, betrays her unwitting distortion of what she thinks are anthropological truths about caste and religion. Whosoever thought that Hindu gods were aligned with caste hierarchy? How abysmally ignorant – academically and scientifically – can be this understanding of anthropology and sociology.
Similarly about history at JNU. By placing the ‘iconic’ figures of historians Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra in oppositional contrast to equally ‘iconic’ historians R.C. Majumdar, Nilakantha Shastri and Jadunath Sarkar, our learned V-C has inverted the relationship between the statues and their meanings. Does one need to iterate that in actual work of historical scholarship in JNU or in any other university, both these sets of scholars and many others are conjointly consulted?
Every citizen would agree that loose jargon and jumle-baazi should be avoided at all cost in the “epistemic community” (V-C’s own words) of a university. After all, what does sound methodology and analytical acuity of social science disciplines and the humanities teach us? So where does the repetition of formulaic platitudes like the ‘Five D’s’ (democracy, development, difference, dissent and diversity), ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’, ‘vishwaguru’ etc. lead us in the milieu of a mainly postgraduate university excelling precisely in the social sciences and the humanities? Isn’t the JNU V-C eating her own words while using these formulae and at the same time objecting to CUET (Common University Entrance Test) and Multiple Choice Questions in admission to the postgraduate classes? And if one wishes to trace the origin of these hyper-rhetorical jumlas, every citizen of India knows where they come from!
What more can the citizenry expect when the helmsmen of a premier university of the country take to parroting such demagoguery? In sketching out the blueprint for sustaining the proclaimed high standards/academic rating of the university, the administrative authority does shadow boxing over finances, blowing hot and cold over the support and patronage of funding from the Centre. Real issues have been conveniently evaded, as when in the above cited interview with the V-C the interlocutors asked pointed questions: biases in faculty recruitment, related to it doubts about JNU being able to sustain its high academic ratings, and last but not the least, the fate of the hapless JNU student Umar Khalid incarcerated without trial for more than two years now. All this evasion is being done, as per the V-C’s own pronouncement, under the seal of ‘Indic’ legitimacy of JNU’s character.
Ravindra K. Jain retired as professor of sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University.