Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) turns 50 this year. There was much ado lately about the ‘delinquency’ of students and teachers in JNU on the matter of mandatory attendance, introduced first for students and then for teachers through a flurry of increasingly punitive circulars.
Fortunately, this particular decision of the administration has been stayed by the Delhi high court. But it is only the latest in the pronounced ‘decisionism’ of the current administration, unencumbered by any obligation to the law, long-built institutional norms or the specific goals of a research university such as JNU.
Since February 9, 2016, the university has quite literally been portrayed as a territory that must be first ‘conquered,’ then rebuilt, by an assortment of technocrats, army generals, judges, media entrepreneurs and spiritual gurus. Sunil Ambekar, national organising secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), has recently reiterated this desire.
High court Judge Pratibha Rani, while granting conditional bail to Kanhaiya Kumar in 2016, set the ball rolling when she said in her order, ‘You can sit in the comfort of JNU’ – presumably to debate and discuss – because ‘our forces are protecting our frontiers in the most difficult terrain in the world’. Fali Nariman at that time usefully reminded us that it is the constitution that protects the freedom of speech in places like JNU, though soldiers may indeed be defending the nation’s borders.
Yet the soldier-as-martyr-patriot, compared to the JNU student/teacher-as-delinquent, seized the imagination of the administration. Not only did the JNU vice-chancellor feel emboldened to ask for a tank to be placed on the campus as a daily reminder of soldierly sacrifice, he eagerly installed the ‘Wall of Heroes’ with photographs of 21 Param Vir Chakra awardees in the convention centre complex for regular worship – the first university to do so.
Other visitors to the campus after 2016, such as Major General Bakshi never failed to remind the world of how ‘The [JNU] students instead of being idealistic and shouting “Jai Hind”, are shouting for “Azadi” for Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland and supporting Afzal Guru’. He also made sinister parallels with the onset of the Syrian civil war, short-circuiting the truth about the ‘Days of Rage’ against the repressive Syrian government, which itself has killed most of the 250,000 people in the tragic war that followed.
The portrayal of the JNU student/teacher as deviant (anti-national/urban Naxal, plain shirkers and in Ambekar’s words, ‘indoctrinators’) has paralleled the impeccable nationalist credentials enjoyed by the ABVP.
It was six ABVP students who were charged with the murder of professor H.S. Sabharwal in 2006, though they were later acquitted. It was ABVP students who allegedly assaulted JNU’s Najeeb Ahmed shortly before his disappearance in 2016. When the lackadaisical probe came closer to them, they halted it by breaking flower pots outside the dean of students’ office.
It was ABVP students who blackened the face of a professor at Gujarat’s Krantiguru Shyamji Krishna Verma Kachchh University and paraded him in June 2018, resorted to violence after the loss of Allahabad University student elections in 2018 and attacked a professor at the Motihari Mahatma Gandhi Central University, also in 2018. It was one of theirs who faked a degree to become the DUSU president.
Enough said: JNUspeak completely pales before the instances of student ‘idealism’ listed above.
All this has not deterred the JNU administration from attempting ‘decisionism’ on compulsory attendance. Once more the JNU delinquent was produced: according to the varsity’s submission in court, teachers were absent because they were on five-month long vacations (yet no action was taken as per university rules). Something was indeed amiss if both students and teachers were fighting to remain unaccountable. Here the honourable taxpayer came in handy, demanding to know how her money was being spent in this ‘anti-national’ redoubt.
Something is indeed amiss if an administration decides to inaugurate an engineering school – sans classrooms, teachers and proper hostels – just at the time when no less than the AICTE has sounded the tocsin, with close to eight lakh engineering seats going abegging each year. Something is indeed amiss if the administration installs biometric machines for its faculty, even while that university enjoys the highest NAAC ranking in the country and enviable international repute – The engineering school may soon do its bit in taking that down several notches.
Something is indeed amiss if the administration fails to recognise that, given the vastly transformed technologies of teaching and research, neither being in the room, classroom or the library for at least five hours a day will ensure efficient and creative learning and teaching. Should Supriya Sule’s 2019 private bill on work-life balance become law – ensuring that employees have the right to ‘switch off’ after office hours – JNU’s fine reputation will self destruct, even if teachers remain biometric compliant.
JNU teachers/students are neither paragons of virtue nor the unrepentant ‘delinquents’ they are made out to be. A university teacher today, whether in JNU or elsewhere, is on 24-hour call; receiving papers and chapters at all hours of day and night; reading online or other materials in preparation for classes; examining dissertations from other universities; refereeing journal articles or books for publication sometimes in accordance with international deadlines which may indeed come late at night.
Her presence in the office is the smallest task that she fulfills. Attention, not attendance, is more important for both teachers and students, who are bound more closely to ethics of supervision and teaching, than to machines which record their daily presence.
Besides, legions of former students of JNU and others will gladly attest to its reputation of teaching going beyond classroom walls, with public debates going on until 2 am almost every day.
It is hardly surprising that an administration which is at war with its own students and teachers, ruling by decision, rather than consultative norm building, is currently facing close to 130 cases in court for its accumulated illegalities since 2016. As JNU enters its golden jubilee year, it is as if the university is being founded anew, with teachers/students defending its hard-won, widely cherished achievements from this determined ‘occupation’.
Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.