Open Letter to JNU VC from a JNU Professor: Rajat Datta

Guest Post by RAJAT DATTA

Dear Professor Jagadesh Kumar,

I read your long interview in the Pioneer of 6th June 2016 with great interest, particularly because of the way in which you’ve outlined your vision for JNU over the next five years. We’d been hearing a lot of whispers about your `vision’ all these months, and I’m happy that I’ve finally got to see it in print. Unfortunately, some of the issues you’ve raised have made me somewhat uncomfortable, and thus I feel constrained to write this open letter to you to share some of these concerns. Please don’t take it amiss, for what I have to say emerges from being a very senior faculty member of the university and from your assurance that you work in `consultation’ with senior faculty members.

My first area of unease is precisely this proclamation. I don’t recall a single instance where you tried to consult me, or any of the senior faculty members that I know (and believe me, I know most of them). You’ve not bothered to visit my Centre, the largest in the University in terms of the faculty and student numbers, to interact and `consult’ with us. If by `consultation’ you mean your meetings with Deans over policy issues, there is nothing new in what you’re doing. All Vice-Chancellors in JNU have done that, and more. Indeed, you have omitted Chairpersons entirely from these processes. If your consultation process is so pervasive, why did so many `senior’ and not so senior members of the JNU faculty sit on a relay hunger strike against your administration over eight days in May? I regret to say that the consultation process that you talk about so proudly is seen by many as a very closed coterie of people (whom you proudly refer to as your `team’). Is it because you haven’t been able to win the trust of the larger academic community of this university? On their own initiative, different groups of teachers have met you (when permitted to) and other members of your “team” when you have been unavailable to meet them, over various issues, and emerged from these meetings feeling that you do not listen to us.

Let me illustrate my point. JNU has been no stranger to vociferous expressions of dissent. In fact this is one of the most striking features of this university. On May 10, this was precisely what was happening in the Academic Council (AC) meeting. `Senior’ members of the faculty were protesting against your reluctance to allow a discussion on the High Level Enquiry Committee Report, during an emergent situation on campus with our students in danger of their lives, invoking a perfectly legitimate clause of the statutes governing AC meetings. What did you do in response? You adjourned the meeting abruptly, ran away from the meeting, and earned for yourself the dubious distinction of being the first VC to do so. Upon your flight, more than fifty members of the AC drafted the following resolution:

The overwhelming sense expressed in the academic council meeting held on May 10, 2016 was that the whole range of punishments meted out to students is excessive and that the harsher punishments such as rustication, suspension, banishment from campus, and exorbitant fines should be immediately revoked.

We are distressed by the fact that no deference was shown by the Chair to the opinions expressed by AC members, and the Chair adjourned the meeting abruptly and unreasonably.

We, the members of the Academic Council, resolve that all unreasonable punishments arising from the February 9th incident are revoked.

We resolve that the VC immediately implement this resolution.

Lesser mortals might have resigned at the ignominy; but not you, for you have a vision to bequeath during your term here.

Let me ask you a question. How does one come to acquire a vision of shaping such a complex and brilliant place like JNU? Your interview seems to suggest that you will assert this vision and we must receive your vision, and those of us who raise questions are ‘frogs in a well’. (I will return to this issue of `frogs’ later.)

Vision doesn’t drop from the heavens, unless one is claiming to be a visionary too. Vision is a process which has to be dialogical, participative and reciprocal.  Nothing that you say in your interview remotely indicates that direction. I don’t know whether you are even aware that in 2014, the AC had mandated a `JNU Vision 2020 and Beyond’. A working group of teachers was constituted. There were twenty-seven of them, drawn from across all Schools and Centres of the university to give it the pluralistic and inclusive content that is in fact the core JNU vision, and it therefore had immediate acceptability among the larger academic community. Charged by the AC with planning the University’s teaching and research so that

JNU can assert its relevance and maintain its status as a pre-eminent place of innovation and social change and attain its position amongst the top universities of the world

this group broke itself into four subcommittees in order to look closely at (a) research, (b) teaching, (c) students’ support and (d) infrastructure.

Do you have a more exalted vision? This report was tabled, discussed at length and accepted by the Academic Council in 2014. Are you saying anything different, except of course adding the more mundane dimensions of `product-orientation’ and `resource generation’. I hope you will revive it in all honesty, as you should, unless you have some specific reasons not to.

You want to improve ` the quality and quantity of research’, by` creating new research facilities which are both inter-disciplinary and product oriented’. How will these be achieved? In your view, by a ‘new Director (Research and Development)’, by a 2 Mega Watt solar project, by making JNU a green campus, by starting `online certificate and diploma programmes to educate those who cannot afford to join JNU’, and by leveraging `expertise [in the SIS] not only to outreach but also to generate internal funds’. If I read the thoughts behind these statements, I can’t help but draw the following inferences.

You have no idea about the nature of research that is actually done in different centres or by individual faculty members. You have no inkling of the three ways in which research is conducted in JNU:  project-based, individual-based and supervision-based.  What will your director of research do to contribute to the advancement of individual and supervision based researches that actually constitute the backbone of academic output of this university? A dead giveaway of your mind is your statement that you ` have plans to upgrade some Centres into Schools and introducing inter-disciplinary master’s programmes such as M.Tech. in VLSI design and Microelectronics’. Your conception of the inter-disciplinary at one stroke removes the entire School of Social Sciences out of the purview of your `vision’. This is the largest school of the University, and by the far its most iconic component. You also leave out an exceptionally innovative School like Arts and Aesthetics out of your reckoning. How will you draw up `product oriented’ facilities in subjects like history and the arts? I hope you don’t intend asking us to open short-term courses to train tourist guides, or become tour guides ourselves to generate `internal revenue’?

We’ve all heard stories about how the engineering and science faculties in the IITs worry about being swamped by their humanities divisions because they fear that such an eventuality will change the character of the institution itself. You have taken no time to demonstrate that mind-set already by talking about starting M.Tech. programs in subjects you obviously believe to be at the cutting edge in the sciences and technology, but by marginalizing the social sciences, and reducing the languages taught here to mere agencies of internal resource mobilization.

Now I come to your pious assertion that you are not worried about the way you handled the aftermath of the 9th February incident because everything was done in consultation with your `colleagues’. In case you’ve forgotten let me draw your attention to a press release issued by JNUTA on 13th May which had the following statement:

It is shocking to note that JNU Administration under the leadership of the VC squarely refused to reconsider the harsh penalties despite clamors from all quarters including global scientific and academic community. The vulnerable students were forced to seek respite from the court as deadline was looming large. JNUTA expresses its deep anguish and pain at the fact that JNU Administration completely failed in discharging its primary duty of resolving issues within the university. During the last three months JNU Administration adopted an insensitive approach towards students and teachers and its actions do not seem to be impartial.

Do you recall the opposition which came from the elected teachers’ body, the JNUTA, to the constitution of the HLEC and the number of times teachers’ delegations went to you to press upon this issue? Do you remember the meeting in the auditorium of the School of Arts and Aesthetics where about 300 teachers (`colleagues’?) assembled there told you in no uncertain terms what they felt about the way you’d started on a wrong foot within a month or so of your taking charge? Do you recall the numerous letters written by the JNUTA secretariat on the shortcomings of the HLEC, and the public meeting organised by the JNUTA in order to discuss its anomalies?

Professor Kumar, all these instances are incontrovertibly in the public domain; but what is not in the public domain is your obduracy, which you now cloak under the guise of consulting with `colleagues’. As recently as the 27th of May you were urged by the JNUTA to restore the `community’s trust in the Administration which had been badly ruptured in last nearly three and half months’. Given these statements and misgivings expressed by the elected body of teachers of the university, I wonder who those `colleagues’ you consulted were, unless you are talking of your dream `team’, or are you running a secret society of some sort.

Now I come to the most shocking part of your interview, viz. the `frog in the well attitude’ of your `colleagues’. This is what you said:

What makes me sad is when I encounter the “frog in the well” attitude. It is not right to say that since something has worked for years, we should not change. We should keep introducing changes in a system to improve its performance. The most undesirable thing to do in a university is to maintain status quo.

Your `frogs’ happen to include some of the most internationally renowned scholars who have made significant contributions in their areas of expertise. The NAAC gave JNU the first rank with the highest score of 3.91 out of a possible 4. In the School of Social Sciences, the Centre for Studies in Social Systems acquired the 51st position in global rankings in 2015. Amidst all the troubles in the period after February 9, JNU faculty won the Visitor’s awards for best innovation in Biotechnology and Molecular Parasitology, and also acquired the third rank among universities in 2016. My own Centre is now in its second phase as a Centre for Advanced Studies, and runs two internationally acclaimed journals. This are just some random illustrative details, the tip of the iceberg of the achievements of your `frogs’ so to speak.

According to the MHRD rankings of 2016, your parent institution, IIT Delhi occupies the third rank among engineering colleges in India, and JNU ranks third among the universities. If you factor in the fact that the two front runners, the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) and the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (Mumbai) are entirely devoted to the sciences, JNU’s status as a multi-disciplinary university, with very strong and committed social science and liberal humanities components, would easily make it outpace competition from any of these universities. The parameters to assign rankings were `teaching and learning resources, graduation outcome, perception, outreach and inclusivity and research productivity’. Given these variables, and considering that both IIT Delhi and JNU are at par, why do you want JNU to be more product oriented?  You as head of the institute are expected to have greater empathy in the way you assess the performance of a university which you’ve been charged with administering.

Someone forwarded me a link to an essay posted on Google Groups on February 24, 1994. This essay is called `What is the Relevance of RSS in our National Life?’, and the person who posted this has a familiar sounding name, M. Jagadesh Kumar, which I presume is you. In this essay, the question of the importance of the RSS in India’s national life is answered in the following words:

The answer can indeed be given in one simple sentence:  The RSS seeks to play the role of the Life-Force-Prana-Shakti-in the body of the society. [The] very structure of the Shakha is such as to keep the flame of Life-Force burning bright in the hearts of the Swayamsevaks.

Significantly, when asked about your reactions to the February 9 incident, this was your reply:

I never react in a knee jerk fashion. As a professor of electrical engineering, my mind is conditioned to control transients and bring stability to the system.

In 1994 you posted something eerily similar in relation to the RSS as the Life-Force:

How does the Life Force act? How does it keep the body going on amidst all its adverse challenges?

The answer was:

It does so by activating the body to respond to the challenges in an appropriate manner.

It seems you’re only couching that conviction now in the language of electrical engineering.

While still on the question of `frogs’, we all know what kind of `frog’ the RSS is in India’s national life and what kind of `well’ it inhabits. These days a lot of clamour is emanating from these `frogs’ about `moving on’ with changing times. You are also saying the same thing, aren’t you? And that’s why `some’ of us `frogs’are so worried about the noises emanating from RSS `well’ in JNU these days.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Rajat Datta

Professor & Co-Editor, The Medieval History Journal, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU


7 thoughts on “Open Letter to JNU VC from a JNU Professor: Rajat Datta

  1. shaturya

    Very well written .

    This VC is trying to behave like a stern headmaster of a primary school whose primary objective is to control the teachers and the children.

  2. No issues with the article, just a question on Google Groups. The author says “Someone forwarded me a link to an essay posted on Google Groups on February 24, 1994”. I just checked when Google started, and Google says it started on September 4, 1998. ( Incidentally I clicked on the link provided by the author in this article, and indeed, it takes me to a group and indeed the dateline is Feb. 24, 1994. Someone needs to explain the anomaly – otherwise trolls will have a field day.

  3. Ghanshyam Shah

    As a former professor of JNU, I am shocked and disturbed by the Vice Chancellor’s mindset and action

  4. Sohail Hashmi

    Good piece, more such exposes of this gent and others of his ilk, increasingly adorning positions that they do not deserve, need to be circulated

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