20 September is close. Birthday of Chandrashekhar. The young left leader who was murdered in Siwan in 1997. Before he went there he was in the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Known to generations of the university as the President of its students’union. We organise an annual memorial lecture in his name at Patna . This year we had decided to invite a Professor from his university to deliver the lecture. She said a cautious yes as she was not sure if she would be given leave for it. For the last three years the teachers of the JNU have seen their leave application rejected, not only for popular lectures like the one above but also for seminars organised by their professional bodies or peers. But we insisted that she should try. So, we wrote a formal invitation letter to her, without mentioning the significance of the lecture. I apologised to Chandrashekhar for my cowardice. He would have smiled and called it an act of Brechtian cunning, defeating the vicious enemy non-violently.
Before my colleague could submit my letter with her application for leave to the authorities, she herself was sent one by them. It was a chargesheet. She was one of the 48 teachers who were asked to explain why action should not be taken against them for having participated in a protest last year at the administrative block. The chargesheet has been framed under Rule 14 of the Central Civil Services (Classification, Control, and Appeal) Rules 1965 and invokes sections of the CCS (Conduct) Rules 1964. Failing to explain their “crime” to the satisfaction of the authorities can invite penal action.
So, we knew that her application for leave would not be accepted. She is one of the foremost scholars of her field internationally, a respected public voice and a teacher loved and revered by generations of students but in the eyes of the authorities of the JNU she is merely an “employee” they can bind and discipline with rules.
Teachers had always thought that they were not government employees. The Vice Chancellors also knew that they do appoint teachers but they are not their subordinates. Teachers are regarded as minds which function best when not constrained. So, a good Vice Chancellor aspires to be accepted by the teaching community as their academic leader.It cannot be done through official fiats. The duty of a good leader at an academic institution is to create an atmosphere of collegiality.
Things are changing though for last 5 years, more in the JNU. Always envied by its counterparts in India for its informality, its openness and freedom. Freedom, enjoyed both by the teachers and the students. The two universities at the two corners of Delhi had contrasting styles. The teachers at the JNU had more freedom in designing their courses. The students had a more democratic relationship with their Gurus something the Delhi University students could never imagine. To be at the JNU was a matter of joy.
Freer they are but the JNU teachers have not been agitators like the Delhi university teachers. Its academic council meeting never made news like the DU. Similarly, The JNU students’ politics was not done by flaunting muscle and money as in the DU. It was not possible to sway the students by rain dances or DJ shows or parties. The JNU students loved endless debating. So, a Kanhaiya with no organizational base and no English could win the hearts of the students by his oration and become their president. Like Chandrashekhar. Who could have chai with his opponents even during the election campaigns. The walls of the JNU would tell you that politics here was more poetry. It was aesthetics which mattered. We always joked that the “revolutionary politics” of the JNU was more romantic, JNU never went through the rough and tumble of the real life outside. It was a dream and not reality.
If you ask the people who have served as the Vice Chancellors of the JNU,they would talk fondly about the cordiality they felt as bosses. It was an honour to be accepted as by the community of people like Bipan Chandra, Romila Thapar, Namvar Singh or Tanika Sarkar.
All this has changed in the last 5 years. The current administration in the JNU treats the teachers as its “employees” it can dictate. The invocation of the Civil Services rules to discipline them is the latest in the list of its atrocities. To tell a teacher that she cannot air her views freely, cannot write or speak publically without the permission of the “competent authorities” is to take away from them not only their rights but also their fundamental duty.
The duty of a teacher is not only to transfer knowledge authorized by the state to the young minds but also work with them to create ideas. Universities are laboratories where ideas germinate. But the academics have a crucial public role. In democracies, people take decisions. But they donot have the intellectual wherewithal to examine the claims of the “powers” which seek their consent to rule them. The academics with their long engagement with knowledge have the tools to test the political and policy promises offered to the masses. They must share it with the public to help it think and take an informed decision. In short, they need freedom , not for their own sake but for the good of the society. Academic freedom is slightly more than freedom of expression as it is understood. It is the basic necessity without which the business of knowledge cannot be done.
All democracies therefore resist the temptation of controlling the campus. Peers decide and not the state bodies. When Romila Thapar refused the Padma honour, it was this principle she wanted people to understand: recognition by peers and not the state is what a teacher aspires all her life. A teacher who is found in government bodies but not sought by her peers is a sorry figure.
What is done in the JNU through this chargesheet does not merely impact the Chandrashekhar lecture. We have been lucky to get a replacement. But the damage done to the life of the JNU if it goes unchallenged would be permanent. Indian campuses would resemble the campuses of the Stalinist era and academics would function as government spokespersons.
There is more happening at the JNU which should attract public scrutiny. Creation of management, engineering and medical schools to marginalize humanities and social sciences, the automation and vulgarization of the admission process and the taking away of powers of the faculty in the appointment of new faculty and violating the principle of seniority is destroying the unique character of the JNU for which students sought it and also the best faculty. That unfortunately is no longer the case. As Avijit Pathak wrote in the Wire,even he,a faculty at the university, does nnot advise his friends to send their children to the JNU. You have to be human to feel his sense of loss.
After the classes, it is the chambers of their lawyers and courts that the JNU teachers have become familiar with. The most recent ruling of the High Court of Delhi asking the JNU authorities to appoint the head of the centre of Linguistics from within the centre itself , and overturning its decision to appoint a person from another centre as its head is only one of the numerous instances as proof of the destruction of the time tested processes of the JNU.
It is beyond the capability of the faculty and students of the JNU to save it from an administration which is at war with it. For it is a premeditated, well thought out move backed by the government. It is the duty of the society, not only its alumni ,who are in powerful positions to speak out but also those who have never been to it, for the very existence of spaces like JNU have helped us in thinking about possibilities which can become realities. Collapse of the JNU is like lungs of the body of the nation collapsing. Allowing it to happen is a crime, a suicide or turning ourselves into a nation of zombies.
( An abridged version of this article has appeared in The Indian Express on 2 August, 2019)