Campus control

Print edition : January 20, 2017

Union Minister of Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar. Photo: Money Sharma/AFP

JNU students and teachers expressing their solidarty with the students of the university who were on an indefinite hunger strike, in New Delhi on May 7, 2016. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Rohith Vemula, the research scholar who committed suicide. Photo: By Special Arrangement

In this February 7, 2014 photo, Zafar Sareshwala with Narendra Modi, who was then the Gujarat Chief Minister, during a three-day conclave on business harmony in Ahmedabad. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

The UGC directive to universities to support the Centre’s digital economy plans is the latest in a string of measures aimed at undermining their autonomy.

ON December 9, a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that high-denomination notes would be recalled, University Grants Commission (UGC) Secretary Jaspal Singh Sandhu wrote a letter to the vice chancellors of Central, State and private universities reminding them of a previous letter he had sent on December 6 regarding the Vittiya Saksharta Abhiyan (VISAKA), or financial literacy campaign, to be conducted in higher educational institutions to promote the digital economy. There was a sense of urgency in the letter, in which he reminded them that Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD), had addressed the vice chancellors of all universities and Higher Education Secretaries of all States and apprised them of the activities to be taken up by higher education institutions between December 12 , 2016, and January 12, 2017, to promote this campaign.

Sandhu also requested an action taken report on the progress of the campaign by the vice chancellors of all State and Central universities as well as vice chancellors and directors of institutions deemed to be universities. He urged them to take a personal interest in the matter and to inform him as to how many had registered on the website created for that purpose. The website of the campaign highlighted the point that a digital monitoring report was required to be uploaded by the nodal officers of all the institutions. There were no prizes for guessing the origin of the idea of a digital campaign in universities. It had clearly emanated after Modi’s announcement and every Ministry had to give it top priority. The primary objectives of universities as institutions of higher learning and research were now subservient to the new goals of the digital economy.

The campaign details, available on the website of the MHRD, clearly state the objectives, which appear to flow from the November 8 announcement and the subsequent moves to push for a cashless economy. “In view of the recent decisions of the government, India is on the cusp of a major financial revolution,” the website states. What is shocking is the near-dictatorial manner in which universities have been instructed to participate and cooperate with the ostensibly lofty objective of curbing black money and digitising the economy without as much a discussion in the academic bodies of the universities. There is little thought on whether universities were meant to carry forward the political objectives of a party in power or just stick to the business of higher learning and research as is their mandate.

The purpose of the campaign is to “actively engage the youth/students of higher education institutions to encourage and motivate all payers and payees to use a digitally enabled cashless economy system for transfer of funds. The Ministry of Human Resource Development views the institutions of higher education in the country, faculty members and students to take the lead and act as engines of this transformational shift.”

The website says all heads of educational institutions are expected to prepare for a “cashless campus within a limited time frame for all transactions within the campus” and offers various options for digital transactions. Faculty members and students are encouraged to motivate their family members and people in their surroundings to go digital. Volunteers from the National Service Scheme (NSS) and the National Cadet Corps (NCC) are expected to interact with shop owners and vendors to go cashless.

The Students Federation of India (SFI) said in a statement issued on December 8 that the directive was a case of misuse of government machinery for the propaganda of a ruling party and ran antithetical to academics. In rather strong terms, the organisation said the move was “shameless especially at a time when the economic effects of demonetisation were being felt across the country, with the poor sections feeling the brunt of the attack”. It pointed out that every student had been asked to campaign in at least 10 households. The idea of “all campuses cashless” lacked any knowledge of the ground realities, it said, adding that “students in the mofussil towns and rural/semi-rural areas were in no position of paying their fees, etc., through electronic means at the current juncture. Majority of students in Central universities had to face extreme difficulties having been forced to stand in bank and ATM queues at the time of approaching exams and submissions.”

University autonomy

Universities, which are created by Acts of Parliament or State Assemblies, enjoy a large degree of autonomy in terms of administrative and academic matters. The continued interference in the university system, by imposing either administrative or academic fiats from above, is not new but of late had become very frequent. In 2015, the Choice-Based Credit System with courses framed by UGC-appointed committees was imposed on universities. Universities of late have become a kind of an arena of experiment for the government, and it began with the series of events that led to a Dalit scholar’s suicide in the University of Hyderabad last January, which was quickly followed by the events in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

On March 3, a letter issued by the MHRD to the UGC chairman and copied to vice chancellors of all universities called for improvement in financial management and strict adherence to rules and procedures. The directive came under attack from teachers’ unions, including the Federation of Central Universities Teachers’ Associations (Fedcuta). The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) said the directive went against the letter and spirit of the Act and Statutes of JNU and represented an attack on university autonomy, adding that it would also paralyse decision making and prevent proper utilisation of funds. The problem with the directive was that it made university officers, such as the registrar and the financial officer, appointed by the Executive Council, accountable to outside authorities and threatened them with “strict disciplinary action” should they fail to keep the university bodies in line, including through the withholding of the release of funds.

More importantly, in a departure from established norms and practice, the letter directed that agenda items of university bodies such as the Executive Council “should be prepared well in advance by Central universities and sent to the MHRD and the UGC two weeks before the meeting so that proper scrutiny of agenda items along with observations of the regulator as well as the ministry are put on record”. The university, the teachers’ association stated, was not a government department that could be so directed but a statutory body created by an Act of Parliament. The contents and tenor of the letter were perceived as undermining established structures of universities under the pretext of better financial management.

In May 2016, Allahabad University Vice Chancellor R.L. Hangloo threatened to resign after the MHRD objected to the university’s decision to hold online entrance examinations and insisted on an alternative system of offline exams. Hangloo maintained that the proposal for having an online system of examination had been discussed with the Ministry and that it was in keeping with Modi’s vision of a digital India. He also said that the Ministry was interfering with the university’s autonomy. The matter settled down but not before bringing to centre stage issues concerning university autonomy.

Continued interference

Direct and indirect forms of interference in routine administrative matters have not been the only instances of government overreach. A sustained discourse on nationalism, rather cultural nationalism of an insular kind, has been at play consistently over the past two years. In March 2016, a faculty member of the Jharkhand Central University was suspended after the State’s Governor refused to attend a function at the university because a retired JNU professor had been invited to deliver a lecture at the same function. After a protest, the indefensible suspension was revoked.

The kind of strident right-wing student activism centred around “nationalism”, as witnessed in the University of Hyderabad and JNU in 2016, was also seen on the Haryana Central University (HCU) campus in Mahendragarh district on September 21. A play by Mahasweta Devi was adapted for stage by students and teachers of the HCU’s English and Foreign Languages Department. It allegorised custodial rape and death. Even though it was widely appreciated, sections within the university raised a hue and cry labelling it as anti-Indian Army. Clearance for the play had already been obtained at the highest levels of the university, that is from the registrar and the vice chancellor. In spite of this, loud protests were orchestrated within the campus and ex-servicemen were mobilised in order to put pressure on the university authorities to take action against two teachers. The university authorities were compelled to institute an inquiry against the teachers involved in the play. Meanwhile, videos of the play were circulated in the adjoining villages of the campus, which are thickly populated by ex-servicemen. Support for the beleaguered teachers came from teachers’ associations across the country.

Leading academics from India and three from Columbia University in the United States wrote to the Vice Chancellor of HCU, stating that the “university campus needed to be fostered as a place where difficult questions can be debated in a spirit of intellectual openness and without fear or censure”. However, on the basis of the recommendations of an internal inquiry committee, the teachers were warned not to repeat such acts, failing which strict disciplinary action would be taken against them under the service rules.

Such incidents are not isolated. In May, BPS Women’s University in Sonepat district struck off the name of one of the speakers, Jagmati Sangwan, from a panel discussion following orders from the Chief Minister’s Office. Jagmati Sangwan, who was then the general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), was informed about the change the night before the event. The AIDWA and other groups in the State protested against this attack on a university’s right to organise a talk, and demanded an explanation from the university and the Chief Minister’s Office, but none was forthcoming. It may be recalled that the AIDWA had gone to court in protest against the amendments to the State Panchayati Raj Act.

Intimidation tactics

The year also saw open intimidation of actors and theatre artists. On October 6, film star Nawazuddin Siddiqui was not allowed to take part in a theatrical rendition of Ram Leela in his village in Budhana tehsil, Muzaffarnagar, in western Uttar Pradesh. Supporters claiming allegiance to the Shiv Sena reportedly warned the organisers not to cast a Muslim in the play. The actor, who was vacationing in his village, had expressed a desire to the committee to act in the play.

On October 5, a conference at Indore organised by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was disrupted by slogan-shouting activists of the Bharat Swabhimaan Manch, who claimed that the renowned film director, M.S. Sathyu, whose Garam Hawa is rated as one of the best films on Partition, had no right to speak on India-Pakistan relations. Sathyu, who inaugurated the three-day conference, had reportedly spoken on the “surgical strikes”, stressing peace and dialogue between the two countries, and commented on the banning of artistes from Pakistan. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), too, issued a statement alleging that the IPTA, widely regarded as one of the oldest progressive theatre movements in the country, “had instigated violence against the police, Army and government, which was an anti-national act”.

The interference in university structures or the imposition of cultural nationalism or the concept of the national good is no coincidence, emanating as they do from the highest authorities. Where the office of the Prime Minister is directly concerned in matters such as pushing for the digital economy in the interests of the national good, the autonomy of Ministries themselves is on shaky grounds, let alone the autonomy of universities.

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