Chargesheet against JNU teachers

Charge-sheeting JNU teachers: Stun and subdue

Print edition : August 30, 2019

Jawaharlal Nehru University administrative building. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

At a press conference in New Delhi on August 3, where academics from various institutions condemned the move against the JNU teachers.

Akeel Bilgrami. Photo: VIJAYA BHASKAR

Jan Breman. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

The charge-sheeting of 48 JNU teachers for a protest they participated in a year ago, under rules framed for government employees, is widely criticised as a move to curb the freedom of thought and expression among the teaching community. The move is also of doubtful legality.

IN an unprecedented move, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) administration has framed charges of misconduct against 48 faculty members under the Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965, for participating in a one-day protest in July last year. It has also invoked the Central Civil Services (Conduct), Rules, 1964, applicable to government employees.

On July 24, 2019, a memorandum was sent to the teachers initiating an inquiry against them and threatening them with penalties, major and minor, under CCS Rules that could include deduction of wages and increment. The teachers have been given 15 days to reply to the charge sheet, which cites a CCS rule that requires government servants to not “bring or attempt to bring any political or outside influence to bear upon any superior authority to further his/her interest in respect of matters pertaining to his/her service under the Government”.

CCS Rules do not categorise teachers, whether of schools, colleges or universities, as government servants. Yet the disciplinary proceedings initiated against the teachers are based on the assumption that they are regular government servants. The development has underscored the belief that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is working, through its appointees in universities, towards systematically undermining the autonomy of universities, each of them set by up an individual Act of Parliament, and reining in expressions of grievance by “disciplinary” mechanisms. That it took one full year for the university to establish the charges is surprising in itself. The charge-sheeting of the teachers, many of whom are professors with more than three decades of teaching experience, has shocked the teaching community. It has had a chilling effect not only on the teachers in the university but elsewhere as well. The Federation of Central University Teachers Association and several other State teacher associations, like the West Bengal College and University Teachers Association, have condemned the move.

The decision to charge-sheet the teachers was finalised through a resolution passed at the university’s Executive Council meeting where dissenting voices were not allowed to be heard. This has raised serious questions about the Central government’s approach to higher education, coming as it does close on the heels of the soon-to-be-finalised New Education Policy. The legality of the move itself is under doubt following an Allahabad High Court order in 2015. While disposing a writ (Writ Number 4178 of 2015), which was about the exercise of statutory powers and the invocation of disciplinary proceedings under CCS Rules, the court upheld the position that “professors of a University are neither members of a service nor do they hold a civil post under the Union nor are they in the service of local or other authority; CCS (CCA) Rules therefore would have no application to a Central university.”

According to the JNU Teachers Association, which had called the one-day strike, the protest was held in support of the interests of the university and in defence of the JNU Act, Statutes and Ordinances. It was to highlight, the JNUTA stated, the “repeated violations of the JNU Act and its statutes, bypassing of time tested and established academic deliberative procedures, violations of reservations policy, arbitrary removal and appointment of chairpersons and Deans, the tripartite Memorandum of Understanding with the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the proposed Higher Education and Financing Authority loan, arbitrary reinforcing of attendance, misrepresentation of the proceedings of Academic and Executive Council Meetings, Skype vivas for MPhil and PhD and the draft IPR policy of the vice-chancellor”. The charge sheet, it said, was the latest in a series of disciplinary proceedings initiated against the teaching community which, incidentally, had been rated the best by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development. The charge sheet initiates formal disciplinary proceedings under “major penalty” as per the recorded resolution of the university’s Executive Council. The administration referred to a 2011 Executive Council decision wherein it was resolved that all rules and regulations of the Government of India would be applicable to service matters of JNU teaching and non-teaching employees, including inquiry, conduct and disciplinary rules, where the university statutes and regulations are silent.

Rules for teachers

As per the University Grants Commission Act, 1956, a university is created through an Act of a legislature and is an autonomous body even if it is public-funded. Teachers are not government servants as defined in CCS Rules themselves and their pay and service conditions are governed by UGC Regulations, which have Central government approval. Neither the UGC Regulations notified on July 18, 2018, nor the earlier 2010 Regulations, make CCS Rules, particularly those relating to conduct, applicable to university teachers. Instead, those Regulations include a Code of Professional Ethics for teachers which are fundamentally incompatible with CCS (Conduct) Rules. The Code of Ethics for teachers emphasises in several clauses that independence of thinking and freedom of expression are not only to be enjoyed but exercised by teachers. JNUTA office-bearers said that CCS Rules were not applicable to all government servants and that the “silences” in the UGC Regulations or in the JNU Act or Statutes did not constitute gaps that could be used as a pretext for invoking CCS rules.

Some clauses in the Code of Ethics enjoin teachers to “express free and frank opinion by participation at professional meetings, seminars, conferences, etc., towards the contribution of knowledge; work to improve education in the community and strengthen the community’s moral and intellectual life; perform the duties of citizenship, participate in community activities and shoulder responsibilities of public offices…”. In dealing with the relations of teachers with the authorities, the Code recognises the importance of teachers enjoying the rights to articulate and demand conditions that in their view are conducive to the fulfilling of their responsibilities. It calls upon teachers to “discharge their professional responsibilities according to the existing rules and adhere to procedures and methods consistent with their profession in initiating steps through their own institutional bodies and/or professional organisations for change of any such rule detrimental to the professional interest.”

The background

On July 27, 2018, the university administration issued a circular under Rule 7(6) of Academic Rules and Regulations, which prohibited all forms of coercion, including gheraos, sit-ins, or other such action, that disrupted the university’s normal academic and administrative functioning. Quoting the rule, the circular also said that hunger strikes, dharnas and other peaceful and democratic forms of protest and group bargaining should be conducted with restraint, that is, at a distance of 100 metres from the administrative and academic complexes. Interestingly, the circular proscribed as well as allowed peaceful forms of democratic protest, including strikes. The contradiction was glaring.

The charge sheet refers to this circular and holds that the teachers violated the rule invoked in it by participating in the one-day strike. Curiously, the circular was issued on July 27, four days before the teachers’ protest, which suggests that the university administration had prior knowledge of the strike. Yet it made no move to resolve the issue through discussions. The strike itself was peaceful by all accounts. Over 100 teachers participated in it, which makes the targeting of 48 of them appear selective.

The university administration’s previous efforts to invoke CCS Rules with regard to teachers had been thwarted. In the 276th meeting of the Executive Council on October 22, 2018, the Vice Chancellor issued a press release saying that “no CCS Rules have been incorporated in JNU ordinances”.

CCS (Conduct) Rules have several provisions restricting the freedom of expression and rights of protest of government servants—a curtailment of fundamental democratic rights that are not only available to teachers but in principle are guaranteed to all other citizens of the country by the Constitution. This difference between the conduct expected of a government servant and a university teacher is not surprising given the different functions they have to perform—what is essential to one is incongruent with the other. As one of the charge-sheeted teachers explained: “If a journalist seeks the opinion of a bureaucrat on some government policy or decision, he or she is required to respond by explaining the government’s view on it and not articulate a personal opinion. The same question addressed to an academic in the relevant field is an invitation to his or her professional and expert opinion on the policy. Government servants have to execute the government’s policies while university teachers have to contribute to the development and transmission of knowledge and critical thinking.”

Thus, while government servants are debarred from participating in political activities and elections, university teachers are encouraged by their code of ethics to be willing to hold public office—and Indian politics has seen several teachers playing an active part without retiring or resigning from their service as bureaucrat-turned-politicians have had to do. There are several Members of Parliament who are university professors and teachers, including from the ruling party, who have been elected to both Houses without retiring or resigning from service.

Draft NEP celebrates faculty autonomy

These differences are the reasons that universities are not treated as government departments and are created as autonomous units, having their own Act, statutes, ordinances and regulations. Teachers’ bodies are therefore concerned that the imposition of CCS Rules on universities will defeat the very purpose of their creation and make teaching a profession that would require the surrender of constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights. Such a scenario would sound the death knell of all the creativity and autonomy that give teachers their sense of self-fulfilment and which allow their collective efforts and even their disagreements to produce “quality” in higher education. Even the draft New Education Policy put out for public discussion emphasises these points, at least in principle, and celebrates faculty autonomy. The fear among teachers is, however, that the policy may be saying one thing while pushing for a contrary outcome.

Though in the past courts have held that CCS Rules are not applicable to teachers, in recent times several Central universities have seen attempts to change the legal framework and impose CCS (Conduct) Rules on teachers and other employees. Many of the new Central universities created through the Central Universities Act, 2009, adopted the CCS Conduct Rules. Similar efforts were under way in the older Central universities, including JNU. The Central University of Kerala used such rules to suspend a faculty member for expressing dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of a student matter. A letter dated March 3, 2016, from the Ministry of Human Resource, to universities, supposedly for “improving financial management and strict compliance of rules/procedures”, was viewed as a veiled attack on their autonomy. The insistence that Central universities should sign tripartite memoranda of understanding with the UGC and the Ministry as a precondition for release of grants was also an attempt to make their policies subject to government control and monitoring. Last year, bringing Delhi University under the ambit of the ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act) was also considered.

Curbing freedoms to associate

These moves suggested a policy push towards curbing freedoms of teachers and of their unions and associations. However, when there was a hue and cry about it in 2018, and teachers’ groups affiliated to the ruling BJP also expressed concern, the then HRD Minister, Prakash Javadekar, denied that the government had any such intention, and some of the moves were scrapped. Even the JNU administration withdrew in October 2018 its proposal to incorporate CCS Rules into the new ordinances for teachers. So why has it suddenly revived a case against teachers for their participation in a protest whose scale and form would rarely attract serious attention of most university authorities, even less as something inviting major penalty? It was a one-day protest and no law and order situation was created or administrative functioning disturbed. Neither the original notice issued to the teachers in September 2018 nor the charge sheet now served makes any accusation against them other than that they participated in the protest. The notice referred to, CCS (Conduct) Rules, and this has raised suspicion that there is more to this story than merely the JNU administration’s erratic behaviour. Is this a sign that the government, with the huge mandate that it has won, is making a concerted bid to rewrite the framework governing university teaching? Is the JNU case just the beginning of the end of academic freedom in Indian higher education and of teachers’ right to protest?

A perusal of the Rules reveals that they apply to “every person appointed to a civil service or post in connection with the affairs of the Union”. Certain categories of services are exempted—the All India Services, Railways and casual employees.

The Rules are inapplicable to the teaching community as they virtually militate against the very functions that teachers perform or are required to perform owing to the very nature of the profession. For instance, the Rules prohibit a) any employee from participating or conducting the editing or management of any newspaper or periodical; b) publication of books and articles save for a purely scientific and literary character; c) interventions that have the effect of adverse criticism of the government or embarrass relations with the Union or with any foreign government; d) association with any political party or any organisation which takes part in politics; e) association with activity that is prejudicial to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, public order, decency or morality; f) any public testimony and expert opinion and raising funds or accepting subscriptions or associating with fundraising, etc. The blanket caution against any “political movement or activity” would mean that teachers’ participation in mass rallies or collective mobilisations, including in the mobilisations witnessed in the Nirbhaya case, would be tantamount to a breach of service rules and invite punishment, stated a member of the JNUTA.

The invoking of CCS Rules is an overreach aimed at intimidating the teaching community of a university that has performed in an exemplary fashion on all fronts, apart from contributing two alumni who are Ministers in the present Union government. Teachers and students not only in JNU but elsewhere in the country have been raising pertinent concerns in academic and public interest (which even government servants are allowed to do under CCS Rules). The free flow of ideas and knowledge-sharing, central to the existence of an institution of higher learning, cannot happen with such straitjacketed approaches. The process of critical inquiry can also involve questioning the decisions of the authorities, especially if those decisions are perceived to be arbitrary and inimical to academic reasoning and thought.

Expressions of support

Statements of support for the charge-sheeted teachers have come from teachers’ associations from across universities. They include the University of Hyderabad; Jamia Millia Islamia; Ambedkar University; Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh; Aligarh Muslim University; Maulana Azad National Urdu University; Nagaland University; Allahabad University; and Indira Gandhi National Open University. The Tripura University Teachers’ Association; the Visva-Bharati University Faculty Association and the Federation of Central Universities’ Teachers’ Associations; the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations; and the West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association are among others who sent letters of support.

Close to 2,000 scholars and teachers, including academics of international repute such as Akeel Bilgrami, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University; Arjun Appadurai from New York University; Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak from Columbia University; David Hardiman from the University of Warwick; Jan Breman from the University of Amsterdam; Sheldon Pollack and Partha Chatterjee from Columbia University; and Veena Das from Johns Hopkins University issued statements of solidarity with the JNU teachers.

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