'JNU's questioning minds a problem for indoctrinators'

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Romila Thapar. Photo: S. Mahinsha

Interview with Prof Romila Thapar.

For Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the summer of 2018 began in much the same way the previous ones under the right-wing dispensation did: with voices of protest from students and academics and heavy-handed repression leading to much heartburning and chaos.

In March, the students and teachers of JNU undertook a Long March from the university to Parliament to protest against the recent mandatory attendance rule, the removal of various deans and chairpersons and the sexual harassment charges against Professor Atul Johri. They were subjected to lathi charge and tear gas by the Delhi Police, who did not spare the media either. There are fears that these incidents are not isolated but part of a larger design to dismantle the university which has been an oasis of free speech and debate at the worst of times.

Professor Romila Thapar, eminent historian and one of the founding academics of JNU, is as disturbed as any other academic or student on the campus at the goings-on. Here she explains what JNU stands for, the constant attempts to meddle with its ideological structure, and the challenges ahead.

Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

From its students being called anti-national to a student (Najeeb) disappearing to a great fee hike, it seems JNU will not be allowed to breathe easy. As a senior academic who has been closely associated with the university for long, how do you look at it?

Let me begin with saying that as one of the founding academics—as it were—of JNU, I have moved from anguish to despair at witnessing the way in which JNU is being systematically dismantled over the last couple of years. Subsequent to 2014, those appointed to head institutions have frequently shown little understanding of the purpose and function of the institution, and this affects what is required of the institution. JNU is no exception. Let me initially say something about why JNU was founded, and how it was intended to be different from other universities in terms of its structure and its academic programmes.

Many of us in JNU spent a lifetime in meticulously building an institution of learning that would rank first among universities in India. We managed to do that, with JNU being repeatedly ranked as the best and with the accolades it received from leading universities abroad. It was invariably said that students from JNU were independent in their thinking and were intellectually so alive. One noticed with pride that JNU students were often in the most responsible jobs, both in academia and in government.

From the perspective of the current powers that be, it seems that this ability to think independently was the undoing of JNU, because our students asked questions, thought about what they were being taught, and used their minds in an independent manner. For regimes propagating rigid ideologies taught in the form of predetermined questions and answers, this freedom to question and to think was not acceptable. So now, at least, we know where we stand. The universities that have been selected for this process of diminution are, and not accidentally, those that have a reasonably strong focus on the social sciences and the arts and humanities. The social sciences are suspect for some, because these are the disciplines in which the institutions and practices of society are analysed, questioned and commented upon. The current induction of religion into politics in the public arena and into governance will be examined. Social science subjects are sensitive to questions of ideology and the play of political decisions.

Thus, the nationalism that draws its identity from religion, for instance, invariably wishes to rewrite and re-present history to legitimise its identity from the past. But its choice of history is the basic colonial reading of Indian history—namely that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations and were continuously hostile to each other in every way, and that the primacy of the Hindu identity is because as Aryans, they were the original inhabitants and Hinduism was the foundational culture of the nation.

There is nothing indigenous about these views, as they are a straight lift from colonial writing. They have been refuted repeatedly by Indian and non-Indian historians. Current historical research has little use for these theories, now regarded as political fodder.

The other social sciences are also central to our understanding of the social and economic aspects of our lives. They are, therefore, crucial to the curriculum of a university. Economics has a critical focus on the agenda of economic change and globalisation; sociology involves issues of mobilisation of castes in support of equality of status and access to rights at every level; political studies closely examine, among other things, the exploitation of the electorate by political parties, and so on. They are all disciplines that are directly concerned with questions of society, economy, politics and ideology. From the perspective of a rigid ideology such as Hindutva, the topics that arise from these disciplines cannot be permitted to question this ideology. So far the frontal attack has been on history, where the attempt is simply to replace the existing narratives by the single narrative that supports the ideology. Unpicking the other disciplines may not be far behind.

Literature and the arts become targets because writers are, in theory, free to write what they wish, although some have been silenced by assassination. In 2015, it was the writers who first returned their awards, symbolising a disapproval of the actions of those governing.

The science disciplines, as well as engineering and management studies, all have a low priority in this dismantling. This is worth thinking about. Is it because they seem to work in a world that does not call for a serious questioning of the existing social reality? Their agenda is to accept the reality as is, and work with it. Thus, the absurdities about “scientific facts” in ancient India, with which politicians regale us, frequently go unheeded by scientists, and only occasionally are they angered sufficiently to make their objections audible.

It is not surprising that the two new schools currently being projected for JNU are precisely those of Engineering and of Management. Do we really need these or are they planned just to expand the silent majority?

It is important for us to discuss and understand why universities are being put down in this manner. The attack on JNU has been the most severe but is not the only one. It is necessary for us not to be taken unawares by the likely future.

The founding Vice Chancellor of JNU was G. Parthasarathi. He was a much respected diplomat before he took up this assignment. But he was quite clear about the function of a university. The function is to impart broad-based knowledge, and even more importantly, to teach students to think independently, to comprehend the use of critical inquiry as well as the need to question existing knowledge so that knowledge can advance. Furthermore, that a university must be accessible to all those that aspire to be its students and are qualified to be so. These were the guiding principles in the founding of JNU. By and large, they were followed in subsequent years, and this gave JNU a somewhat different orientation from that of most other universities in the country.

The present Vice Chancellor comes from an academic institution, but appears to be entirely unacquainted with the principles that went into the making of JNU. That an essentially postgraduate university is of necessity different from even the other Central universities is an idea that seems to pass him by, as it does some others. Is JNU being mistaken perhaps for a kind of superior paathshala, a nursery school where children must obey instructions and not ask for explanations about the rules they have to obey? This is perhaps why there is, at the same time, a rush to reinterpret statutes and enforce them every which way, but always in accordance with the wishes of the administration; and to recruit substandard teachers in preference to qualified ones, presumably because the former have the correct ideological connections, and can be swayed.

The university has always stood for free speech, freedom of choice—we even have had instances of students worshipping Mahishasura. Is the university’s socio-intellectual climate anathema to the powers that be?

The Enlightenment in Europe converted the university into a new kind of institution nurturing freedom of thought and speech. When universities were established in India, modelled on British universities, their inheritance was not the Enlightenment model but that of the colonial enterprise, which, for obvious reasons, did not encourage free speech or the questioning of what was being taught. The sparse inheritance that was permitted from the premodern Indian tradition was, again, from conservative and orthodox institutions. The strong tradition of rational and unorthodox thinking was largely outside these established centres of learning, and therefore ignored. It was only after 1947 that Indian universities could have emerged as institutions of independent thinking. And that, in a sense, was what made JNU possible and so special.

The university has to be a centre of free speech, discussion, debate and definition. It is virtually the only institution in society that is allowed this freedom and it is a necessary freedom. It is the period when the adult student is socialised into society, and obviously, there will be many questions that come to his/her mind. The best place for discussion is the university campus. The themes cover everything from politics to sexuality and discussions have to be wide-ranging and preferably rigorous.

Debate and discussion come from reading, thinking and being in dialogue with others doing the same. It is a liberating experience that allows a person to think or to rethink ideas about society, religion, culture and so on. This is more so in a national university like JNU where students come from a range of social backgrounds and regional cultures. This right to think and speak freely about any aspect of life is of course, anathema to the powers that be. Those that are busy indoctrinating students and others with the currently fashionable ideology of Hindutva, know that minds that close more easily are easier to indoctrinate. Questioning minds are problematic for indoctrinators. But do they realise that an indoctrinated mind is a comatose mind?

Is the university suffering from the ruling dispensation’s tendency to control everything, from speech to history to even thought?

For the present, the current administration does not have the intellectual apparatus to assess what is being taught although, doubtless, the ordering of what has to be taught will be the next step. Therefore, at the moment, other ways are being used to assert control. Serious complaints began with the way in which the academic bodies of the JNU, such as the Academic Council [A.C.] and the Executive Council, were being made ineffective. Whereas previously issues were discussed in these bodies in considerable detail and if need be, voted upon, now this procedure is not observed. The complaint of most members of the A.C. is that meetings of the A.C. consist of the agenda being speedily read, and equally speedily taken as passed by the Vice Chancellor. Objections to doing this and demanding a discussion are overruled. There are complaints that letters asking for clarifications rarely receive a reply from the Vice Chancellor, but fresh rules and regulations are announced every few days.

The next move was to take over the Selection Committees. The Centre [department] provides a panel of experts in the specialisations likely to be required for new or vacant positions. The Vice Chancellor is required to select two to three names from this panel. In recent cases the names suggested by the Centre have been replaced by names of the Vice Chancellor’s choice. These need not be specialists in the subject concerned.

This lack of expertise has resulted, more than once, in the appointment of the least qualified candidate, although the competition was with some of the finest academics in the field. In making this choice, the Vice Chancellor and his selected “experts” think nothing of dismissing the strong dissenting notes by the professors of the Centre who are specialists in the field advertised and members of the Selection Committee. Senior academics in other universities are dismayed by this new method of selecting faculty.

It seems to have been decided that one way of breaking JNU is to fill it with faculty that is minimally qualified. That such people have the approval of the Vice Chancellor who, in effect, appoints them, would point to connections other than academic. This is such an obvious game plan that one can predict that each Centre will be subjected to disruption by such substandard faculty, some of which has already started. The other aspect of this kind of selection is a not-so-hidden anti-intellectual agenda, as is also apparent from other recent decisions as well.

Compulsory attendance

The university has now been thrown into an unnecessary turmoil created by trying to enforce a ridiculous rule that all students must sign an attendance register every morning, and that additionally M.A. students must record their attendance at every lecture during the day. The administration is insisting on it and the students are quite rightly protesting. JNU is a postgraduate university except for the School of Languages that admits students after leaving school. Compulsory attendance at the postgraduate level does not exist in any of the better universities anywhere, and for obvious reasons. In my 21 years of teaching in JNU, I had never maintained an attendance register and was not required to.

It is not feasible. From when JNU started, it was an accepted principle that students could attend the class of any teacher they chose to, and could thus audit the lecture or even the course. When I gave a course on Literature and Society using the Mahabharata as the text, students from other Schools would join the class out of interest in the subject, and there was no objection to their doing so. This practice continues to this day. Demanding attendance from such students would be meaningless.

Those writing theses at various levels (MPhil and PhD) often have to consult libraries with specialised sources located in distant places in the National Capital Region. Students who do not reside in JNU would have to first come to JNU to sign the register and then trek across the city to their respective libraries. For those doing fieldwork elsewhere, it would be altogether impossible.

The ethos in JNU has been that students should have an intellectual interest in the course, and that in itself would bring them to attend lectures without compulsory attendance. With the tight schedule of tutorials and mid-semester exams requiring constant reading in the library, students make a point of being present in class so as to follow the requirements of the course. And this is because JNU lectures are not intended to be formal perorations but are more often occasions for exploring and discussing the subject, and this helps better understanding.

The confrontation over attendance has led to some decisions of the Vice Chancellor that can only be described as pathetic and resorted to perhaps out of a sense of desperation. Those Chairpersons and Deans who thought it was unnecessary to introduce compulsory attendance, or suggested that this matter be further discussed and wrote to the Vice Chancellor accordingly, have been removed. These Chairpersons and Deans have been replaced by others, chosen arbitrarily by the Vice Chancellor. The replacements are, in some cases, newly appointed to the Centre and are unfamiliar with the routine or have been imported from another Centre or School. In the School of Arts and Aesthetics, the Dean was removed and the new Dean was imported from the School of Languages where he was teaching Persian. These are appointments that contradict the JNU procedures. Arbitrary actions of this kind make one wonder what the current administration thinks it is doing in the running of the university. It should be paying greater attention to far more serious problems such as the charge of sexual harassment against a professor by not one but a group of students. The case calls for urgent action.

The architectural planning of the university has allowed spaces around the buildings so that there are open grounds, with trees in between. This is where students chat in between lectures. With the agitation against compulsory attendance these days, classes are being held in the open. So now the administration has declared that holding meetings in these open areas is illegal. The JNU Teachers Association organised a discussion, open to all, in one such area. Many attended and some of us spoke about the problems of the university. Our speaking outside a building was officially illegal. Yet this is the same university where all through its almost 50 years, all kinds of matters have been openly discussed and various opinions expressed. Some of these discussions eventually led to solving a few problems.

The Krishna Bharadwaj Memorial Lecture

Another recent action by the Vice Chancellor and the administration can only be described as deeply offensive to the JNU community. Among the first few professors who established the School of Social Sciences, and in particular the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), was the widely respected economist Prof. Krishna Bharadwaj. She was, without doubt, one of the pillars of JNU. But she passed away early. A Memorial Lecture was instituted and was observed each year, this year’s being the 26th. The CESP wrote as usual to the administration to inform them of the lecture and the speaker. The administration, on its own, replaced the speaker, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, with some unknown person who gave the lecture to a virtually empty hall. This can only be described as an inexcusable insult to the memory of Prof. Bharadwaj. So the Centre, together with the Teachers Association, organised the original lecture once again, this time in one of the open spaces. Both the organisers and the speaker were informed that this was illegal. So we arrived in large numbers and sat through the lecture, constituting an impressive audience and wondering if we were going to be arrested for participating in an illegal activity. When lectures become an illegal activity in a university, it is time to worry about the functioning of that university.

What is the way out of the current crisis? One the one hand, students accuse an academic of the worst; on the other, the university authorities seem keen to bring the students to classes even under duress.

Judging by the past three years, I don’t think these un-academic activities will cease on the part of the JNU administration. To expect the latter to understand the intellectual and academic foundations of JNU is to ask for the moon. Universities are anyway vulnerable. They are run either by administrators with a vision who understand the essential purpose of a university, as was the case with G.P. at the start of JNU, or by persons instructed, when appointed, to make the institution non-viable.

University autonomy and its implications

There has now been an announcement about making some universities “autonomous”. Those that have been specially mentioned make an interesting list, as they are the ones that are currently seen as “difficult”. Some included in this list did not ask for autonomy, so it was imposed on them. This clarifies the purpose of the autonomy: once a university is declared autonomous, funds can be withheld from the government. These universities will have to search for their own funds. Some may be able to get funds, others may not, and the latter will wither away. Those that can get funds—and these will be from corporate sources that have the wherewithal—are likely to get conditional funding and the conditions may change the role and function of the university and reduce it to a teaching shop, if that. Those that provide the funds will also call the shots and tell the universities what they must teach.

Rewriting textbooks will be an incidental activity compared to what the new syllabus could feed to the students, passing it off as indigenous knowledge. Autonomy will also mean a substantial hike in fees. This would automatically exclude a large body of students who can’t afford high fees.

Can the dismantling of JNU be stopped at this point?

There will have to be a serious change in attitude and intention on the part of the administration. The change will involve restoring the role of the A.C. and other statutory bodies of the university to their having the prerogative of taking decisions, as against the present appropriation of these powers by the Vice Chancellor. After the present experience there will have to be a systematic discussion among the various constituents of the university focussing on defining precisely and clearly the procedures to be followed, by going back to the Act, the statutes and the ordinances. Arbitrary acts are unacceptable in any administration. These changes cannot wait until the appointment of the successor Vice Chancellor.

Speaking of which, perhaps some sage advice could be given to those controlling appointments that the choice of persons to head institutions should be done with more attention to competence than to ideology. If, on the other hand, a university of the stature of JNU continues to be dismantled, the consequences will be dire for all.

Would you agree that today the idea of JNU is at stake ?

It is not just the idea of JNU that is at stake, but the bigger idea of the role of universities in our society. As a focus of knowledge the university has to relate closely to the society it is associated with. And by society one is referring to the entire gamut from top to toe—all sections and segments of society. Comments on a campus will inevitably incorporate freedom of speech, which is then open to debate. The solution is not to prohibit free speech but to give scope for debate on any subject. At the end of a debate the chaff blows away and what is substantial remains. A debate should be possible without its becoming violent, for violence is introduced by those determined to create fear.

Finally, is not the attack on the JNU culture part of the larger attempt to control academic institutions, rewrite history and foster an environment of fear and conformism?

The intention is clear and can be easily read. But let’s not forget that there can be glitches. And it is the fear of glitches that those of small minds are most frightened of. Let’s not forget the protest of 2015 against what was seen by many as part of the wider attempt to browbeat institutions connected with what is generally labelled as “culture”. And this would include universities. If we define culture in its broadest sense to mean patterns of living and thinking, then the attempt will be to change the culture through a variant version of a cultural revolution. A particular ideology will be implanted to suffuse all aspects of culture, and all institutions will have to conform to the ideology. That will be projected as the utopia to come. Cultural revolutions, which are actually political formulations, are not unknown. We have all experienced at least one in our lifetime. When we recognise it as taking place, we have to understand why it is taking place, and be aware of what will be the future, both of the cultural revolution and of the vast numbers being forced into it.