Personnel matters

Print edition : February 19, 2016

On the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, campaigning for the BJP during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

The appointment of the new Vice Chancellor for Jawaharlal Nehru University is the latest in the BJP’s attempts to push its saffron agenda in academic institutions.

The appointment of Dr M. Jagadesh Kumar, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, as the new Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi is perhaps the latest in the scheme of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to enforce its writ in academic institutions. Apart from concerns over his alleged right-wing leanings, a few leading educationists have expressed the opinion that a more qualified person could have been found to replace the outgoing Vice Chancellor, Dr Sudhir Kumar Sopory, as the head of an institution of national eminence.

One of the candidates, whose name was discussed in the media as a possible choice for the post, reacted in surprise and stated that he did not even know who were in the selection committee. On condition of anonymity, he said: “First of all, I was never interested. But apart from that, I am not surprised that he [Jagadesh Kumar] is being linked with organisations of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] because the truth is that by putting a mediocre [academic] on the top of an outstanding institution, you are conveying your clear choice: you are against excellence in higher education.”

When Frontline contacted Jagadesh Kumar over these issues, he said he was aware of the controversies but brushed aside concerns that he would not tolerate students expressing divergent views. “I am a defender of free expression of thought in a democratic set-up and students are free to question me or challenge my views. I believe in constructive criticism, and as long as it is done peacefully and within the boundaries of the law, there is no problem,” he said. Jagadesh Kumar said his two top priorities were to address issues of infrastructural shortcomings and “to improve the learning environment by making it more student-centric. Some of the faculty are great researchers, but they do not have much understanding of teaching. What I want to do requires cooperation from faculty members.”

In response to the concerns about his alleged right-wing association, he denied having a formal alliance with any organisation. “I went to the stalls arranged by Vijnana Bharati two months ago at the Department of Science and Technology in IIT Delhi. These were stalls set up by schoolkids. I went there with other colleagues to encourage the children,” he said. Vijnana Bharati, or Vibha, “a science movement with a swadeshi spirit”, was started by scientists apparently with RSS leanings. It is headed by Vijay Bhatkar, Chairman, Board of Governors in IIT Delhi. The programme and stalls which Jagadesh Kumar said he visited were the “largest practical science lesson”, for which Vibha made it into the Guinness World Records.

Several present and past students and faculty members Frontline spoke to indicated that IIT Delhi campus had always had a significant presence of right-wing forces. So much so that RSS shakhasare organised, albeit in an informal manner, on the campus. “There is a professor who organises shakhasin IIT, in the grounds and parks, sometimes with fewer than 10 people in attendance, so to a passerby it appears as if the teacher is interacting with the students,” said a student on condition of anonymity. Faculty members are known to hold bhajan sandhyas at their homes and invite colleagues to attend. “There is nothing wrong in doing so. But sometimes I wonder how can the temperaments of people working for the progress of science be so unscientific?” said a former professor.

A former student recollected how a professor, who was a follower of ISKCON, not only spoke to students informally about the sect and its spirituality but also discussed it in the classroom and in post-dinner talks in the mess with power point presentations and videos. He would also go around dissuading students from participating in Rendezvous, the cultural festival of IIT Delhi, as it was “vulgar”.

In December 2014, Dr R.K. Shevgaonkar, who was IIT Delhi Director, stepped down following the alleged interference of the Central government in IIT in connection with the proposal of a Sachin Tendulkar cricket academy on IIT grounds and the payment of “salary dues” as demanded by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who was a faculty member at IIT Delhi in the 1970s and 1980s. A third reason was the growing association of IIT Delhi with Baba Ramdev and his Patanjali Yogpeeth for scientific research. In January last year, as part of the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan, an initiative of the Human Resource Development Ministry, Ramdev was invited to the campus where Shevgaonkar, though he was opposed to the ideas presented, was forced to participate, said a source in the know of things. Members of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the tribal wing of the RSS, were also present on the occasion, and the discussion centred on the cow and its benefits. Also present was Prof. V.K. Vijay, head of the Centre for Rural Development and Technology, who is known to encourage research on the benefits of the cow among his students.

The list of people who are perceived to have differences with the proposed changes or the ideology of the government being forced to leave is growing. There have been several controversial resignations and appointments in quite a few institutions.

The proposed Indian Institutes of Management Bill has been put on hold after it sparked concerns over the dilution of autonomy the IIMs enjoyed. Ever since Smriti Irani took over as HRD Minister, several key institutions have seen the resignation of top personnel. From the resignation of Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of the Board of Governors, IIT Bombay, over the appointment of an IIT Director, to that of Parvin Sinclair, Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, who reportedly said there was pressure from the Ministry, there have been several high-profile exits. When the Indian Council of Historical Research member-secretary Gopinath Ravindran voiced his differences over the direction the organisation was taking under Chairman Y. Sudershan Rao, an appointee of the current government, he was asked to go. Sudershan Rao, too, resigned later, citing personal reasons.

The appointment of new heads by Smriti Irani is also fraught with controversies. A case in point is that of Vishram Jamdar, an RSS functionary, as head of the National Institute of Technology Nagpur. He proudly and publicly acknowledged his RSS leanings. The appointment of Manish Sabharwal of TeamLease replacing Rohan Narayana Murthy, son of Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, as head of the Central Advisory Board of Education, and that of Baldev Sharma, former editor of the RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya, as head of the National Book Trust by cutting short the tenure of the Malayalam writer A. Sethumadhavan had raised concerns about blatant political appointments. The selection of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India saw unprecedented protests that lasted for months in the institute and spiralled into nationwide protests.

It also saw the emergence of a national students’ movement of sorts with solidarity across campuses and issues, including the protest against the University Grants Commission for its move to discontinue non-NET (National Eligibility Test) fellowships and privatisation of higher education.

Another in the line of controversial exits and appointments is expected in the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML). After Mahesh Rangarajan was forced to step down as its Director, the BJP has been trying to find a suitable replacement, which is not an easy task given the international import of the institution. Reports indicate that the Oxford-educated Swapan Dasgupta, a pro-BJP journalist, who is on the executive council of the NMML, is the frontrunner for the post.

Union Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said the saffronisation of education was a bogey raised by the Left in the country because they could no longer get positions in educational institutions. But there is no denying that random and obscure selection processes are bound to hurt the quality of higher education and research in India and promote sycophancy.