In her first faculty meeting in 1998 at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as a young assistant professor, Ayesha Kidwai was vociferous in her disagreement over various issues.
For Kidwai, a professor of linguistics, the freedom to dissent without fear was the greatest gift in JNU.
“JNU gave you a sense of freedom. You could dissent as a young faculty member against senior professors, administration and the vice-chancellor without facing any hostility. You didn’t have to be a yes man,” says Kidwai.
But in 2017, a year after anti-national slogans were allegedly raised in the campus on February 9, 2016, leading to a debate on free speech, things are not the same. Following the incident, three students were arrested and the university was branded as “anti-national” leading to protests.
Teachers and students now allege they are under constant surveillance and fear of action looms large. “Today that freedom is fading. Nobody knows what case will be picked up against you. A video of Nivedita Menon, a senior professor, was shown in the AC meeting without her consent and it was made as a basis to conduct an inquiry against her,” she said.
Crisis after crisis
The university has remained turbulent since last year. First, there were protests against the V-C M Jagadesh Kumar over punishments given to students involved in the February 9 incident, then came the case of missing student Najeeb Ahmad and then protests against adoption of UGC regulations changing JNU’s admission policy.
“We are facing different issues one after another but what has remained constant is the administration’s apathetic attitude. JNU’s character where students from most marginalized section come and study safely is getting destroyed,” said Mohit Pandey, president JNU students’ union.
Officials say this is the result of breakdown of communication. “Many in the faculty and administration think the V-C is not able to handle university level issues. There is complete communication gap. You cannot criminalise your own students for protesting,” an official said on condition of anonymity.
Anuradha Chenoy, dean School of International Studies, said, “It’s not as if there were no disagreements under previous V-Cs but communication channels were kept open. The V-C would look into demands and sort issues out. But now this does not exist,” she said.
However, Kumar told HT that he has been continuously communicating with students and respects their right to protest. “There is no question of curbing freedom of expression but students should also protest within legal limits,” said Kumar, who took over on January 27, 2016.
Amid all this, JNU was identified as the best central university for the ‘Visitor’s Award’ this year to be given by President Pranab Mukherjee on March 6. “We received this award for excellence in academics. Our representatives are those students who study in library and not the ones who protest,” Registrar Pramod Kumar said.
That’s the name students have given to the current administration.
“I have lost count of the number of show cause notices I have received. In 2016 end I received a show cause notice for participating in a documentary screening in 2015,” said Rama Naga, former general secretary of JNU students’ union.
Recently, the university came under fire for issuing notice to at least five faculty members warning them of disciplinary action over addressing students at the Administration Block. An inquiry has also been constituted into cases of violation of university rules by the faculty members after some of them expressed solidarity with a group of students.
“It has never happened in the history of JNU that teachers received notices for addressing students on campus,” said CP Chandrasekhar, dean, School of Social Sciences.
However, not everyone agrees these allegations. Ramnath Jha, who teaches at Special Center for Sanskrit Studies, said it is only a handful of students and teachers who are busy in opposing everything. “Serious teachers and students have no concern with these issues. Everyone should honour administration rules. We follow the rules and expect the same from others. If we don’t follow rules then there will be anarchy,” he said.
Attack on free speech
Students and teachers allege that the university is under attack. They claim that first it was the students who were targeted and now it is the teachers.
Sachidanand Kumar, former JNUTA president, said the administration is trying to curb the voice of dissent by creating fear among students and teachers. “There is a general atmosphere of fear. These notices are a tactic to scare others. This is how universities are destroyed,” he said adding that teachers and students are determined to fight back.
However, other faculty members point out that the protest against the administration is being stirred by those who will be impacted by the positive steps being taken by the V-C. “Some teachers supported students who indulged in anti-national activities. The same teachers and students now oppose everything the V-C does simply because it will unsettle the comfortable positions they have been in,” said Hariram Mishra, assistant professor at Center for Sanskrit Studies.
JNU is synonymous with protests and dharna. For years the Administrative Building was the site where agitating students gathered and raised slogans. After February 9 the spot started being referred to as “Freedom Square”.
It became the rallying point where Kanhaiya Kumar gave his now famous “Azaadi” speech and a lecture series by teachers was held. But late December, students were in for a shock when they found grills at two spots near Administration Block. The university banned all protests within 20 metres of the building. The stairs leading to the V-C office, where hundreds of students had sat during protests, was covered with flower pots.
The registrar said only a section of students indulge in protests and they have been given alternate sites to protest. “Earlier only 10-12 protests used to happen at the block in a year but now everyday there is a protest. How will we work if there are loudspeakers and slogans outside. We are not against protests but it should be within rules,” he said.
Who gets the benefit?
Many say that all this has revived the traditional Leftist base of the campus. In the 2016 students’ union elections, Left parties like All India Students Association (AISA) and Students Federation of India (SFI) formed an alliance and won all four seats.
Former JNUSU president Kumar and former JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid are among the few students who have visited many other campuses and addressed students.
“We turned the crisis into a blessing. Earlier, when we talked of social justice, poverty, freedom of expression only a few people heard us. But now many more want to know what we think. It is now our responsibility to use this and reach out to more people and raise awareness on how the government is destroying higher education by fund cuts and other policies,” said Rashid.
Vivek Rai, a research student from School of Languages, said, “The February 9 incident has brought one important change — it has made JNU popular. Earlier, people just knew JNU as an institution of higher learning now even those in small villages know what JNU is all about. The world now wants to know what is happening in our institution, which I think is something good. Importantly, this movement has also increased activism among students.”
But former JNUSU joint secretary and ABVP member Saurabh Sharma said the students had used the incident to promote themselves. “Everyone wants to be a hero by using the sudden focus on JNU. They just want to be in limelight by speaking against administration and government. This is encouraging others who want to abuse the system,” Sharma said.
Former V-C speaks
Former VC SK Sopory did not directly comment on the crisis in JNU but said it is not good for an academic institute to be in constant conflict. “Issues should be resolved by communicating with students, teachers and administration. Administration should take the first step to do it,” he told HT.
Maintaining that students have a right to protest within limits, he said if students don’t have peace of mind they cannot be productive. “JNU is supposed to produce intellectuals and not just students who appear for exam and get their degrees. JNU produces leaders, not followers,” he said.