JNU: Why Students do not trust the Vice Chancellor

I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as a PhD candidate in Modern Indian History in 2015. Except for a few months delay in getting hostel, the University was largely welcoming. There were of course protests and sloganeering on various national and local issues. I remember the Student Union was on a hunger strike for a new hostel to be constructed. While JNU was already known for its political culture, I found that inside campus many students were aloof to organizations of the campus and were busy in their academic or personal life. The first major political event I remember participated was the 2015 presidential debate, where Kanhaiya Kumar of AISF, till then who I had seen only as a wonderful sloganeer, enchanted most of us with a careful yet persuasive speech in Hindi. My lack of experience in Hindi language didn’t prevent me from deciding to vote in favour of him. And I was glad to see one of the candidates you vote actually winning the election.

Soon, we were left without a Vice-Chancellor (after the term of UPA appointed VC came to an end) and there was so much anticipation of who will become the new VC of JNU. There were predictions of known right wing names in academics. But seldom we expected lesser known Jagadesh Kumar Mamidala ( I learned his last name after he became active on twitter) becoming the JNU VC. Soon after he took charge, JNU was in the news for all wrong reasons. When he permitted the Delhi Police to enter campus and arrest then student union president, we all were in shock, but without knowing Mamidala deeply enough we could only assume that his lack of administrative experience led to the arrest which heavily backfired. Yet, the campus became more vibrant after that, I realized that with the restrictions put on student politics by  Lyngdoh Committee was giving a slow death to campus politics, but ironically with Mamidala’s entry the campus and it’s vibrant culture of dialogue and resistance appeared as it got a new lease of life. There were teachers lecturing on the protest square (later renamed freedom square) and many students I earlier mentioned as aloof from the organizational politics were suddenly politicized or repoliticized. JNU like a David against the Goliath won the battle, even the VC, even while having the strong backing of the State which itself had put against the JNU in parliament and outside, was not confident enough to speak against JNU -it’s intellectual or political legacy- unlike then HRD minister in Parliament. There as well the VC appeared a benign yet stupid figure ( more adequate to put it in my first language Malayalam, as I felt it, pavam viddi) who was with a ‘pavam’ face appointed by his political masters as merely a puppet. But soon I could realize, the real fools were people like me who falsely assumed VC as only an instrument or someone who may just preside over the saffronizing of the curriculum or introduce Yoga course in University (both were not very difficult to counter with the intellectual resources JNU has, I felt). But the VC appeared to be cleverer than one could imagine. And slowly bystanders like me realized that he was the main reason to be blamed for all the debacle that has happened in JNU since February 2016. I felt it was his responsibility as an administrator to prevent the bad propaganda in the public over JNU, in my memory he didn’t do anything to counter the alleged ‘anti-nationalist’ tag that have been attributed collectively to JNU or counter the malicious trolls that we are over aged research students who just ‘waste taxpayers money ‘, meticulously crafted narratives by his political masters. Once the February debacle where an atmosphere of fear ( of violence from the state and the fringe elements; some of such fringe vigilante elements took out a march to JNU gate from outside) permeated unprecedentedly into an educational institution, none of us could forgive Mamidala for that. It has also to be added that JNU had one of the most nonviolent political culture in this country, which always stood as a surprising anomaly in a large nation where democracy mostly coexisted with some form of violence. But even that good thing was breached within few months after Mamidala took charge. A ‘scuffle’, as Mamidala’s office would like to call it, led to the forced disappearance of a Minority student, till today that becomes one of the saddest chapters of JNU history. But while the plight of the disappeared student and his family is so important to the JNU community after that, Mamidala resembling the cruel dictators before the Arab spring (just to take an example from the east) appeared most insensitive. The ‘pavam pava’ or the ‘poor puppet’ was showing the most violent callous inside at this time, I felt how ‘krooran’ or cruel -Malayalam antonym of ‘pavam’ -is he, and how would be able to sleep while being indifferent to the cries of Najeeb’s helpless mother. All these while Mamidala was slowly capturing the institution. I realized it when I went for a fellowship interview in the admin block. After looking carefully at my CV two known representatives of Mamidala in the panel were particularly curious about ‘Muslim’, (though I used it as an academic category and was critical to the unhistorical politics of identity in my paper) in the title of a conference paper I listed, to add into that one of the other panelists( who is now handpicked by the VC to lead one of the centers in a midnight coup of removing teachers opposing him) was anxious about the usage of Arabic sources, as if Arabic is totally foreign( I didn’t think it would make sense for their ideologically biased questions if I answer with an explanation of historical influence Arabic language and traders in South India). These were the only two questions these two panelists who are closer to VC in the list had to ask, and the overall impression I got was that Mamidala has been to some extent successful in communalizing the secular structure of the University. While there were open violence against people who ontologically (by birth or name) – like in the case of the disappeared student – and epistemologically (by political belief) were on the other or opposite side of the politics to which Madmidala belongs, there was also a drive to take over the University in it’s entirety and to break its democratic decentralized structure.

The attendance issue was only a culmination of such attempts. While most of the researchers were accountable immediately to their supervisor and to the center and met them and sought guidance on work as required -while this method was running smoothly in JNU for decades- Mamidala was dismissive towards the existing system, he told one of his favorite right wing newspaper the students are on the campus, and what prevents them from coming and signing once in their center. Those in the public who has consumed most of the earlier propaganda on JNU would think that what a nice idea VCji, but as a PhD student I felt someone should enrol the VC for research methods in Social Sciences course so that he could find out, how field work or archival research work is being done. Moreover, nowhere VC would like us to question his narrative of being present in a University where the marginal identities are in fear of physical disappearance, where the right wing masculine groups inside campus are emboldened as never before. Here the electrical engineer and karate expert Mamidala appears as equal to a Yogi and Sadhvi of the larger right wing outside. May be that makes Mamidala’s prospect high in the right wing political hierarchy. I would say even the most ordinary student of JNU realizes that the destruction of JNU is an unemotional, detached activity and possibly part of a political career building for Mamidala but one would ask why that at the cost of a hitherto well running University.

Much has been said about his insensitivity towards gender justice, but I think that is not isolated from his overall insensitive attitude towards the issues campus, students and faculty faces. As a result, for various reasons mentioned above, many PhD and M. Phil students are looking forward to better research environment in foreign Universities. This research student exodus may come back to the propaganda team who work overtime to support Mamidala’s mad measures and soon they may have to label it as brain drain. But the fact remains, that the VC has destroyed the peaceful environment of learning in campus. And soon there will be more security guards than students in the campus.



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Shaheen KT Written by:

Shaheen is a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)

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