It is unfortunate that in a country that describes itself as a Vishwa Guru (world leader), the appointment of Kulgurus, as Vice-Chancellors of universities are known in Marathi, seldom evokes hope. They are welcomed with cynicism and often with a feeling of antagonism. The main reason for this resentful or sullen relationship is that the university community is nowhere involved in the selection of its leader. She often lands in an unfamiliar terrain and there is no holding of hands either.
The V-C designate must get some time with the outgoing team to understand the university, for universities are essentially cultural bodies. You need time and patience to imbibe the culture of the campus, get yourself acquainted with the convention of the institution. But most leaders enter with an ambition to leave their stamp on the university, which often leaves it bruised or mauled. V-Cs sadly are not received with respect as they are seen to be beholden to the government of the day.
It is not their academic and administrative merit that makes the selectors choose them. The perceived loyalty to the government actually lowers their stature in the eyes of the university community. It is starker in the context of ideological regimes.
It does not matter whether they are left or right. In fact, in times of strong ideological regimes, universities need fiercely independent Vice-Chancellors. But sadly, that isn’t what happens here.
Can Minorities Feel Safe Under the New V-C?
These thoughts came to mind when the name of the new Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was announced. The university was waiting for the announcement for the last one year. The previous V-C was kept in the office by extending his term. He demolished all academic structures of the JNU, closed conversation with the teaching and student community of the universities, bulldozed all established processes and flouted all norms, disregarding the conventions that were followed and respected by nearly all V-Cs. He tried to change the very nature of JNU with an aim to marginalise social sciences and humanities.
A badly injured JNU was looking for a V-C who would bring a healing touch and create a collegial atmosphere. The appointment of a woman academic, an alumna, should have given the university a feeling of relief from the oppression it was living under for the last six years.
The appointment of the new Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University should also have led to a celebration in progressive circles. The newly appointed V-C is the first woman V-C of JNU, which is an extraordinary feat in itself for a male-dominated field. You rarely find women in leadership roles in the Indian academic world.
Unfortunately, the selection of Prof Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit was greeted with derision. She has been seen with suspicion. But how did that happen? We have seldom seen any intervention by her on major social or political issues in the media. So, what is the reason for some people to doubt her eligibility and also her integrity?
Her virtual and ‘real’ self preceded her physical arrival on the campus. The archive of her tweets was mined to show that her views were not only right-wing but also extremely dangerous, as she is seen calling for the genocide of Indian/Bengali Muslims.
Even if we leave aside other less obnoxious tweets bashing agitating farmers, students and other sections of the society aggrieved by the action of the Union government, her views are problematic. This in itself should have been a disqualification in any civilised society. How can Muslim students, teachers and other staff members feel safe and expect fair treatment under such leadership?
A Shoddy Press Note
When this past generated some excitement in the media, Prof Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit disowned the tweets or the statements ascribed to her. This may mean she does not actually hold the views that she says have been spread by her detractors to defame her, anticipating her rise. So, is the view as expressed in the tweets defamatory? But she has taken care not to disown the views. This means that she does entertain such views but would have preferred for them to be viewed only by her people.
She knows that in the world outside India, any academic advocating genocide would not be seen with respect. So, is this fear that has led her to distance herself from ‘her’ views? Even that could have been a relief. But there are more serious issues involved. The qualities that a leader should have as a V-C, as the chief academic leader of the university, and the question of the autonomy of the institution, are important concerns.
You are wrong if you thought that only the detractors of this government are critical of her selection. The unhappy lot consists of a senior BJP leader who is an MP, journalists and academics holding diverse political positions. Referring to her first press statement, the MP said, ”This press release from the new JNU V-C is an exhibition of illiteracy, littered with grammatical mistakes (would strive vs will strive; students friendly vs student-friendly; excellences vs excellence). Such mediocre appointments serve to damage our human capital & our youth’s future.” Others, too, were shocked by the shabby and careless language of the press note.
True Leaders Don't Throw Their Colleagues Under the Bus
What should worry us more than the language or grammar of the note is the fact that she has blamed it on her office clerk. She claimed that the note was not written by her, that she had only dictated it to the secretary of the previous V-C as she did not have her own staff in place yet. This self-defence is worse than the mistakes in the press note. It shows the lack of the first quality a leader needs to have. We know that many great writers have dictated their texts. That is writing. You should have time to have a look at the dictated note and revise it. That is what all officers do. I recall my V-C Ashok Vajpeyi never allowing any note to go to press without having a look at it with his pen in his hand.
Not taking responsibility for your first public statement, not expressing regret for errors, even if inadvertent, and blaming them on your defenceless office staff is a sign of poor leadership. I remember Ashok Vajpeyi telling us that he expected us to work honestly and wanted exactness, efficiency and rigour from us. But he also said that while doing the work we would perhaps make mistakes, and he would publicly own them if needed. A leader never throws her colleagues under the bus in a moment of crisis.
Selection as V-C Is Not a Favour
It was not even that. What should concern us more than the grammar of the note is the unabashed display of her loyalty to the Prime Minister. The process of the appointment of the V-Cs of Central universities is supposed to be independent. It should be between the search committee and the Visitor.
The person coming through such an autonomous process does not take it as a favour. She should neither feel grateful to the government of the day nor feel obliged to pay back to the political bosses for this 'favour' when asked.
When Jamia V-C Visited the RSS
The new V-C claimed that by appointing her, a woman, a first in the history of JNU, Modi has helped her break the glass ceiling, which the Left could never do. She forgets that the Left was never in the Union government, if you leave aside the brief period when two members of the CPI were Ministers. But by emphasising her allegiance to Modi and her attack on the Left, she has given life to the suspicion that she cannot be non-partisan.
One must be clear that V-Cs or academic leaders should not be expected to be politically neutral. What is expected from them, especially in times such as now when the ruling party wants to control universities, is that they do not allow politics to ideologically control the campus, that they defend their academic colleagues’ right to have their views. They should defend the autonomy of the university.
That is why the first public gesture of the new V-C does not inspire confidence. It reminded us of the act of the present V-C of Jamia Millia Islamia, again a woman, a first in the history of Jamia, too, another hit at the glass ceiling
After her appointment, she went to the actual power centre, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which controls this government. She ensured wide publicity for photographs showing her being blessed by one of the top RSS leaders.
It was a new low in the history of academia. But that, unfortunately, has become the norm of the day.
Agreeing to Disagree
We should take solace from what Prof Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit has said while praising Narendra Modi and bashing the Left – she said the university is like her mother. She stated that she had graduated from JNU and knows its culture. One hopes, as the JNU Teachers' Association (JNUTA) has rightly done in its first statement after her appointment, that she will apply that much-needed healing touch to her badly damaged alma mater. One also hopes that she will restrain her ideological urge to drive the university towards Indo-centrism – whatever that means – and allow free pursuit of knowledge on the campus. It can never be in one direction
We expect her not to forget her own statement given to the Indian Express, that she was for “a democratic process”. She said, “I’m a student of this university; it’s my alma mater. It’s like my mother. What I am today is because of JNU. Can’t different ideologies exist? They can … we agree to disagree.”
This is the true spirit. We hope she brings it alive on the campus that has nurtured her. That is how she can pay her Guru Dakshina to JNU.
(The writer teaches at Delhi University. He tweets @Apoorvanand. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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