The Case Against JNU VC Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar
Days after masked goons brutally attacked Jawaharlal Nehru University’s students and went on a rampage in the campus, Vice Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar is yet to explain how this was allowed to happen unchecked and has even failed to condemn the violence, despite having an opportunity to do so during a press conference on Tuesday, 7 January.
He has also not met the injured students, several of whom had to be admitted to AIIMS, having sustained serious injuries, including JNU Students’ Union President Aishe Ghosh.
This abdication of responsibility by a man who was controversially appointed to the post in January 2016 has only intensified the call from the university’s faculty and students for Kumar to resign or be removed from his post.
Holding him responsible for failing to protect the students and the university, the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) had called for Kumar to resign and leave the university on the night of 5-6 January itself, when the violence took place (see the video below at the 2:00-minute mark).
JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) issued a statement on 6 January in which it claimed that Kumar was “behaving like a mobster who perpetuates violence in the university he is supposed to administer... He uses all means and manner to see to it that students, teachers, karamcharis and the entire JNU community faces violence by criminals imported from outside using iron rods, stones and lathis.”
JNUSU urged the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which has oversight over JNU, to sack Kumar if he didn’t resign.
As indicated earlier, the appointment of Kumar as VC of JNU has been controversial from the start, and there have been multiple calls for him to resign by students over the last four years. Here are the grievances they have had with him over the years – and why his continuation in the post is likely to continue to give rise to tensions.
An Inexplicable Appointment
When Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar’s appointment as JNU VC at the end of January 2016 was announced, it raised several eyebrows. A professor of Electrical Engineering at IIT Delhi, Kumar was one of four candidates on the shortlist sent to then President Pranab Mukherjee for consideration to succeed Professor Sudhir Kumar Sopory to the post.
The HRD Ministry, which had sent the shortlist to the President, had actually suggested that Kumar would not be a good fit for the post, and recommended the appointment of reputed scientist Padma Shri VS Chauhan for the post.
The Ministry’s Joint Secretary SS Sandhu’s note to the President, obtained by lawyer and RTI activist Paras Nath Singh in 2016, with reference to Kumar’s candidature, specifically said that “The IIT system differs fundamentally from that of a University, including in the culture, structure and functioning.”
With regard to Chauhan, a Rhodes scholar known for his work in genetic engineering and biotechnology, the Ministry noted,
“Professor V S Chauhan has considerable academic and administrative experience of the University system, both in India and abroad. He has rich research experience and has guided many research students. Having held the posts of Director General and Director of ICGEB for a number of years, he is endowed with proven administrative acumen and experience of the management of research and teaching institutions.”
Even then HRD Minister Smriti Irani, in her comments attached to the note, “strongly recommended” Chauhan’s appointment, rather than Kumar’s. Although the President is not bound to follow the advice of the HRD Ministry, in this case, it was strange that a candidate with a wealth of administrative experience and both domestic and international recognition was ignored in favour of a candidate who had none of these.
At the time, rumours abounded that Kumar had links with the RSS, with detractors pointing to his attendance at an event at IIT Delhi organised by RSS-linked body Vijnana Bharati. In a statement, Kumar had responded to these allegations, saying:
JNU Sedition Row & Disappearance of Najeeb
Barely a week after his appointment, Kumar found himself at loggerheads with the students over an event planned by the JNUSU to protest the hanging of Parliament attack convicts Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat.
Mamidala withdrew permission for the event, but it went ahead anyway in a changed format. Following disruptions by the ABVP, former JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar and others were controversially booked and arrested for sedition on the grounds that anti-national slogans were raised at the event.
Nine months after the sedition row, Najeeb Ahmad, a JNU student, went missing from the JNU campus following a violent confrontation with the ABVP, which is affiliated to RSS. At the time of this article being written, Najeeb remains missing, and JNU students have accused the VC of not doing enough to investigate the disappearance.
JNUSU’s statement on 6 January included the following allegations against the VC relating to these incidents:
- “For four years now this Vice Chancellor has been intently engaged in the favourite project of the Sangh Pariwar which is to destroy JNU.”
- “Mamidala played a role in the maligning of JNU in 2016 planned by the RSS.”
- “He took no action on the ABVP goons who assaulted Najeeb which proceeded his disappearance.”
Prohibition of Protests & Concerns Over Appointments
In 2017, Kumar banned demonstrations and protests near the ‘administration block’ of JNU, where the offices of the senior officials are located. This was considered, by students and faculty, as a blow to the university’s tradition of protests and dissent, especially when viewed in conjunction with directions by him to shut the dhabas in the campus by 11 pm, and fines for those disobeying the new rules.
He also, controversially, invited self-styled guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to deliver the Nehru Memorial Lecture that year, and in a speech of his own, suggested installing a battle tank on campus to inspire patriotism in the students. Students were also at odds with the VC over his decision to make attendance compulsory at the university for the first time in its history, even for PhD degrees.
Kumar further found himself at cross-purposes with the JNUTA and senior professors over the faculty appointments made by him. As reported in The Week, Kumar’s constitution of selection committees for new appointments was challenged on the basis that he was using his discretionary power arbitrarily to include in them experts close to the BJP. Kumar is reported to have refused to consult the concerned centre while appointing external experts for these selection committees.
This allegedly resulted in ‘experts’ from obscure universities being appointed to these committees without relevant expertise (for instance for an appointment to the Centre for Historical Studies), and who then asked questions that had nothing to do with the post in question.
Faculty members sought to send dissent notes to the JNU Executive Council about some of these decisions, but, according to The Week, VC Kumar preempted these by sending out the appointment letters in such cases. Nivedita Menon lost her chairpersonship of the Centre of Comparative Politics and Political Theory, and was removed for ‘insulting behaviour’ after placing certain improprieties about the selection process on record.
‘Illegal Removal’ of Old Sexual Harassment Mechanism
In February 2019, 1,500 women students of JNU sought President Ram Nath Kovind’s intervention to reinstate the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), the original mechanism put in place to deal with complaints of sexual harassment in the campus.
The students also asked the President (who is the Visitor of the university) to intervene in the functioning of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) which VC Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar had brought in in 2017, citing numerous controversial decisions of this committee.
The petition to the President was made after reports emerged that the ICC had allegedly recommended punitive measures against a woman complainant for a “frivolous” complaint, including debarring her from the university and withdrawing her degree – without having conducted a separate inquiry into whether her complaint was malicious, as required by law.
The immediate trigger for the petition was the decision of the ICC to give a clean chit to Professor Atul Johri, who had been accused of sexual harassment by eight students. The ICC not only cleared Johri but went as far as to say there was a threat to his life from the women and their families. The petition said:
“We, the women students of JNU, have lost our faith in the ICC. The verdicts have resulted in an environment of fear preventing students like us from approaching the ICC. Hence there is an immediate need for a functional institutional mechanism wherein, we can lodge complaints without fear of punitive actions against the complainants themselves.”
The women students took exception to Mamidala’s removal of the GSCASH, which had been established after a collaborative consultation between students, faculty and other stakeholders, and not only adjudicated cases of sexual harassment, but also conducted a lot of sensitisation workshops. A key element of the old system was that it included representatives from the student body and workers like safai karamcharis, while the ICC set up by the VC only included members from the administration.
The move to replace the GSCASH with an ICC is also under challenge in the Supreme Court.
Fee Hike Controversy & the Attack on 5 January
All these problems came to a head in October 2019 after Mamidala’s administration decided to hike the hostel fee, mid-session, and introduce a number of changes to the Hostel Manual including dress codes and curfew timings.
The fee hike was widely criticised for the impact it could have on underprivileged students – JNU has long been considered as a place where students from the poorest of backgrounds could manage to gain an education, thanks to the low tuition fees and other charges.
The fee hike led to massive protests by the JNU students in November 2019 that Kumar was extremely distressed by, which included attempts to protest at the All India Council for Technical Education where Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was speaking at the JNU convocation. The protests saw the police use water cannons on the students, and even manhandle some, who tried to push past a police barricade.
From the time the protests began at the end of October 2019 till the time of writing this article, the VC has refused to meet any of the students, despite multiple requests from them.
The protests against the fee hike were the backdrop of the recent attack on the students as well. Tensions had risen in the days before the attack as the deadline for course and hostel registration was approaching, but the students were continuing to protest. JNUSU representatives claim that the ABVP tried to violently disrupt these protests, and it was when a peace march was being taken out against this disruption, that the masked goons attacked students and hostels.
The ABVP claim that it was the JNUSU and other students who had been physically stopping students from registering, which had led to violence by Left groups. As of now, no evidence for this has been found, though several links between the violence and ABVP members have been brought to light.
The only reaction from Mamidala thus far has been to tweet a statement by the Registrar which supports the ABVP’s version. He has not met any of the students, and when he gave a press conference on 7 January, said he hoped normalcy would be restored in the campus soon but made no mention about investigation into the violence.
It is no surprise, therefore that the students and faculty continue to agitate against him. JNUTA wrote an open letter to the President, in which they said,
“The JNUTA with full sense of responsibility accuses the JNU Administration headed by the Vice-Chancellor of being responsible for the orgy of violence in JNU… It is evident that without the connivance of the Administration, the entry into the campus of several of the goons who were not from the campus, and their subsequent exit without being caught, would not have been possible.”
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