He addressed me as “Queen”: Jamia students speak out about Arts head Hafeez Ahmed’s misconduct

16 February, 2019

Hundreds of students from Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university located in Delhi, participated in a dharna on campus for 15 days, which came to an end on 14 February. The students held the demonstration to demand the suspension of Hafeez Ahmed, the head of the university’s applied arts department, and an inquiry into the allegations against him. After two weeks of protests, the university’s administration gave in to most of the demands of the protestors, bringing the dharna to an end.

In the wake of the protests, students from different central universities as well as JMI’s alumni supported the demonstrations demanding Ahmed’s ouster. The protestors I spoke to charged Ahmed with various allegations of misconduct—including autocratic conduct, making sexist remarks, harbouring discriminatory feelings against Kashmiris and biased grading against select students in their exams.

This was not the first time that students of JMI’s applied arts department spoke out against Ahmed. Ahmed had first served a three-year tenure as the head of the applied arts department, until last year. According to the students I spoke to, his tenure was marred with controversies and complaints against him, and Talat Ahmad, the vice chancellor at the time, did not allow him to continue. After the Talat Ahmad left JMI, the students said, Ahmed was reinstated as the head of the applied arts department in the university’s faculty of fine arts. Shortly after, around fifty students wrote a letter to the dean of students’ welfare of the university, questioning the decision to reappoint him. According to the letter, Hafeez was accused of using foul language, discrimination and favouritism earlier as well.

A few students I spoke to substantiated the allegations against Ahmed concerning sexist remarks. Kulsoom Fatima, a second-year student pursuing a bachelor’s in fine arts, recounted an incident from when she was in her first-year at JMI and had gone to Ahmed’s office after class for some work. Ahmed asked her which students were present in class, Fatima told me. “My senior Dipesh was in class at the time, so I told him, ‘Dipesh bhaiya and other students are there.’” She said Ahmed replied, “Aap toh ‘bhaiya’ bol kar unke armaano par paani fer rahi hai.” (By calling him bhaiya, you are shattering his dreams.) Fatima said that Ahmed’s comment hurt her. Narrating another such incident, she said, “In front of an entire class, he said, ‘A woman’s success depends on her relationships.’”

A third-year student who requested not to be named said Ahmed had sent her messages on WhatsApp that made her uncomfortable. “A few days back, I was unable to come to college because I was sick,” the third-year student recalled. “To ask how I am feeling, Ahmed sent me a message calling me, ‘Appi’ and ‘Queen.’” The student said the message made her feel nervous and unsafe. She also shared the screenshots of this conversation with me, adding that she felt she helpless. “He is the head of the department—neither can I stop him nor can I pick a fight.”

Several students said Ahmed was unfit to be the head of the applied arts department, and that the department has a dearth of experienced teachers. When the protest began, Ahmed was the only permanent professor of the department, and teachers from other departments would conduct the rest of the classes, as guest faculty. According to some students, the guest faculty comprised of Ahmed’s friends who taught merely as a formality. They also said that Ahmed was partial to a few students with respect to giving marks. A second-year student pursuing a bachelor’s course at the department, Dhruv Mandal, told me, “Our future is in a limbo.”

Students had raised these issues with Ahmed before, but to no avail. Rahul Paswan, a student in his second year of graduation, said he was one of them. When he took up these issues with Ahmed, Rahul told me, “He threatened to fail me in exams and said, ‘I will show you my power now.’ He also threatened to oust me from the college.”

Younus Nomani, a third-year student, narrated an incident that illustrated Ahmed’s bias against Kashmiris. A student from the painting department had informed Nomani of a workshop in their department. “I went to the HOD to request him to let me attend the second day of the workshop, but he refused,” Nomani told me. Pointing to a group of his friends who were from Kashmir, Ahmed said, “I am well aware of who all you hang with and what you are upto.” Nomani added that Ahmed instructed him to stay away from Kashmiris. “He didn’t give me a chance to say my bit.”

During my conversations with the protestors, many of them alleged that Ahmed was dictatorial in his actions. Dhruv Mandal told me that when students started raising their voice against the former head, he called Mandal to his office and threatened him. Mandal gave me a recording of this conversation. “You’ll see,” Ahmed can be heard saying. “And those who are encouraging you to act, they will see as well.”

In early February, I met Hafeez Ahmed in his office and asked him about the allegations against him. Ahmed said that some people are using the protestors for their political gains. “Everything is fine here,” Ahmed told me. “If students come and speak to me, we will find a solution to their problems.” When I asked him about the shortage of teachers in his department, he said that some teachers had recently retired. He also claimed that the process for hiring new teachers has been halted pending the appointment of a new vice chancellor at the university. Ahmed added that faculty from other departments are taking classes in the interim.

On 14 February, Haroon Sajjad, the chief proctor of JMI, told me that the administration has sent Ahmed on a three-month long leave and has appointed Nuzhat Kazmi, the dean of the applied arts department, as the acting head. “We have taken away Hafeez Ahmed’s academic and administrative powers,” he said.

Sajjad told me that a fact-finding committee will be constituted to probe the allegations against Ahmed. He said that while the probe “will definitely take some time,” the university will take appropriate action according to the committee’s findings. As per the protestors’ demands, the committee will have student representatives.

“We have moved one step ahead in our fight,” Fatima told me, after the dharna was over. “Now our hope is that the enquiry report is fair.”

This news report first appeared in Karwan, The Caravan’s Hindi website. It has been translated and edited.