“The best ideas are born when minds are allowed to roam free and think critically,” M Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, in his inaugural address at the university’s convocation, held in early August after a gap of 46 years. “JNU is committed to this freedom of thought and critical thinking, with an emphasis on our fundamental responsibilities.” For many who have studied or taught at JNU, such platitudes would represent a cruel and bitter irony, given that they were said by a person who has left no stone unturned to destroy critical thinking and freedom of thought in the university in the last two years. A few moments after the vice chancellor delivered his address, Anoop Patel, a former student, refused to shake handswith the VC while receiving his degree. Patel later said he was protesting the VC’s instrumental role in destroying JNU’s “inclusive, democratic, progressive and secular credentials.”
The VC had barred the media from attending the convocation, perhaps in anticipation of such a protest—after all, in the past two years of his tenure, the university’s students have witnessed crackdowns on nearly every expression of free thought and critical thinking. For instance, in June last year, six students who were involved in protests calling upon the VC to formally take up the matter of the disappearance of the student Najeeb Ahmed with the police, including myself, were fined a hefty Rs 20,000. Last month, several students were fined for cooking pakoras in protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on unemployment in the country—that even selling pakoras is a job.
Simultaneously, over the last two years, a small coterie of the JNU faculty—including the presiding officer of the Internal Complaints Committee Vibha Tandon, the warden Buddha Singh, and the appeals committee member Krishnendra Meena—has been promoted to key administrative posts. Together, this JNU administration, comprising the VC and his coterie, have undertaken measures that fundamentally alter the nature of the university—from punishing dissent among both faculty and students with an elaborate penal regime, to introducing structural changes to the institute’s policies of social justice. The actions of the administration surely seek to destroy JNU as an educational institution. But the broader impact of this will not be the fall of JNU alone—it will make way for the dismantling of public education in India.
In recent years, several faculty members who have dissented against the VC’s policies have been arbitrarily removed from their positions in their departments or from the university’s decision-making bodies, such as the Academic Council. For students, the cost of free expression, dissent and critical thinking is much higher—literally. The current semester began with 29 students facing fines of a sum of nearly Rs 4 lakh for various allegedly fabricated disciplinary proceedings against them. To put this in context, the university charges only Rs 120 for its tuition fee for the semester. Whose coffers do these fines fill?
Many students have challenged the penalties in court, and in several cases, the court has set the fines aside. In one case, the court set aside the fine imposed on a student by accepting her plea that she was not present in the cityon the day of the event for which she was being penalised by the administration. In another, the Delhi High Court waived off a fine of Rs 10,000 on a student, stating that the student belonged to the Below Poverty Line category. But these continuous defeats before the courts have not had any sobering effect on the administration.