How JNU Flouted Procedure to Revise Admission Criteria, Ignoring and Aggravating Concerns of Caste Discrimination

Students at Jawaharlal Nehru University are protesting the university administration's decision to increase the marks allocated to the viva component of the admission procedure for the MPhil and PhD programmes in the university. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
29 January, 2017

On 27 December 2016, the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, suspended nine students and withdrew their hostel facilities. The administration alleged that the students had disrupted a meeting that the university’s academic council had held the previous day. The suspended students including four students belonging to communities classified as Other Backward Classes (OBC), three belonging to those classified as Scheduled Caste, one to a Scheduled Tribe community, and one Muslim student. Three days after the suspension, the students held a press conference at the JNU Students Union’s (JNUSU) building and stated that the suspension was a “blatant violation of procedural norms and discriminatory witch-hunting of students belonging to marginalised and oppressed communities.”

The students—Mritunjay Singh Yadav, Bhupali Magare, Rahul Sonpimple, Prashant Kumar, Shakeel Anjum, Mulayam Singh, Dileep Yadav, Deelip Kumar and Dawa Sherpa—were protesting a decision taken by Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor of the university to adopt the University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.PHIL/PH.D Degrees) Regulations, 2016. The UGC issued the regulations, which prescribe admission criteria for certain graduate-degree programmes on 5 May 2016. By adopting the notification, the vice chancellor of JNU sought to revise the admission procedure for the MPhil and PhD programmes from one in which a viva voce comprised thirty percent of an applicant’s score, to one based almost entirely on a viva. According to Dawa Sherpa, one of the suspended students and member of the Democratic Students Union, the reduction of the weightage given to the viva component of the selection process was a long-standing demand of almost every student organisation on the campus and several teachers. Bhupali Magare, another suspended student also said that, through the verbal examination, “Brahminical faculties discriminate against students from oppressed groups.” Magare is the president of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA)—an Ambedkarite student political organisation formed in November 2014.

The vice chancellor had decided to adopt the UGC regulations despite a university-constituted committee’s report in November 2016, that advised against it. The report stated that the admission process was discriminatory towards those belonging to marginalised communities. It recommended the reduction of viva marks required for admission. My conversations with students from JNU appeared to confirm the committee’s findings—several recounted instances of perceived discrimination during the viva process. I also found that a section of the university did not support the demand for a reduction of the viva component—faculty members of several schools and centres within the university, too, were opposed to it. Moreover, documents that I accessed while reporting this story suggest that the administration flouted all procedural norms in exercising its decision, despite protests by the students and teachers who are members of its academic council. The manner in which the university administration adopted the UGC regulations indicated its apathy towards the demand for social justice raised by its students.

The significance of this demand was reflected in the accounts of discrimination that several students narrated to me. Anubhuti, a third-year PhD student at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe community, told me that in 2011 when she applied to the programme she scored 54 out of 70—the second highest score on the entrance test according to her—in the written test, but was given only eight out of 30 in the viva. “I felt that my viva had gone really well and I was shocked that I was given only so little. When I confronted the heads of the centre at the time, they told me that if I were given a higher score then I would qualify for the programme in the general category itself.” She said that this is a phenomenon across all schools and centres within the university. Students from marginalised sections that have high test scores are graded lower on the viva. “If I was given a higher score, I would have qualified and the reserved category seat could have been made available to another student, but clearly they did not want to cut down the number of seats for ‘meritorious students,’” she said.

Another student, who asked not to be named, described a similar experience. He told me that after receiving an MA from Hyderabad Central University, he applied for the MPhil programme at the Centre for Political Studies twice, but did not get through. “I cracked the written round twice, but in the viva round I received a very strange response from the examiners. They seemed to be mocking my proposal and spent more time asking me personal questions about where I grew up and went to school.” He finally did not make it into the programme and continued his MPhil in HCU, after which he received direct admission into the PhD programme at JNU.

Jitendra Suna, an MPhil student at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste community, said, “The questions were all about my background and there was only one examiner from a backward caste, so I felt very uncomfortable with this line of questioning.” He said that he was finally given only three marks on his viva, and that was not enough for him to get his preference.

The university’s adoption of the UGC regulations revises the admission procedure such that after qualifying for a viva by securing 50 percent marks in a written examination, the viva becomes the sole basis for admission for MPhil and PhD programmes. According to a press release issued by the university in early January, JNU’s academic council (AC), at its 141st meeting, held in October 2016, recommended that the UGC regulations be adopted. The AC, comprising teachers and heads of the university’s schools and centres, is the body responsible for regulating the admission and examination procedure of the university, amongst other duties. According to several AC members I spoke to, each AC meeting consists of two parts: in part A, representatives of the JNUSU are also present; while part B is attended only by the members of the AC. Decisions taken by the AC are reflected in the minutes of the meeting, which are prepared by the university administration. The AC, at its subsequent meeting, must approve the minutes of the previous meeting before any resolutions passed in the latter can be adopted and implemented by the EC—the executive body of the university. On 22 November, the press release states, the executive council (EC) approved the AC’s recommendation to adopt the UGC notification.

On 23 and 26 December 2016, Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor, convened parts A and B respectively, of the 142nd meeting of the AC. Mohit Pandey, the president of the JNUSU, was present at part A of the December meeting. According to him, Kumar said at the meeting that independent schools and centres within the university could formulate their own admission procedures. “After the meeting, however, the administration began suggesting that the gazette would be adopted,” he added.  Kumar said that this meant that in the case of PhD and MPhil programmes, the independent schools and centres would not be able to take the call because they would have to follow the UGC regulations, even though there was no prior discussion or consensus on the issue. “The announcements made after the AC meeting on the 23rd came as a shock to us,” Magare, the president of BAPSA, told me. “The suggestion that the gazette will be adopted completely nullifies our fight,” she added. After part A of the meeting, she told me, students from different organisations gathered to discuss the adoption of the UGC regulations with Pandey. “We asked the SU representatives about the issues that were discussed at the meeting and there was an assurance that there will be an all-organisations meeting to discuss them,” she said.

According to Magare, over the next two days, having received no information the JNUSU regarding a meeting, members of several student organisations, namely the Democratic Students Union, BAPSA, Other Backward Classes Forum and Students for Swaraj, called for a joint protest by the entire student body at part B of the meeting. On 26 December, Magare told me, around 60 students from these organisations assembled at the administrative block of the university to submit a memorandum to the AC, demanding the reduction of the viva voce marks required. Magare said that security personnel stopped them at the entrance, and said that the AC had asked their student representative to submit the memorandum. “When we called Mohit on that day, however, he did not answer our call. We called Satrupa Chakravorty, the JNUSU secretary, but she said that there was no point in coming to the meeting because the SU is never part of part B,” said Mulayam Singh, another student who was suspended, and who is a member of the OBC forum at JNU. The suspended students released a statementthat they were manhandled by the security personnel, that the security broke open the latch themselves, and that no disruption as has been alleged ever took place.

Following the AC’s December meeting, Kumar convened an executive council meeting on 3 January 2017. On that day, the suspended students s gathered outside the administrative block, along with close to 50 members from the organisations that they were affiliated to, once again. They were there to present their memorandum to the vice chancellor and demand a discussion. They formed a human chain outside the building and made consistent attempts to speak to Kumar and hand him the memorandum as he left the venue later that night. The students managed to submit their memorandum, but were unsuccessful in getting Kumar to engage in a dialogue with them.

That night, students gathered at the steps of the administrative block. Rahul Sonpimple, a leader of the BAPSA,who was also suspended, addressed a small group of students. He began by expressing his dissatisfaction with the JNUSU, who he said were not a part of the demonstrations for the most part of the day. “I am hurt today that some of you have come here only to practise your brand of politics and to show the media that you were here as well.” Accusing members of the JNUSU for being inconsistent in their support for them, he said, “the least I expected from you today was that you would keep the politics of your respective organisations aside and stand behind us.”

I spoke to Pandey regarding Sonpimple’s address. He said that Kumar took decisions in such an arbitrary manner that even the JNUSU was unsure of what to do next. “We had a different action plan, we wanted to call for protests on the issue once more members of the student body had returned to campus, once the semester resumed.”

Members of the AC I spoke to seemed to mirror the students’ confusion about the manner in which the notification was adopted. Two members of the AC—Nivedita Menon, the chairperson of the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, and Bikramaditya Choudhary, the secretary of the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA)—claimed that Kumar misrepresented the minutes of the AC’s October meeting when he presented them for approval in December. An EC member, who asked not to be named, echoed their claim.

While reporting this story, I received a copy of the draft minutes of part A and part B of the 142nd AC meeting, held in December 2016. These will be presented before the AC at its next meeting for approval. Apart from stating the agendas that were discussed in the December meeting, they also state the resolutions that were passed in the October meeting, and the action taken on those resolutions subsequently. The inconsistency between the accounts of the university administration and the members of the AC and EC about these meetings reflect how Kumar’s decision to adopt the UGC regulations is riddled with procedural violations.

According to the draft minutes, in part B of the October meeting, the AC recommended adopting the UGC regulations. The minutes further state that the EC approved this recommendation at its meeting on 22 November. But according to Choudhary, the gazette and its adoption were “never discussed” at the October meeting. “We were supposed to discuss it in the 142nd meeting. It was placed in the 141st [meeting’s] minutes as an annexure, but was never discussed.” Both Menon and Choudhary told me that the minutes of October’s AC meeting were not approved by, or even circulated among the AC members before the EC approved the AC’s alleged recommendation. The minutes also state that the AC had, in part B of the meeting, resolved to amend Ordinances 13 and 14 of the JNU Ordinances, which are the legal documents pertain to the PhD and MPhil programmes in the university respectively, in accordance with the UGC regulations. The minutes of part A also state that the AC resolved to amend the admission policy. However, according to Menon and Choudhary, the AC had neither resolved to adopt the UGC notifications, nor resolved to amend the JNU ordinances or admission policy.

Another significant contradiction in the differing accounts of the minutes of the meeting is regarding the discussion of the university-constituted committee’s report recommending the reduction of viva marks. In May 2016, JNU constituted the Abdul Nafey committee to look into the issue of caste-based discrimination during the admission process to the MPhil and PhD programmes. The committee submitted its report on 4 November. After studying admission-related data from 2012 to 2015, it had concluded that, "the data consistently indicate the pattern of difference in the written and the viva voce marks across all social categories which indicates discrimination." On this basis, the committee recommended, "that the discriminatory pattern would get mitigated if viva voce marks is reduced from the present 30 to 15 marks."

The draft minutes of the 23 December meeting record that the AC discussed the Nafey committee report in detail. The draft minutes also states that no consensus regarding the viva marks could be arrived at among the members. It adds that Kumar then suggested that the centres and schools within the university could determine whether they wanted to assign 20 or 30 percent marks to the viva for programmes other than MPhil and PhD, as they would “now be regulated as per UGC notification dated 5 May 2016.”

But according to Menon, the AC had not agreed to follow the UGC regulations. She said that, after discussing the Nafey report, 27 members of the AC voted in favour of reducing the viva marks and 23 members voted against it. “It was decided in the house that each centre and school would handle the reduction of marks,” Choudhary said. Menon said, “Why was there a detailed discussion on the Nafey committee report if he”—Kumar—“is so dedicated to the gazette? Is he against policies for social justice?” Choudhary echoed these concerns. “How are they passing contradictory things in the same meeting?” he asked. “It makes absolutely no sense.”

I made several attempts to call Jagadesh Kumar for his comments, but he did not answer my call. However, I spoke to Pramod Kumar, the registrar of the university. Pramod seemed to suggest that the deliberations on the report were a mere formality. “The committee had been constituted before the UGC regulations were published in the gazette,” he said. The regulations were published in the Gazette of India, the Indian government’s journal, on 5 July 2016, more than a month after the constitution of the Nafey committee.

Before the Nafey committee submitted its report, it had reached out to the schools and centres in the university, presenting its data that indicated discriminatory patterns in the viva process, and seeking their response on the question of reduction of viva marks. The responses they received from the respective administrations, which Mulayam Singh and Prashant Nihal, another member of the OBC Forum, published on Facebook, are telling. Of the 20 responses the students published, six said that the centre or school would maintain the status quo without addressing the concerns of caste-based discrimination, and five responses questioned the data presented by the Nafey committee. Four centres had divided opinions. Only five of the published responses stated their agreement to reduce the viva marks, and only two among them agreed to reduce it to 15 marks, as recommended by the Nafey committee.

Since Kumar declared the regulations adopted, students and teachers at the university have launched repeated protests and demonstrations on campus. Dileep Yadav, a member of the OBC Forum and one of the suspended students, declared an indefinite hunger strike on 21 January 2017. Two days later, however, police officers took him and had him admitted to AIIMS hospital, citing his deteriorating health as their reason. On 27 January, I met Yadav upon his return to the university campus. “Everyone from an oppressed caste group that has not been to an elite college at the undergraduate level, tends to feel undercut at the viva,” he said. “The point we are making is that the existing admission procedure itself is very discriminatory. If it is replaced by the notification, the situation will only worsen,” he added.

According to Menon, “No VC has to be so committed to a UGC directive, it is something that each university has to discuss and then adopt,” she said. Pramod Kumar told me that the UGC’s Regulation 13.2—which states that a degree-awarding institution must issue a provisional certificate stating that the degree is issued in accordance with the UGC Regulations, 2016—made the regulations mandatory on the university. According to a press release the university administration issued on 17 January, the UGC chairman had “made it clear” to the vice chancellor that the “new UGC regulations are mandatory.” The next day, the JNU Teacher’s Association issued a press release in which it argued that the UGC regulations only mandated that the admission process consist of two stages—a qualifying entrance test where the qualification is obtaining 50 percent marks and an interview or viva voce. It further argued that the regulations did not specify the amount of marks to be attributed to each stage, and that the written test could carry a weightage of any value more than 50 percent. “Our system is in sync with the UGC requirement,” the JNUTA statement said.

The UGC chairman did not respond to several calls I had made to seek clarifications on the interpretation and mandatory nature of the regulations. On 19 January, I spoke to Jaspal Singh Sandhu, the UGC secretary, who informed that the chairman was on leave from 16 January to 4 February. He then told me that I could seek clarifications from the acting chairman, Jagadesh Kumar.