The Denial of Promotion to a Dalit Professor in JNU Is Symptomatic of a Deep-Rooted Caste Bias Within the University

11 August 2017
A common opinion among several faculty members belonging to oppressed communities was that JNU had “sophisticated” forms of discrimination.
A common opinion among several faculty members belonging to oppressed communities was that JNU had “sophisticated” forms of discrimination.

In early June 2017, Saitya Brata Das, an associate professor at the Centre for English Studies (CES) in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), was denied a promotion to the post of professor. Das alleged that he was not given the post due to his caste, and that M Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor of the university, was responsible for this action. According to Das, caste discrimination against faculty members belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes had always existed at JNU, in “subtle” forms. He added that the manifestation of this discrimination, especially from the administration, became “blatant” after Jagadesh took over as the university’s vice chancellor, in January 2016. The personal testimonies of faculty members belonging to these communities and the record of the university’s appointments and promotions seemed to reflect this discrimination. “Born as a Dalit, I’ve become used to discrimination,” Das told me. “I’ve spoken out now because it affects my academic career.”

Das joined JNU as an assistant professor in 2012 and was promoted to the position of associate professor in 2013. He teaches philosophy and literature at the CES.  I spoke to several of his colleagues, all of whom said that he deserved to be promoted. Milind Awad, an assistant professor and Das’s colleague at CES, told me, “He is a good candidate. His qualification is more than that required for the post.” “I have a very high opinion of Saitya’s work,” Udaya Kumar, a professor and the chairperson of the CES, said. Udaya was also a member of the selection committee that interviewed Das. “I firmly believe that a person with that kind of caliber deserved to be promoted,” he added. Udaya told me that he had given a dissenting note to the seven-member selection committee that he didn’t agree to the committee’s decision to deny Das the promotion.

At the university, the appointment and promotion to professorship is governed by a JNU Ordinance on minimum qualifications for teachers and the University Grant Commission’s regulations on the same. Both have three common conditions for an associate professor to be considered for a promotion to a professor position: the completion of three years at the associate post; a minimum academic performance index (API) score; and a minimum of five publications after appointment as a stage-three assistant professor—the final stage before the associate professor position. An API score is a self-assessment process through which teaching staff assign themselves scores on three categories: teaching-learning activities, professional development activities, and research and academic contributions. The Internal Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC)—the university’s record-keeping department that vets the applications for promotions—reviews the applicants’ self-evaluated scores and assigns a verified score. The final stage is the assessment by a selection committee.

Das fulfilled all the requirements. He told me he met the minimum API score requirements and added that he had more than five publications to his name that were published after he was promoted to the position of associate professor. These included two peer-reviewed books: The Political Theology of Schelling and The Weight of Violence: Religion, Language, Politics, respectively published by the Edinburg University Press and the Oxford University Press. The latter was co-authored with Soumyabratta Chowdhury, an associate professor in the university’s School of Arts and Aesthetics. The former, Das told me, was about Von Schelling, a nineteenth century German philosopher, and “a critique on how theology is used to justify political action and [serves] as foundation to political domination.” He added that the IQAC—of which, Jagadesh himself is the chairperson—had already cleared his application for consideration. His interview with the selection committee was the only remaining hurdle to his promotion.

The JNU Act prescribes that the selection committee shall comprise: the vice chancellor; an academician nominated by the university’s Visitor—the president of India; the dean of the faculty; the chairperson of the relevant school or department; and three experts in the concerned subject, nominated by the vice chancellor. Four persons, including two experts, would constitute quorum for the committee. Das and Udaya told me the selection committee included the Jagadesh, Udaya himself, and Rajendra Dengle, the dean of the university’s School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, apart from the experts and the Vistor’s nominee. Both of them refused to reveal the name of the nominee and the experts, saying that it would be unethical for them to do so.

Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Dalits caste Jawaharlal Nehru University caste discrimination Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribe