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

A common opinion among several faculty members belonging to oppressed communities was that JNU had “sophisticated” forms of discrimination. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images
11 August, 2017

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.

During the interview, Das told me, the vice chancellor shut him down whenever he began to answer an expert’s question. “I really wanted to reply to them because those questions were interesting and related to my works,” Das said. He recalled that one of the experts had asked him to define sovereignty in today’s times. “My argument was that the question of sovereignty needed to be deconstructed and taken away from its theological constitution,” Das continued. “But again, the VC said ‘okay-okay’ and asked the next expert to put the question.”

Das told me he felt humiliated by the way Jagadesh spoke to him during the interview because he conducted it “like an interview of a student” and not in a manner that reflected a peer review of Das’ domain knowledge. He said the VC finally asked him, “What is theory?” “I was answering that but instead of saying ‘theory,’ I once used ‘theology’ in my description and he caught me there,” Das continued. “He didn’t let me answer then.”

Udaya said that all three experts were in favor of Das’s promotion and that it was Jagadesh’s decision to put it on hold. According to him, the vice chancellor said that the promotion could not be granted because Das did not have any PhD scholars under his supervision who had been awarded a doctoral degree yet.

Das dismissed these grounds. “Even if you have merit, they [the university administration] will create fictive thing to deprive you from getting privilege,” he said. Das’ curriculum vitae mentions eight PhD students’ names who are under his supervision. Both the JNU ordinance and the UGC regulations enlist the activities for which a candidate may earn API points under each category. The third category—research and academic contribution—includes research guidance to PhD students as one of the ways to earn API points. In this respect, the regulations include points for guiding both students who have been awarded a degree, and those who have only submitted a thesis. Pradeep K Shinde, an assistant professor at the university who is Dalit, told me that Das has supervised several students who are still awaiting their degrees.

Das believed that his interview was a farce and the vice chancellor had already made a decision about his promotion before the interview was conducted. On 12 June, nearly two weeks after his interview, he received a letter from the university administration recommending him to “reappear for CAS”—the career advancement scheme, through which academic staff are promoted—“interview after three months.” “I won’t reappear,” he told me. “I feel humiliated.” He believed that the letter meant nothing and the administration was predetermined to deny him the promotion.

While reporting on this story, I spoke to a dozen faculty members belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, who are employed at different centres and schools in the university. Nine of these faculty members told me they could not identify any reason, other than the administration’s caste bias, for the delay in Das’s promotion. Ten of them said that at some stage of their academic career at JNU, they had faced indirect discrimination. Two members refused to talk about caste discrimination—they also refused to discuss the administration’s decision not to promote Das. Only one of these faculty members said that candidates for the post of professor are required to have supervised students who have received a PhD degree.

A common opinion among several faculty members belonging to oppressed communities was that JNU had “sophisticated” forms of discrimination. YS Alone, a professor at the School of Arts and Asthetics who belonged to a Scheduled Caste community, told me that he had experienced discrimination as well. “It was not a very visible one, but invisible ones.” He said that though he became a professor in 2014, his application to update his pay grade was still pending, and that he may approach the court if the delay persists. Shonjhari Minz, a professor in the School of Computer and Systems Sciences, told me that even though she joined the university in 1992—several years before reservation was introduced in the recruitment of teaching staff—the upper-caste faculty always referred to her as the “ST professor.”

I also accessed data that revealed the poor representation of faculty members belonging Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities in the university’s teaching staff among all the positions—assistant professors, associate professors and professors. The faculty members told me that the body in charge of redressal of grievances of SC and ST members was the Equal Opportunity Office. Ten members belonging to these communities told me that they had no faith in the office and that its functioning is not autonomous.

In the parliament’s budget session this year, DP Tripathi, a member of the Nationalist Congress Party in Rajya Sabha, submitted a question in parliament regarding the department-wise and reserved category-wise break-up of the university’s teaching staff. The draft material that the university sent to the ministry of human-resource development included a cumulative break-up of the faculty appointments based on the reserved categories.

This reserved category-wise break-up is telling. It notes that as on 28 February this year, the university had 46 reserved posts for professors belonging to SC or ST communities, but as many as 35 seats—about 76 percent—were vacant. Against 81 reserved seats for associate professors belonging to the same communities, at least 59 seats, or 72 percent, were vacant. For the post of assistant professor, among the 73 seats for candidates from SC, ST or OBC communities, 41 percent are vacant. Across all three posts, there are 134 seats reserved for a candidate belonging to a Scheduled Caste community, 75 of which are vacant. Among the 66 seats reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Tribe communities, 49 are vacant; and 58 seats of the 89 seats reserved for OBC-community candidates are vacant.

In April 2016, the parliamentary Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes submitted a report on the “Implementation of reservation policy in Jawaharlal Nehru Unuversity.” The report noted that the university’s executive council—its highest decision-making body—had passed a resolution for the provision of 15 and 7.5 percent reservation for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities respectively in 1983. It further observed that although the reservation for SC and ST communities have been applicable for the post of assistant professor since 1982, and for the posts of associate professor and professor since 2007, the reservation policy was only implemented in the university in 2011, after the adoption of UGC’s regulations on reservation. While referring to the university’s backlog of vacant and reserved faculty posts, the report noted:

“The Committee are disconcerted by the litany of excuses put forth by JNU that either the candidates do not apply or do not fulfil the essential qualifications and specializations advertised to justify the current shortfall. The Committee express their grave displeasure on the insouciant attitude of JNU in this regard. … The Committee feel that inadequate representation of SC/STs in the teaching faculty in such a premier education institution points to a failure somewhere down the line in the educational system.”

The report noted that students from oppressed communities were discriminated against as well: “The Committee also would like to point out that while SC/ST students clear written examination with flying colours, they often fail interviews, which is indicative of latent caste discrimination on part of college authorities and teachers.” While the committee had recommended the reduction of interview marks in the admission process, the university administration adopted a revised admission policy this year, under which the interview carries the entire 100 marks and determined an applicant’s admission, making the entrance test only a qualifying criterion.

Echoing Das, the faculty members belonging to SC or ST communities told me that the instances of caste discrimination have increased after Jagadesh Kumar took over as vice chancellor. A member of the university’s executive council—its highest decision-making body—told me, on the condition of anonymity, that the vice chancellor had been acting autocratically. The member said the Jagadesh has defied every collective decision taken by the academic council—the university’s second-highest decision-making body, which includes several members of the faculty as well as representatives of its students’ union—since he assumed power. The faculty members belonging to SC or ST communities also concurred that the vice chancellor had been undemocratic in his action. “The previous VC would take members’ inputs on any decision. But, this VC acts on his own,” the member said. The member feared that the vice chancellor may suspend them from the council. “See, we already have little representation in such top bodies, and if I’m suspended, even that little representation will go,” the member added.

On 19 June, in what appeared to be an endorsement of Jagadesh Kumar’s autocratic manner of running the university, the university’s registrar issued a press release after the visit of its chancellor VK Saraswat. It said, “In order to make the university an institution of excellence, he [the chancellor] said that the vice chancellor should be free to decide ‘whom to teach, who will teach and what to teach.’”

Shinde, the assistant professor, told me that in the past one-and-a-half years, three cases of caste discrimination has occurred. According to him, the vice chancellor prevented Satyendra Singh, a Dalit associate professor at the Special Center for Nano Science, from becoming the chairperson of the center, due to an error in his vision statement. “Such strange excuses are only used against Dalit candidates,” Shinde added.

Shinde said he even approached the Equal Opportunity Office to take up the case but Singh himself refused to sign the petition. When I spoke to Singh, he admitted that he was denied the chairperson position, but he refused to talk about the issue. He added that he did not know whether he was denied the post because of a caste bias.

A majority of the faculty members whom I spoke to told me that the administration intentionally denied promotions to candidates from SC or ST communities. Das provided an explanation for the denial of promotions to professor posts: “A professor would automatically qualify to become a member of several decision-making bodies, including the academic council and executive council.” The faculty members also told me that the caste discrimination would often result in delays in grade pay—the salary increment given to government employees. The parliamentary committee’s report noted two complaints regarding non-payment by non-teaching Dalit staff in the university.

Shinde told me of another Dalit assistant professor Tsetan Namgiyal, who was denied a promotion in the past six months. He added that Namgiyal had approached the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes to lodge his complaint. When I spoke to Namgiyal on the phone, he confirmed what Shinde had said.

Awad, Das’s colleague at the CES who also belongs to a Dalit community, told me that his own promotion was also stopped by the vice chancellor in 2016. His field of expertise is Dalit studies. Awad said he chose not to speak to the media because he was still hopeful that his case would be considered by the university administration, but he never got a reply.

According to Awad, “the space for Dalit discourse on JNU is shrinking and often marginalized by upper-castes faculty members.” “Whenever there is a seminar on a subject concerning Dalits and tribals, the upper-caste faculty members will often give it a miss,” he added.

“Those who are pursuing Dalit studies are seen with inferiority,” he continued. Awad believed that Dalit faculty members were often unable to raise their voice because their social networks are “ghettoised” and limited to members of their own community. He added that upper-caste faculty members have upper-caste friends and as a result, their “social capital” is always more powerful than that of Dalit faculty.

In the aftermath of the protests at the university on the anniversary of Mohammad Afzal’s execution in February 2016, Amita Singh, an upper-caste professor who the chairperson of Centre for Law and Governance, had allegedly termed the university’s Dalit and Muslim faculty “anti-national.” After the incident, the National Commission for Scheduled Caste sent a show-cause notice to the university, following which JNU’s administration ordered an inquiry into the matter.

Shinde said he did not know what happened to the inquiry and that Singh continues to attend meetings within the university and hold important positions, such as the chairpersonship of her centre and membership to the executive council. Singh told me over phone that she didn’t want to speak on the issue and that she had approached the Patiala House district court in Delhi against Patrika, the newspaper that published her statements on its website. She added that some faculty members are “spreading propaganda” against her.

According to the executive-council member, when members belonging to SC and ST communities raised this issue in a meeting of the council, Amita had referred to them as “tamasha karne wale log”—those who indulged in theatrics. Despite Amita being the accused in the case, the member continued, the VC had allowed to her to speak, and supported her. The member continued, “Tell me, how fair an enquiry can you expect from such a council? How was she even allowed to be present during the discussion on the issue?” The member added that the VC has, till date, not agreed to meet group of faculty members belonging to SC and ST communities on the issue of her allegations against the Dalit community, despite several pleas by the faculty.

Although the university has an Equal Opportunity Office, all the faculty members expressed their reservation about its functioning. None of them had approached the office in the past when they faced any discrimination. Rajesh Kharat, the chief advisor of the office and a Dalit professor in the Centre for South Asian Studies, denied that there was any interference from the vice chancellor in the functioning and enquiries conducted by the office. He also told me that he was free to initiate an inquiry into cases of discrimination without taking prior permission from the vice chancellor.

However, when I told him that the office did not enjoy the confidence of faculty members belonging to SC and ST communities, he expressed his concern and said that such people were few in number. I asked him how many cases or complaints his office had registered and disposed of, but Kharat said he had no available data. Regarding the status of the enquiry into Amita Singh’s case, Kharat said he was appointed to the position in May 2017 and did not know its status.

On 19 June, I called up Poonam Kudaisya, JNU’s public-relations officer, to ask for an appointment with the vice chancellor. Instead, Kudaisya asked me to email my questions to the VC and mark the email to her as well. I asked her if the administration has cleared its stand on Das’s allegation of caste discrimination, but she repeated that I should direct my queries to the VC. In my email, which I sent the following day, I asked the VC to explain the grounds and process adopted in reaching the decision on Das’s promotion, among queries regarding the allegations of caste discrimination against SC and ST faculty members in JNU. Neither the VC nor the PRO sent me a response. The office of the dean of Das’s school, Dengle, also declined to give me an appointment to meet him.

On 2 March this year, Pranab Mukherjee, then the president of India, christened JNU the “Best University.” Mukherjee noted that the university had shown “outstanding performance on all key parameters including the quality of students and faculty, training of faculty, citations, publications, research projects, foreign collaborations, seminars and innovation exhibitions.” The parameters did not include social justice or affirmative action.