“Some castes are genetically malnourished and so very little can be achieved in raising them up; and if they are, it would be undoing excellence and merit.”
—Prof B.N. Mallick, Dept of Life Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, at the March 31 academic council meeting on reservations in the faculty
This learned professor would have continued to offer his warped genetic theories had his comment not been greeted with protests from other JNU academicians. Prof Kamal A. Mitra Chenoy of the School of International Studies requested him to pipe down. Other academicians persuaded vice-chancellor B.B. Bhattacharya, who was presiding over the meeting, to stop Mallick from speaking.
Clearly, there is much heartburn, fissure, and even open defiance in the faculty over the constitutional provision mandating 22.5 per cent reservation at the professor and associate professor level for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the physically handicapped. In fact, the pro- and anti-quota lobbies have been fighting it out since the university placed an advertisement in November last year for 149 faculty positions with 22.5 per cent reservation. If events of the last two months are anything to go by, many at this university, which has set high standards for debates on inclusiveness and justice, seem to have abandoned the moral high ground.
At the heart of the debate is the vice- chancellor. Some faculty members say he has failed in his responsibility of setting a personal example. “Unfortunately, he is not able to communicate his sentiments or ideas on the issue effectively,” says Rohan D’Souza, an assistant professor at JNU’s Centre for Studies in Science Policy. Of faculty members who were worried the events would reach the media, D’Souza says, “We had to remind them this is not a police station. Even cabinet notes make news. We are an educational institution. The public must know.”
Given Bhattacharya’s ambivalence on reservation—amply demonstrated, faculty members say, in two meetings of the academic council and the last executive council meeting of April 6—many at the university think his continuance will thwart any effort to introduce reservations in the faculty. In fact, the meeting of the executive council—the highest body in the university—was marked by a vicious debate. It was even decided to refer the matter to the solicitor-general of India, prompting executive council member P. Sainath to ask why the highest legal officer of the country should opine on the administrative matters of a university, especially when the university had submitted to the Supreme Court in 2008 that it would implement faculty quotas in two years.
“We have succeeded in setting right the minutes of the previous executive council meeting, held in March, that sought to give the impression that the JNU faculty was opposed to quotas and that it wanted to seek the solicitor-general’s opinion,” says Prof Daya Krishna Lobiyal, of the School of Computers & System Sciences. The truth is that of the 400-odd faculty members, 102 have given in writing that they support reservation; 33 are opposed to it; the majority haven’t yet expressed their opinion.
Bhattacharya is abroad and could not be contacted. But that hasn’t prevented students from seeking an April 20 referendum on whether he should demit office when his term ends.
In a letter to the vice-chancellor, Sainath had expressed concern that the academic council even discussed the matter of reservations when the executive council had already decided to implement quotas three years ago. “The academic council,” he wrote, “could discuss what it wanted—climate change, if it wished—but it has no right to overturn a decision of the executive council.”
The rigmarole of academic and executive council meetings debating again what an executive council meeting had decided on three years ago seems like nothing more than a ploy to stall reservations in the faculty.
So much so, the academic council meeting of March 31, at which the genetic theory of malnourishment and the futility of trying to raise certain castes was expounded, went on till well past midnight, while many of those present pressed for a quick decision. Insiders say the majority was in favour of reservation, but the decision was termed “inconclusive”, necessitating a legal opinion.
In another tack to the issue, the JNU Teachers Association sought the opinion of Rajeev Dhawan, a constitutional expert and senior advocate at the Supreme Court. In his 14-page note to the association, Dhawan has said the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) guidelines on reservation, as directed by the Centre, are mandatory, even if they are described as recommendations; in any event, they require strict, if not substantial, compliance. Failure to comply, he has said, could jeopardise the grants JNU receives from the UGC.
As for the guidelines, they are very clear: “Reservation is applicable to all teaching posts, such as the posts of lecturers, readers, professors, or, by whatever nomenclature the posts are known....” The association could well have done without consulting lawyers.
While the battle over reservations rages, another development had led to sharp exchanges between executive council members who met on April 6. This was over what some teachers thought were “desperate attempts” by the vice-chancellor to seek a second term through an hrd ministry directive that does not bar a vice-chancellor from seeking a second term. The JNU statute, however, prohibits a second term. There was an attempt to have the statute amended. That the vice-chancellor presided over that discussion has raised eyebrows.
“I think if the next meeting and discussions on this matter are to have any authenticity, any executive council member standing to gain from such an amendment must recuse himself from the meeting,” says an executive council member. “This is no special measure, just a normal ethical practice. Otherwise, the discussion would lack legitimacy and propriety.”
Many academicians say that all they can do is openly lament about the plummeting ethics and standards in this once prestigious university.