You cannot rebel against the government and then expect freebies: JNU VC Shantishree Pandit gets candid with Edexlive

Prof Shantishree Dhulipudi Pandit is the first woman, the first alumna and the first OBC person to be appointed to the post of JNU's Vice-Chancellor. She discusses her views of and plans for JNU
JNU VC Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit | Pic: Ashwin, TNIE
JNU VC Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit | Pic: Ashwin, TNIE

On the sidelines of the ThinkEdu Conclave 2022, we caught up with the newly appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof Shantishree Dhulipudi Pandit. Not one to mince words, Prof Pandit speaks at length about her time at JNU, both as a student and as an administrator, and provides an inside perspective on what is one of India's premier central universities. In a freewheeling conversation, she outlines the plans she has in mind at the VC and also gets candid about breaking glass ceilings, reflects on whether there is a gap between the students, the staff and the administration at the varsity, and reveals that JNU has a major stray dog problem. 

Excerpts from the interview:

1. You are the first woman, the first alumna and the first person from the Other Backward Caste community to become the Vice-Chancellor of JNU. Could you talk a little bit about your academic journey?
I must thank the state of Tamil Nadu for my academic journey. It gave me what I have today. I did my schooling at the Rosary Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Santhome. I stayed in Mandavali, did my higher secondary from Adarsh Vidyalaya and topped the state at the time. I briefly went into Medicine because, at that time, people thought those who do well in their studies should study Medicine. Somehow, I didn't like it. I then did my BA in History and MA in Political Science from the Presidency College in Chennai.

2. Why did you make the shift to Political Science?
I was greatly interested in the Social Sciences and especially in Political Studies. My father was an author, journalist and civil servant. He started his career in 1949 at the Express Estates. I had a great interest in current affairs and I liked History and Political Science. People thought I was very stupid, at the time, to go into Political Sciences, leaving a medical seat at AIIMS. I ended up getting a gold medal in both my BA and my MA. My father told me a doctor with 35 per cent is a doctor, but a social sciences graduate with 35 per cent will wash vessels. Either you're a topper or you don't go through it. I cleared the JNU entrance exam in 1985 and joined the varsity to do my MPhil and PhD. And it opened up a world for me. We had the best academics and scholars of great repute. I did my doctorate. In 1988, I went to Goa University. Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister at the time and they had introduced JRF and SRF as a compulsion to get lectureship. Unfortunately, most of the others didn't have it and I was the only one who had it. So that's how I got my job at Goa University. Then, I moved to Pune because my husband was from Maharashtra. So, it was more for domestic reasons. Women have to adjust. I moved to Pune University as an Assistant Professor and stayed there until my appointment to the post of JNU VC.

3. Let's talk about your days at JNU.
I believe the essence of JNU hasn't changed. The strength of the students has tripled over the years. We were about 3,000 students. Now we are about 9,000 students. Most of them stay in hostels. And they come from many parts of the country. And most of them come from very deprived backgrounds. That is something that I greatly appreciate that the institutions have been able to maintain and we shall continue to maintain it because of social inclusion and our commitment to social and economic justice. That is something that JNU is known for. In our time, our professors were very good, they were pioneers, especially in the School of International Relations, which is one of the oldest schools, and in fact precedes the JNU. 

4. You've recently taken the hot seat. What are the top three things on your list that you want to accomplish as the VC?
I want to make it a much more gender-sensitive campus. I wouldn't speak in terms of gender equality, rather gender equity. This is as per the 2015 Human Rights agenda where equity is very different. We have about 55 per cent female students when compared to male students, the girls are a majority now. But there are still issues that have taken place, which I want not to be repeated again. I want to sensitise the faculty on how to treat the girl students. Many of them take certain things for granted. So my first area of attention would be student-centric. We have infrastructure issues and we need to improve the facilities. 

The second is that promotions and recruitments have to be done both for teaching and non-teaching staff. This is a huge process. 

The third is making the students more employable, with the help of skills. For example, if somebody is passing out of engineering school and let's say a company from Taiwan and Korea wants to employ them, a certificate course in that language would greatly improve their employability. Generally, academic excellence and the well-being of students and teachers will be my areas of focus.

5. How do you deal with dissent in a democratic campus?
I would say D4, which is dissent, difference, diversity and democracy, will be respected. Because I come from the South and not from the Hindi heartland, and I am the first woman VC, the present administration has broken glass ceilings. People would never believe that the so-called right would be the one to do it. But the left liberals never brought in a woman and that too from Tamil Nadu. And I also hail from the backward caste. So three ceilings have been broken. And it has been done by the most unexpected of administrations, according to narratives, which, as you know, are fake.

There is no gap. I can tell you that being a former student, I am not afraid of our students or teachers. I've made surprise visits to the library, and the hostel, and have eaten at the canteens. I've been meeting all students. I tell them, "Whatever your personal ideology is, it is not my issue. The ideologically committed students are only 10 to 20 per cent. I believe 80 per cent of the students are there to finish their studies. JNU is a brand name, whether we like it or not. And what it has given me, I want students to do the same, do better, and rise higher than I have. 

6. How have the conversations with the faculty progressed so far?
The last ten years have not been good for them. One of the issues is that positions are not being filled up and promotions haven't happened. The university has a massive infrastructure issue. We have inherited a Rs 103 crore financial deficit. We will have to deal with the slowness of our administration. The administration complains that there are 450 vacancies and so they say there's a paucity of staff. We are running on contractual workers, but that doesn't fill in the gap for permanent staff. We are going to go ahead with recruitment aggressively. We have already advertised for the post of Registrar and the Controller of Examinations. All positions are being advertised. 

7. Do you believe the JNU brand image has taken a beating in the last few years?
Every institution does go through a bad patch and I think there was a gap between the administration and the students. One thing that JNU never had in my time was that we had very committed Marxists revolutionaries and all that, but nobody was anti-national. You cannot expect to get freebies from the government and then act against the same government. 

8. How is somebody's ideology related to them being students? You just said the ideology doesn't matter?
There is a line you have to draw. Dissent and difference are fine, but dissent as far as you don't touch my nose. Your freedom stops where my nose begins. I think we have to have boundaries. 

9. How do you define those boundaries? How do you decide how students can protest, to what extent and on what issues?
They can protest on any issue. For example, the recent hijab issue. JNU has no regulation on dress code. Anybody can wear what they want and if they don't want, they need not wear anything. There was a group of students who came protesting for the hijab. And there were 10 boys and no girl students among them. So I asked the boys, "If you want to wear the hijab, you can go ahead, I have no issues with that. But you cannot decide what the girls want to wear." Let the girls come forward if they want to wear the hijab and, even in that case, JNU doesn't restrict anybody from anything. So that is where you should define lines. Somebody else cannot define what I should wear. 

We are drawing lines there. Ideologies are fine. Each one of us is different. Amartya Sen rightly said we are the argumentative Indian, so I agree that everybody has a viewpoint. But I think you have to respect somebody else's viewpoint as well. The problem with these dissenters is that they say it's my way or the highway. "Yours cannot exist," they believe. That's something that's not acceptable. The colours of the rainbow are beautiful. Let's have as many as we can. The Upanishads say, ekam satvik prabha udaharan, which means that truth may be one, but there are different paths to it. Students should not take the destructive path. It is, in the end, self-destructive. It doesn't affect you or me, it affects their own careers. 

10. An issue recently came to light where students alleged that the examiners at the PhD viva voce interviews are biased and discriminate against SC/ST students. What have you made of this problem?
They have not come to me so far. It was probably the previous administration. There have been one or two cases where I have been told that some of the professors do discriminate. Maybe we have to sensitise them that they cannot use primordial identities. 

11. The argument is that the committee does not have representation. And while they do not get the background of the student, they get the students' names, and they allegedly act upon an inherent bias. How do you deal with something like that?
Follow the South Indian method. Remove all surnames. For example, you never knew I came from the backward class. My name is Shantishree Dhulipudi Pandit. Dhulipudi is a village in Andhra, which means the village of dust. My mother is a Tamil Brahmin. My father belongs to the backward class. In Tamil Nadu, names are written as first names and the father's name. That is a very good method. Why do you have surnames that can identify your caste? Change it. I will give you the Dravidian answer for it. 

13. During the lockdown period, students complained that they were unable to access online education. If the campus is shut again, what provisions would you have in place to assist these students? 
We are trying to better our digital facilities and digital infrastructure. We have got a grant from the Government of India, which is a loan of about Rs 500 crores. And the first thing that we are doing is the digitisation of the administration, such as the admission process. We want the students to be able to access their documents at the touch of a button, including the NOC. Today, you have to wait until the VC signs it. Unfortunately, everything comes to the VC and it is a huge flow chart. We want to first introduce Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) in administration, finance, admission and examination areas as well. The problem with online classes is that many teachers are worried about the hybrid form of teaching. They will have to take classes twice. So how do you choose who comes in? That can also be counted as discrimination then.

14. Can that technology be brought to the classroom. The grant that you are talking about, does it reach the students?
As of now, if you ask me to be honest, no. The infrastructure is more than 10 years old. We have huge problems with infrastructure. We need huge amounts of money. And I am trying to change our attitude towards private-public funding. The government cannot give everything; it has 54 central universities on its plate. We are trying to get help from the private sector as well. We are looking for philanthropists who want to donate to the university. There has been one section that opposes it, but if we don't get [donations] from them [the private sector], these infrastructure changes will take longer.

15. Will that cost also reach the students?
No. In JNU, there will be no fee hike. We are a Dharamshala. That is something that is taboo because the university has been set up that way. It has come out of a very strong commitment to the downtrodden and to the poor. I come from the state of Tamil Nadu and I have been a part of the self-respect movement. The Dravidian movement greatly brought about the rise of the backward class through education. There has been a lot of populist spending, so I am not very averse to this type of model, especially with Thanthai Periyar, CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi. When I was a student here, MG Ramachandra was the Chief Minister. He was very charismatic. We brought him to Presidency College. He gave us a bus pass, which was very cheap. So this idea of giving back to the people is something. Even the public distribution system in Tamil Nadu such as the ration shops is very good, and accessible even for the middle class. We used to take the freebies as well, such as five kg sugar, five kg oil and ten kg rice. The saree they used to give was very good too. Maybe JNU is also a part of this model and I have no problem with it. Because I have grown up with this culture, that is the Tamil culture, that has been more middle class and more giving towards everybody. So it doesn't make me very uncomfortable with a model like JNU.

16. What are your thoughts on the National Education Policy and how do you think the staff and students at JNU are taking to it?
At JNU, we haven't had anything against the NEP so far. We have to increase the number of Indian languages taught here. JNU teaches the largest number of foreign languages and we have a great resource there. But as far as Indian languages are concerned, we have a Tamil chair and I want to strengthen the Tamil chair. This is because my mother was a professor of Tamil and Telugu studies in Russia where she started the Indian studies programme. So my commitment to Indian languages and especially to Tamil is very strong. I support the cause that there is no replacement for mother tongue and I am for diversity. Every Indian should learn as many languages as they can. I can speak Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Marathi and English. So why can't Hindi-speakers also speak Tamil? You have to understand that for us, Hindi is as foreign as any foreign language. Those who are Hindi speakers don't understand that there are people from different parts of India who find it extremely difficult to converse. 

17. You mentioned the Prime Minister's vision for JNU in your letter. Have you had a chance to interact with him and understand what that is?
I have seen the PM's vision only on television. I believe the NEP as a policy is good. There might be minor differences that we have. Any policy is a type of input that comes in and there can be feedback on it. Perhaps every state can change it to suit its culture or specialty. As a framework, it is very good because it focuses on holistic education and Indian languages. I would like to advise all students to learn Indian languages first and then foreign languages. 

18. You've spent time at JNU both as a student and now as an administrator. What is the one thing that you do not like about JNU?
That's a hard one to answer. Perhaps, too much freedom? Here, even the dogs have freedom. We have a lot of stray dogs, and outsiders come and feed those dogs. People say they also have human rights. These dogs bite all my blind students and that has become a major problem for us. 

One thing I want to change is that we have a lot of dhabas that are illegal. I want to have these run by Women's Self Help Groups instead, in a bid to bolster women's empowerment.

JNU is a sociological island. It gives people an illusion or a delusion that everything is free. You know when you come out that there is no free meal. Maybe that is a cultural shock for many of the students. Electricity is free, they get food at rates that are unimaginable. Our fee is Rs 20 and the rent is Rs 10 for six months. We haven't raised it. It is unimaginable. I know students who have paid two to three lakh per semester in private universities, who, the minute they come to JNU, want that free meal. What I am saying is that that psychological mindset is bad. On a temporary basis, it is fine. But students shouldn't be under the impression that everybody in the world outside will give them everything for free. Everything is tailored and nice. Our professors kept telling us to leave in five years. If you get used to this, you are a misfit in the real world. 

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