Published: 01st March 2023
A liberating space for all: JNU VC on democracy, inclusivity and dissent on campus
"NDS, IMA and all the brances of the Indian Armed Forces get their degrees from JNU. So, if JNU is anti-national then the Indian military also has to be anti-national," says the JNU VC
In the background of ThinkEdu 2023, the interview with Dr Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, the Vice Chancellor (V-C) of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), came as a pleasant surprise and her warmth felt like home. Her unwavering support for her students, often referring to them as "hers," was a refreshing departure from the expected image of a central government representative. This motherly demeanour of Dr Pandit remained evident throughout the interview as she reflected on the transformation of JNU's image and her efforts to maintain the university's democratic space.
What is it like to be a woman leader in a predominantly male-dominated world? How do you approach diversity and inclusivity in your leadership style?
I completely agree with you on this. JNU, though known for its progressives and the left, making a woman VC is a huge statement in itself, considering it took nearly 54 years for this top university to get a woman leader. Moreover, when I sign something or read papers from the management or executive council, it still reads "In his authority." I informed them that it should read "her authority" because there isn't even an option for "her," and it took them three months to change it, with a lot of pushing. This shows how deep-seated the idea of diversity is, starting with gender alone, without even considering transgenders.
Furthermore, I found that many men feel uncomfortable when they see a woman in a position of authority, even though they may not say it out loud. So, I always tell people that a woman has to be twenty times better than a man who holds the same position.
Apart from being the first woman VC of JNU, you are also the first person from the Other Backward Caste (OBC) community. Can you share some of the unique challenges and opportunities you have experienced as a result of your diverse background?
I come from Tamil Nadu, so I never felt like being from the backward class thanks to the Justice Party, Non-Brahmin Movement and Self-Respect Movement. There has been a lot of progress here, even in Maharashtra. Unfortunately, in the north with all central government VCs, I seem to be the only one coming from the reserved category, which surprised me, for I don't mention my caste. I usually write 'no caste' and this was something that the government in Delhi said no to since they also have to show that there is diversity. I usually write "no caste," but the government in Delhi didn't accept it because they also have to show diversity. So, for the first time, they made me write "OBC," which I have never written in my entire career. Therefore, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.
We may talk about diversity and how the Indic civilization is diverse, but the implementation part is still uncertain. However, I am glad that the current government is taking significant steps to get women into positions of authority. I have also played my part in JNU. We had only 19 women as chairpersons, but I raised it to 39. Also, no women held positions such as Chief Vigilance Officer or Director of Research & Development (R&D). So, for the first time, I appointed two women professors to such positions, and the one in R&D is from the Scheduled Caste. Additionally, in JNU, we had not filled the reserve category backlog of faculty. It was only this year that I took it up as a mission, and out of the 32 new appointments, 28 are from the reserved category, which is reserved for them but was not filled. Note that whenever a woman comes from the reserved category, I give her preference. Furthermore, we are making the campus an inclusive space for transgenders. They wanted to organize a pride parade in June, and I said, "Yes, please go ahead, but only be very colourful."
You recently mentioned that JNU's image has changed from being anti-national to nationalistic. Could you share your reflections on this transformation as the JNU VC?
When I joined, initially, there was a lot of mistrust and polarisation as I was appointed by the present government. However, being a former JNU student, I worked to regain their confidence and trust through my actions. If you are a good Hindu then you will believe that truth may be one, but there are diverse paths to it. I stressed the importance of welcoming multiple views and discouraged the notion of a single "right" view. I visited hostels, had dinner with students, and encouraged them to view JNU as a space to study and enjoy. Despite having different ideologies, students can still come together and form friendships at night, just like when we were in university. I said it should be more intellectual than physical. I should tell you that I received full support from both faculty and students.
Gaining the confidence of students reminds me that you have also defended your students recently regarding the screening of the BBC documentary and you said "screening a film peacefully is not illegal." This defence was very fresh and inspiring compared to how other institutes reacted around the country. Tell me what made you do so?
I agree that if a film is banned, then public institutions should not screen it. However, for films that are not banned but may not align with your personal preferences, it's not appropriate to deny the right to screen it. The JNUTA (Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association) is hosting a three-day festival, and individuals with different viewpoints will be attending. Everyone should have that space as long as they are legal citizens of India and not terrorists. We are a free democratic society, and dissent is a fundamental right of every human being. I want JNU to be that space that liberates every individual's voice. You may not agree with what's being said, but dialogue is the way to express dissent. You cannot dismiss the right to speak entirely, as it would undermine our civilization's essence and identity.
Yes, JNU represents a democratic space, and we hope it stays so as long as possible. In that context, I would have to breach the topic regarding the complaints of stone pelting during the process of the documentary screening.
The truth is, that the students could not screen the film due to a major power outage in the area. It was a blackout situation, but no one informed me that anyone was injured during the incident. Yes, there were a few sloganeering and protests, which it is the right of every to express their opinion. The next morning, everything was peaceul again. The press reported that there were stone pelting however the press was never inside the campus. All entrances of the campus were locked to prevent outsiders from entering and causing an uncontrollable situation. My priority is to protect the students. All of them are very well-meaning and nationalistic students. Notably, JNU is the alma mater of graduates from military academies such as NDS, IMA and all the branches of the Indian Armed Forces. Therefore, if JNU is deemed anti-national, then the Indian military also has to be anti-national, which is a sweeping remark that should be avoided.
Speaking of JNU students, there is a change in the admission process from a subjective exam to an objective CUET (Common University Entrance Test) exam. This has generated some controversy that it may lower the quality of students.
As central government universities where this (CUET) has been implemented, we rely on the government for revenue, and unlike the other institutes, JNU only charges nominal fees of Rs 10 and Rs 20. As a result, the receipts we from fees is also as good as nothing. What has happened is the admission process now consists of a 70% online multiple-choice exam, but the other 30% is interview. The interview is conducted by JNU faculty and focuses on the applicant's ability to present their essay and articulate their research interests. The interview is quantitative and since JNU is a research university, they have permitted that for us. It is the success of JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) of the IITs ( Indian Institutes of Technology) that inspired the government to adopt the same for Central universities.
In a previous interview with us, you stated that "You cannot expect to get freebies from the government and act against the same government." Given this statement, would it be fair to label educational benefits as freebies?
There has been ongoing criticism of JNU, even in Delhi, due to negative stereotypes that are not true. However, it should be noted that there are three ministers in the present cabinet who are JNU alumni - Nirmala Sitharaman, Jaishankar and RCP Singh. Also, Amitabh Kant, the current G20 Sherpa of India and almost 50% of the bureaucracy hailing from JNU. So this institute has contributed greatly to the nation.
The thing is, many students here take different courses and stay in university for more than 10 years, which creates this delusion that everything is free in this world, and it is important to discourage that misconception. When these students leave the university, they are faced witht he reality that nothing is truly free and the world is ruthless. Additionally, if students stay at the university for an extended period, they take up space in the hostels that could be used by new students. When I was a student, my professor told me 5 years of MPhil and PhD and you are not staying one day after that. He said he won't sign my fellowship if I prolong my stay. I am only asking the students to be responsible. Competition is high at JNU, with 1 in 1,00,000 students being accepted. Even for a PhD in Hindi - an Indian language that we aren't even known for - we have 450 applications but only 20 seats.
They told me to increase the seats, but I don't have the hostels to accommodate more students, and additional hostels have to be built by central governments. Now I am calling for private investments, and for that, the perception of JNU has to change. No industrialists will come and give us money if we have that negative image. So, I tell students to use their creativity more artistically rather than physically, and to not overstay their welcome so that new students can come in.
Finally, what message would you like to convey to the students, faculty and staff of JNU? What is your vision for the university?
Let me tell you, I have the best faculty and best students because we jumped the QS rankings by 220. I couldn't have done it without the collective effort of my faculty, my students and my non-teaching staff.
In this one year, I think we achieved quite a lot when it comes to diversity. We have made significant efforts to bring in individuals from all walks of life, including Persons with Disabilities and the transgender community. The university is conducive to all types of people, and usually, there are not many prejudices.
One issue that we must address is thae misogyny displayed by some male faculty members towards female students. Students are usually the victims who are scared to complain, given in PhD, their career is in the hands of their supervisors. So I am trying to bring ways in which we can make the situation much more equitable and sensitise the faculty, saying that this cannot happen. After the Vishaka Judgement, I have implemented those on campus as to what should be sexually appropriate behaviours of male faculties on campus. Otherwise, I have wonderful students, and I want them to be peaceful and able to express what they want.
At JNU, everyone has a space, and all ideas are welcome because that is the idea of 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam', meaning that there cannot be uniformity. Along with China, India is the second civilisation state to enter the fourth industrial revolution. Our strength is not because we are uniform but because we are diverse and because we celebrated that diversity. I am a proud Tamilian with a Telugu mother who studied in a missionary school. Further, my name is Bengali derived from Shantiniketan and Sriniketan since my mother was a student of Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, the great linguist. I share my roots with different parts of India. Thus, I insist that we should keep celebrating our diversity.