Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Reflection:Cowboy VC Goes Berserk on Delhi University Campus-Teachers Trying To Rein Him In

  1. Delhi University Teachers Refuse To Become Cogs In A Machine
  2. Mid-Stream Political Blues: What Is To Be Done?
  3. The Blinds Have Been Drawn: Courting Help and Posting A Threat
Delhi University Teachers Refuse To Become Cogs In A Machine

On January 23, 1968, students were distributing pamphlets with a revised version of the Lord’s Prayer in a church in Hamburg. ‘Our Capital’, it began, ‘which art in the West, amortized be Thy investments, Thy profits come, Thy interest rates increase…Give us this day, our daily turnover’, and then the clincher, ‘Lead us not into bankruptcy, but deliver us from trade unions’.

Deepak Pental, VC of Delhi University, in a huddle more often than not with a coterie of men and women all furtively and secretively gambling in futures for our University and its 70+constituent colleges, must be counting rosaries, praying for deliverance from the DUTA so that he’s able to notch-up credits to his name!

Caged in his office, or accompanied when he moves, by bouncers who believe in making pre-emptive strikes, as they did against a teacher delegation that tried to meet with him on South Campus recently, our VC has been a man in a terrible rush. Hurried along by the buzz of bees in his bonnet, any questions raised and critiques advanced regarding his chosen path, no matter how germane to academics, how fundamental and grounded in experience and reason these maybe, are to him as so much junk to be steamrolled. Every mirror held up to him is to be cracked and immediately rubbished.

It is not at all surprising that the criminal auction of a partially live gamma irradiator by the DU has occurred under Pental’s watch. Nor is it surprising, although a matter of grave concern that one of the most sustained teacher agitations at the DU in recent memory, continues with increasing support among teachers under his Vice-chancellor-ship.

Bewitched by his own, and ‘sarkari’ dreams and ideas for the DU, the VC’s contempt for teachers and due process come with a cynicism for democracy and suspicion of popular participation in the making of decisions regarding University affairs. The abrupt directive from the University last year, centralizing the entrance exam for the English Department as well as evaluation procedures for the University as a whole, are cases in point.

The VC’s headlong rush to bring in the semester system by diktat skirting any serious wide-ranging deliberation over its academic rationale and implications for teaching and learning, his attempt to quick-fix new syllabi in place, and the effective bypassing of statutory bodies in this process would all seem to confirm that for him, the business of encouraging multiple voices and ideas regarding various issues, far from being positive and a question of substantive right which should be upheld and deepened, is at best a formality which too may be dispensed with, by hiding behind legalese, if necessary.
Should the DU introduce the semester system at the under-graduate level? This, and related issues have become the public face of the ongoing struggle between teachers and the administration at the DU. The Vice-chancellor would have the world believe that he is pushing for major progressive and academically sound, long-overdue changes in the functioning of the DU and that this initiative is being hobbled by a conservative teaching community resistant to even the talk of change. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is his way of projecting the agitation by teachers as an obstacle to the progress demanded of us by the times we live in.

The DU is home to some of the best minds in academia. Students, researchers and teachers cognizant of the need for wide-ranging academic reform have keenly debated this issue over the years. Interesting ideas have emerged. The VC could have slipped into this world and energized a robust, open-ended, truly democratic discussion on how best to enrich academic and intellectual life on campus. Instead, he has sought to bludgeon debate on reform and change by reducing these to the question of bringing in the semester system at the earliest and insisting that he knows best what is good for the university.

It is a shame that even though DUTA-led trade-union action over the last many weeks has been raising issues of tremendous worth for the DU and has been committed to non-violent practices, the Head of our Institution instead of meeting with protesting teachers has become increasingly elusive, always on the run. Shockingly, he has even taken the DUTA to court with the plea that strictures be passed on the right of teachers to raise issues and protest the indefensible!

The worst kind of arrogance, boorishness and contempt for colleagues and democratic practice was on display during the Academic Council meeting of May 13. The VC refused legitimate discussion on, among other things, the rationale for the semester system and the illegal manner in which syllabi for the Science courses were being hurriedly patched together, aborted proceedings arbitrarily and walked out, leaving elected teacher representatives with no option but to ‘sit-in’ in the council hall over the next 4 days. During this time, at the peak of one of the hottest summers in years, and in the midst of an unprecedented situation, neither the VC nor any other university official had either the grace or the minimal democratic courtesy to meet and talk with the ‘sitters-in’. This behaviour, unbecoming of the Head of any Institution, smacked of the total refusal on the part of our VC to countenance multiple opinions and lay store by open-ended debate and discussion on issues affecting us all.

Teachers have been demanding debate. They are not saying no to change and academic reform, even of the most fundamental kind, in some cases perhaps, more radical and far-reaching than anything the MHRD or our VC could dream of! They are saying no to a top-down, anti-democratic and non-participatory process which is hell-bent on throwing collective procedures of decision-making to the winds, reducing democracy to a matter of niceties and aborting a wonderful opportunity for all of us at the DU to come together and infuse more meaning into teaching, learning and research.

Decisions on change and reform at the university, in all their richness and enduring value, must emerge as they have in the past from free and vigorous debate, no matter how long this takes. They cannot be the impoverished truths of the few sought to be imposed, corporation-like, on the entire university.

There seems to be more to the VC’s attempt at getting syllabi stitched-up for a hurriedly introduced semester system, than meets the eye. This effort is as much about a highly dubious systemic change with far-reaching implications—most of which are not evident at the moment—as it is about weakening and dismantling the culture and practice of democracy on campus, including the DUTA and other unions. The negative implications of this for campus life and beyond are more than clear to the discerning, as is the suspicion that this is only preparatory to a massive restructuring—from above—of higher education in the country along lines demanded by the changing requirements of the global neo-liberal regime.

This is the reason why, while the VC must project DUTA and the resisting teachers as obstructionist and their protest as negative, the teachers on the contrary must fight on. In the NO-saying, the Big Refusal, in it’s convinced negativity, the DUTA-led teacher’s agitation is a deeply positive fight. The teachers cannot afford to lose, because to lose this time will mean that the prayer, ‘deliver us from trade-unions’ will have been answered. In this defeat will lie the ruins of the university as we have known it and the tattered dreams of a space that might have been.

This understanding as also the awareness that the current DU administration has a disappointing record on a number of other issues, is adding strength to the conviction among increasing numbers of teachers that they must stay the course in this struggle.

Vice-chancellors are not expected to wield magic wands and solve all problems at the universities they head. But they are expected to engage and be seen to be engaging and concerning themselves with the travails of everyday university life for students, teachers and non-teaching staff, with the textures of academic, intellectual and cultural practices on campuses. It would have been hugely appreciated, for example, if a signal was being beamed from behind the iron grills imprisoning our VC indicating full support to all efforts towards creating a level playing field on campus with respect to gender, caste, community, abilities, class etc. Not only have we waited in vain for such a signal—in one case of sexual harassment the opposite message was being sent out—but the university campus, like the rest of the city, has been handed over to diggers and builders who, in the name of public good and playing fields, have been allowed to openly flout labour laws, dig and level without observing any mandatory precautions and turn our green and leafy campus into a dust-bowl.

It is a shame that not a word comes from the office of the VC suggesting that he is concerned and on the job to bring things to order. Perhaps, as with everything else, his primary concern is to get the job done, to showcase DU as a site for the CWG. Why this was necessary in the first place and how it is being brought to pass, are matters that, even if they concern the many at DU, seem not to bother him in the least.

‘There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it that unless you are free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.’ If these words, from one of the best remembered student speeches from the sixties seem to speak to us across the decades with the urgency that Mario Savio brought to bear upon them, it is because for us at the DU, the time is NOW.

An Appeal to Colleagues and Our DUTA Leadership

Comrades and friends,

Given the implications of the designs of the HRD ministry and the DU administration for the future of democracy, unions and academics at our university, I affirm completely—as I have done on earlier occasions—the need for truly bold and audacious mass non-cooperation actions and public campaigns by teachers and other members of the university community. Extended mass boycott of classes, strikes, dharnas, mass refusal to teach new courses, are some possible courses of action that may be considered by DUTA once university re-opens, and staff association and general body meetings are held. I would go so far as to say that solidarity needs to be built across universities in Delhi and the country, because what happens at DU will point to futures elsewhere and vice versa.

YET, while not calling for unilateral decisions by individual teachers or groups amongst us to go against the DUTA appeal to all of us to dissociate from the admissions process for the 2010-11 session, I do feel there is an urgent need for the DUTA leadership to review this decision at the earliest because, taken though it is in good faith and in difficult circumstances, it does not pass the test of an effective, radical and bold trade-union initiative in mass non-co-operation. A review at this stage will not necessarily be a step backwards. It may in fact allow us to take two steps forward. I call for a review on the following grounds, some of which I have already stated in two brief letters that I addressed to teacher reps in early June:

(1) The admissions process, unlike teaching, involves only some, not all teachers. Add to this the oral reports from different colleges that teacher withdrawal from the admissions process is not complete and the fact that a DUTA GBM has not taken the decision to dissociate from admissions, and I can only wonder whether our present action can even be defined as ‘mass’ political action by teachers! Staff association meetings held in the middle of summer vacations are no substitutes for a teacher GBM.

(2) When we withdraw our labour from teaching, we do not pass on the burden of our work onto others’ shoulders. Dissociating ourselves from the admissions process means that our work-load may have to be borne by non-teaching employees, and in some cases non-permanent members of the teaching staff—as in fact is the case currently—unless, of course, we had campaigned long and strong for a total admissions boycott, or at least been in fraternal, solidarity-making conversation with non-teaching reps and our own non-permanent colleagues. As far as I know this has not happened, in which case I do not believe what we are doing makes for progressive unionism.

(3) I may be wrong, but the decision to withdraw from admissions- related work seems to be grounded in the assumption that this act though different from striking our teaching work is not qualitatively different in terms of the ways in which it impacts students. I think there is a major difference.

Unlike situations in which we may decide to withdraw our labour from teaching, during admissions we are dealing with parents and young people who are much more vulnerable than they may be once they have entered the university. In many cases students decide to take up certain Main courses rather than others after having spoken to the teachers at hand. These decisions have long-term implications for their lives, implications that cannot be undone unlike the teaching time lost during a strike that may be compensated for, in some measure at least.

This is why, if we are not ensuring a total boycott and admissions are happening with or without us, we need to be there. We need to help with admissions, stopping short of signing on the admission forms—because that would mean giving written sanction to a system and courses that we are fundamentally opposed to—yet reaching out more than we do every year even as we make our protest visible—through black bands, badges, pamphlets, graphics, conversations—and make it clear to all and sundry that we are doing this despite being in continuous struggle. We could use the space of the admissions arena to campaign with the new entrants, their parents and through them with the wider public about the crisis confronting the university system and the rationale for the struggle that we will continue to engage in, if need be more intensely, once university re-opens.

(4) If we wish to take on the powers that be more and more effectively and ensure the health of academics, democracy and unions on our campus/es, our trade union practice as much as what we say, must go on seeking to convince colleagues, other members of the university community, those seeking to enter, and the wider public that our specific struggle is in fact in the general interest. This can only be a continuing effort whose success can never be guaranteed, but one that may consolidate for us a hegemonic field extending far beyond the teaching community.

This, I think is what was beginning to happen during the past few months and what we stand to lose by staying away from admissions, especially since this absence is not accompanied by a massive public campaign explaining convincingly that the ideas and practices of our struggle are in the general interest. Every strike action needs to be accompanied by such a campaign, in the case of teachers’ agitations more so, in the case of our withdrawal from admissions-related work even more so! It is the consciousness of the meaning of the withdrawal of our labour from the admissions process, the marked absence of an accompanying wide-reaching campaign explaining our position, and the fact that admissions are happening anyway that makes me doubt the political worth of this particular practice at this moment in time.

(5) Continuing with the admissions boycott may make things difficult for the university administration, but I’m not sure that we will come out politically the stronger at the end of it, apart from having to deal with the legacy of ineptly done admissions over the next many years.

I am unable to see the point in precipitating a crisis when we stand to lose politically from this very process, which is why if the DUTA leadership were to review its current appeal to teachers and call for a resumption of admissions-related work in the manner outlined above for example, I do not think this will necessarily be a political retreat. On the contrary, this manouevre may allow us to truly mass base our struggle with all the conviction and commitment to democracy and democratic practice at our command, so that we are able to recover, further consolidate our position and fight better and more audaciously another day, soon.

Comrades and friends, this letter, like my earlier letters and the extended version of my MAIL TODAY article with pictures of placards to help us stay the course in this struggle that Abha circulated on June 23, like the DUTA’S call to all of us to stay away from admissions-related work, is written in good faith. It is grounded in the conviction that our struggle is legitimate and mass mobilization and non-cooperation are necessary, but also in the belief that we need to fashion trade union practices of mass action and non-cooperation that reflect and add to, rather than take away from the lofty dreams and visions that we say we are fighting for, by changing course mid-stream, if necessary. This letter, I hope, will not be construed as a call to break ranks with DUTA decisions and appeals, but as an urgent plea to our union leadership to seriously rethink the current course of action on the basis of the issues raised and suggest to us once again, ‘WHAT IS TO BE DONE’.

The Blinds Have Been Drawn: Courting Help and Posting A Threat

The Delhi University (DU) Vice-Chancellor’s (VC) single-minded obsession with hurriedly forcing his pet project of the semester system into the bloodstream of the Delhi University, no matter how toxic the consequences, is of a piece with his seeming belief that he can’t be wrong. The assumption appears to be that power guarantees the wisdom and rightness of ideas and actions and can therefore be used to clean up in a rush, get things done and move on.

One consequence of this blinkered vision and devil may care arrogance is his hostility to and impatience with democracy, democratic procedure and unions, his thumbing of the nose at any calls to caution, any questions raised and dialogue proposed; another, his frequent diarrheic runs to the courts begging that they do his dirty work for him. And finally, that our university which should be setting multiple standards for society, foregrounding issues of caste, class and gender in all their complexity for instance, has become instead the source of a criminal radiation leak. It remains uninterested in leading a debate in the country on issues arising from this and has become to boot, a playground for contractors and builders who, like in the rest of the city, have flouted every rule in the book to make life hell for workers and for the rest of us, all in the name of national pride and the Common Wealth Games (CWG).

A Vice-Chancellor who presides over and seems to go along with a state of affairs such as this and who, when faced with a mass agitation by teachers raising questions regarding rights and demanding a debate on academic reform, turns tail and scurries to the imagined safety of court decisions, needs to go. The sooner the better, because now that he seems to have reached a point of no return in his blind pursuit, the longer he stays the more damage he will leave behind, the more he will debase himself and the institution of Vice-Chancellorship.

The recent letter sent to College Principals from the office of the Registrar, asking for the names of teachers who stayed away from admissions related work, is a case in point. This letter, pulsing with the glee of small-time goons out to teach perceived rivals a lesson, is a pathetic exercise in trying to weaken the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) and silence legitimate opposition through intimidation, by creating fear and terror in the minds of teachers and other members of the university community. Its tone and content are of a kind that would roll easily off the tongues and pens of CIA/KGB operatives or even our own democracy baiters who in the name of ‘national interest’ keep demanding that the state be armed with more powers to frighten and punish, democratic and human rights be damned. They are hardly the kind that merit the blessings of the Vice-Chancellor of a university. This letter speaks of such complete loss of the moral authority, acceptance and hegemony of the Vice-Chancellor over the teaching community that the writing on the wall, clearer than ever, needs to be read out to VC, Deepak Pental without delay.

‘We expect to prevail through the foolishness of preaching,’ said the non-violent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison at Boston in 1838. That was a voice coming out of the bloody terrain of the movement for the abolition of slavery. It must have been really hard, but Garrison lived by what he said. If there is one space in the universe where this sentence can resonate with depth and ease, it should be the university. If there is one person more than any other who needs to ensure that like other ordinances and acts that govern the university, this principle too—even though it is not law—is upheld at any cost, it is again the Vice-Chancellor.

When this principle is sacrificed and authority begins to ground itself in fear and intimidation, a step has already been taken towards turning the university into a community of whisperers. The visible blow of the threat of punitive action against the teachers of DU in the form most preferred by totalitarian states—names being sent up the hierarchy of power followed by the dreaded midnight knock on the door—has ripped a hole in the invisible sense of freedom without which no university can

During the First World War, the writer Jaroslav Hasek’s ‘The Good Soldier Schwejk’, finds himself at war with the Russians in Galicia. Just as his fellow Austrian soldiers start shooting at the Russians in the trenches beyond, Schwejk, horrified at the thought of killing, and possessed with a kind of madness, runs out of his trench into no- man’s land, shouting, ‘don’t shoot, there are people on the other side.’

Wars and war mongers could happily do without the likes of Schwejk, yet they keep coming, making wars just that little bit less brutal. Universities can’t do without VCs madly committed to nurturing the delicate sense of freedom and everyday cultures of democracy, equality and democratic practice. Yet they’re increasingly difficult to find.

Pental, by going to court against teachers and our right to protest, and choosing to wield the secret service stick in the form of the Registrar’s letter to College Principals rather than trying relentlessly to stick to procedures and ‘prevail through the foolishness of preaching’, has failed the DU in incomparably large measure.

On Nov 7, 1942, during the Second World War, the train carrying Hitler stopped, perforce, at a siding in Thuringia. On the rails running parallel, stood another train carrying the wounded from Nazi armies. The wounded and the dying looked into Hitler’s cabin to see their Fuehrer and his officers, cradled in luxury, engrossed in discussion. In that moment, when Hitler looked up and out the window, his eyes met with theirs, but instead of the gaze reaching out, Hitler, in a moment of panic, ordered the blinds drawn so the reality that he was responsible for ordaining did not intrude upon him.

I wish Deepak Pental would stop drawing the blinds on us and on the reasons for an agitation that has been ordained largely by his manic, unmindful doings. I wish he could understand the simple truism that agitations are not born out of nothing. There are reasons why they become increasingly popular and are able to sustain themselves over long periods of time, even as they remain polemical and energized sites for ideological contestation and debates over tactics and strategies.

I wish our VC could see or be made to see that the enduring DUTA-led agitation, though not rooted in material grievances, has been acquiring increasing support across university colleges and departments because teachers have real fears regarding the grave implications of his contempt- filled, top-down mode of functioning for academics, unions, democracy and egalitarian visions and practices on campus.

If our agitation could work as an eye-opener for Pental, as agitations should, or if he would only allow our agitation to work as an eye- opener for himself, he could stop hiding behind the walls and bars of hierarchy and prejudice, running to courts for comfort at the drop of a hat, throwing the rule-book at us and issuing threats unbecoming of his office.

He could begin to experience the pleasures of being free even as he becomes less of a pain for the rest of the university community, and he could start doing what any VC worth anything should be doing in this situation: recognizing and gracefully accepting the legitimate right of teachers and other members of the university community to organise and protest in multiple ways, reaching out and listening to voices from the agitation, and engaging open-mindedly and tirelessly with teachers’ concerns, doubts, questions and ideas so that we can all seek to solve problems and reinvent our university together as equals.

This process may end up being long and complicated, but we can be reasonably sure that it will be deeply enriching and rewarding for the future of our University. It could also mean that protest and disruption, looked upon as negative interruptions or as rights to be simply tolerated, may come to be seen, as they should, as being, together with unions and their activities, valuable in themselves: guarantors of democracy and a democratic culture, windows into the individual and the social soul, and force-fields of creativity and previously unimagined possibilities; moments, that is, in the exercise of rights that benefit us all.


It is tragic though hardly surprising that this is not to be. The blinds have been drawn and the letter from the Registrar’s office is being acted upon. Pental would have to be among other things, much more in touch with his brush with the humanities for him to act with sensitivity to the complexities of human situations and the nuanced and urgent demands of freedom and democracy (pardon this obvious overreach and believe me, I mean no offence to non-humanities students and teachers). In fact, even though the humanities are under attack the world over for the sake of short-term economic gain, our own current experience at the DU should convince us, if nothing else does, that this must be resisted with the same reason, passion and self criticality that we need to keep bringing to our current struggle against the VC and the DU

There is no doubt in my mind that our many internal differences notwithstanding and irrespective of the critique that many of us may hold of the DUTA’s call to boycott admission related work, the VCs frequent runs to the courts and the letter from the Registrar must be challenged politically and shown up for what they represent. The victimization of even a single teacher in the name of Ordinance 12 must be understood as action taken against each one of us, a blow aimed at our union, the right to protest and the wider culture of democracy on campus, and fought against as such.

The VC must know clearly that whether or not he throws ordinances at us, Ordinance 12 for example, we are not going to let him escape responsibility for creating the conditions for the teachers’ agitation at the DU. He, and with him the wider world, needs to know that:

(1) We are in resistance because our VC has inflicted much more harm upon the university than only the flouting of many more ordinances than he can ever accuse teachers of having done!!

(2) Given this context, any discourse on liability of teachers for punishment, even as we contest such a discourse in principle, must in all fairness, hold the VC to be deserving of much harsher punishment than can possibly come the way of teachers. We shall fight in the courts if he drags us in there. Left to ourselves, we will organise non-violent campaigns, public appeals and mass actions touched by a Scwejkian commitment to the delicate fabric of freedom and democracy; but whether in the courts or inside colleges and on the streets, debating, disagreeing, polemicising amongst ourselves, we will together do all we can, with words, slogans, songs, tears and laughter to resist the nightmare that stares us in the face, conscious every moment in this process, that we are teachers hoping ‘to prevail through the foolishness of (organizing and) preaching.’
Disclaimer: The views expressed are of the author and NSI does not necessarily endorse all of it

Cartoon Credit: South Asia Citizens Web
Photo Credits: Shahana Bhattacharya


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