YEAR AFTER year Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) scores among the top three of some 1,000 universities ranked by India’s government. Holders of its degrees thickly populate the upper echelons of academia and government. Yet its 7,000 students and 600 faculty are bursting with complaints. The atmosphere on campus in New Delhi is “stifling”. JNU is “being driven into the ground”, “muzzled and leashed” and “under systematic assault”. Earlier this month 49 MPs signed a letter to the minister of higher education complaining that the university was being “destroyed”.
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Things began to change in 2016, with the government’s appointment of Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, a professor of electrical engineering, to head the university. Within days the new vice-chancellor found himself embroiled in controversy as Hindu nationalist groups mounted a fierce campaign against JNU, accusing its students of having chanted unpatriotic slogans at a campus protest. Ten students have been charged with sedition. Instead of defending them, Mr Kumar has acted as if the university was indeed in need of more patriotic spirit and discipline. He invited hawkish ex-generals and bellicose religious figures to lecture, and proposed installing a tank on campus to inspire martial pride.
Under his leadership, JNU’s administration has ended a tradition of consultation with students and faculty, and ruled instead by command enforced by punishment. Although JNU is a research institution rather than a teaching university, professors have been ordered to register attendance at classes, and to clock themselves in for work, too. National rules that limit the number of doctoral candidates any professor can supervise have been enforced, slashing the intake of new students by two-thirds, leaving faculty idle and sabotaging JNU’s longstanding policy of encouraging applications from people of low caste and other disadvantaged groups. A new policy will replace all entrance tests for graduate-level studies, including a cherished system of challenging essays, with multiple-choice questions.
Routine requests for teachers to attend conferences or do field research are now rigorously scrutinised and frequently denied. One frustrated professor flew to Bangalore in southern India to receive a prestigious award, only to discover on arrival that permission to go had been withheld.
Despite an exposé by students, which revealed that four new faculty members had plagiarised large parts of their theses, no investigation or disciplinary action was taken against them. The university has meanwhile bestowed honorary lectureships on Rajiv Malhotra and Subhash Kak, Indians resident in America who are known for attacking Western scholarship on India and for espousing controversial views on ancient Indian science.
Both students and faculty have reacted with fury to the changes. Fully 93% of JNU’s teachers’ union voted in August to demand Mr Kumar’s resignation—to no avail. Students have mounted flash-mob protests and produced a film detailing the vice-chancellor’s failings. Students and faculty have also challenged new rules in court.
Mr Kumar, however, has the solid backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the patriarch of India’s “family” of Hindu-nationalist organisations. For decades such groups have agitated against what they see as a “left-liberal” stranglehold on the establishment. With the victory in national elections in 2014 of another family member, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), JNU has come under fire.
Judging from some online commentary by the BJP’s supporters, the changes have not gone far enough. “A surgical strike is a must on JNU,” screeches one recent tweet. Another labels JNU a “Refuge of Anti National elements and Commie goons who are enjoying life at taxpayers’ money [that] should be razed to ground.” With an election looming in the spring that could return the BJP for five more years, it is not hard to see why the mood at JNU is grim. A professor who is also a graduate declares he will leave if the BJP gets re-elected: “As much as I love this place, I can’t be beholden to their looniness.”