Is It Nineteen Eighty Four Already?
On 9 April 2011, 11 members of the English Department of Delhi University (almost the entire Department) resigned from various (non-statutory) work committees within the Department. They carried on all their other duties, including teaching, regardless. This mass resignation followed repeated requests from them to their Head of Department to call a meeting of the Department Council of the English Department. By resigning (only from the non-statutory committees), the members of the Department were hoping to bring largely symbolic and moral pressure to bear on the Head, to perform his duties!!
You know something is seriously wrong with a workplace when members of Department have to bring pressure to bear on a Head to perform his or her regular, statutory duties. You should really smell a rat when it’s not the minions and juniors but the bosses at the highest levels that are bending and twisting rules to their advantage; publicly ignoring long-standing statutes and conventions; inventing new ones almost overnight; and practising selective amnesia about procedures.
This has been the case with Delhi University ever since its single-minded drive towards semesterisation began. On 15 April 2011, in an unprecedented move, the Registrar, Delhi University, served ‘show cause’ notices to these 11 members of the English Department, as to “why the University should not treat you as being on ‘strike’ w.e.f. 9th April 2011”, because of their resignation from the committees. According to the Registrar, as per the Delhi High Court’s order in the recent Kalindi College case, “resignation from committees of the University is tantamount to being on ‘strike’.”
The Registrar’s letter is the latest in a series of openly coercive tactics being undertaken by the University in order to pressurise teachers into following its orders and its larger ‘vision’ of semesterisation blindly and unquestioningly. Amazingly, however, this “show cause” notice seems to be without any legal basis whatsoever. The High Court order that it refers to, in WP(C) No. 1722/2011, is an order specific to Kalindi College, and is not a general order applicable to the University at large. The HC cites Ordinance 18 of the University, as the legal basis of its order. Ordinance 18, as per the University Calendar (page 411) applies only to “Colleges other than those Maintained by the Government of India.” This is the main reason why the HC order applies only to Kalindi College; and it certainly cannot and does not apply to University-appointed teachers. Furthermore, the HC order nowhere states that “resignation from committees of the University is tantamount to being on ‘strike’”, as claimed by the Registrar. The order simply prohibits the respondents from going on strike, directing them “to perform their statutory and legal duties, as ascribed to them by Ordinance 18 of the University of Delhi”; it makes no specific interpretation of resignation from committees as ‘strike’, as claimed by the Registrar’s letter. And finally, because the resignations were not from “committees of the university” but from non-statutory committees within a particular Department, neither the Ordinance 18 nor the HC order that invokes it can apply in any case, to the teachers concerned here. In the light of this, the Registrar’s letter is a clear attempt by the university authorities to misrepresent the rules and ordinances of the university, and to exercise more than reasonable authority over the teaching community. Such a deliberate misinterpretation of the HC order is unprecedented in its scope, and draconian in its implications. It is ridiculous to suggest that teachers cannot have the right resign from committees that they are appointed to, because that would be interpreted as going on ‘strike’. This is an absurd stretching of the meaning of the word ‘strike’.
By taking such extreme steps, the University is seeking to prevent and pre-empt any attempt to question its actions and policies on a wide range of matters. The University is no longer resorting just to intimidation and browbeating, but to deceit, misrepresentation, and legal coercion – tantamount to institutionalised harassment of the teaching community. And there is no transparency or accountability in the new system – anything can be termed as illegal, as long as it doesn’t perfectly match the needs and aims of authority. Why, I’m not sure my writing this article right now in Kafila, in the public sphere, is not going to be used against me in a couple of years…maybe I will be charged with outraging the modesty of Delhi University!
Over the past few years, the very members of English Department in DU who have been served notice have been involved in a concerted effort to shape the Department and the University as centres of academic excellence; the range of academic activities hosted by the Department as well as the richness and diversity of research and teaching there bear witness to these efforts. This is a community that has nurtured some of the best minds in this country, as well as maintained some of the best traditions of democratic dissent in a country which has developed a fatal attraction for fascist solutions over the past few decades. If this ‘show cause notice’ goes in favour of the University, we can expect a slide into absolute totalitarianism in the next couple of years. If this is how Professors at one of the most prestigious universities in the country can be treated, what is to happen to thousands of college teachers all over the country, who will think twice before questioning authority on the smallest of matters? The powers-that-be in this country have decided that dissent is too costly for our democracy, whether in the shape of Binayak Sen, Irom Sharmila, protests against land acquisition, or college and university teachers trying to enforce basic democratic procedures within the workspace. A toothless, joyless, uncritical, dumbed down workforce that produces outputs according to the booms and busts of the economy…that is what we are being asked to turn ourselves into. I wonder how long it will take for the Human Resources Minister to realise that ‘human resource’ in academia takes years, even decades of learning and dedication to create. These 11 professors did not become established scholars and beloved teachers overnight, by passing a single exam, or facing a single selection committee. They persevered, in often adverse conditions, nurturing their love of the subject, reading beyond requirements, teaching beyond requirements, being enriched by it all and ultimately raising the bar in their own fields.
In the absolute worst case scenario, if these professors are forced to resign or take up jobs in another university, maybe abroad (which any of them could) it will be the end of the English Department at Delhi University in its current form. Further, the University will reign triumphant over the remaining faculty, who will fade into oblivion while private universities attract foreign faculty with huge salaries which will be paid by student fees in the range of a few lakhs a year (at least). Pratiksha Baxi’s excellent post on Kafila details the modalities through which teachers as a class will be allowed to stagnate. As for teachers’ unions, critical thinking or a non-commercialised relationship between teachers and students, they will all seem like weird dreams from the past. And no, my name is not George Orwell.