From the controversial sedition charges against Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students in 2016 to the massive protest against hostel fee hike in 2019 to the infamous campus clashes allegedly between “outsiders” and Left-wing students in 2020, M Jagadesh Kumar’s tenure as the vice-chancellor of the university has been marred with rows.
Kumar, whose five-year term as JNU V-C ended on January 26, has been allowed to continue in the office till his successor is appointed.
As he prepares to leave the campus, Kumar tells The New Indian Express that last year’s violence — when a mob entered the campus, damaged property and left many bleeding — was unfortunate and it should not have happened.
He, however, sought to remind his critics about “the greater heights” that the university has achieved under his tenure — retaining the top rank among all central universities.
How would you describe your tenure as the JNU V-C till now?
I have spent five years on the campus. We tried our best to keep the attention of the university on achieving academic excellence... Because JNU is one of the top universities in India and to retain that position requires enormous efforts — both by faculty members and students. In any educational institution, there is nothing like ‘you reached the destination’, it is always ‘work in progress’. As we continue to work, there would be new challenges in front of us. Hence, we always need to think of solutions to counter those challenges. The head of the institution is not the only person responsible for academic excellence. Individuals come and go, but organisations stay; it is a collective work.
What are the major reforms required in India’s higher education institutions?
One of the major steps that the National Educational Policy (NEP) aims at doing in the higher institutions is to provide more holistic and multi-disciplinary education, and this is what we have been lacking in our universities. There are silos within the universities and students are taught in very restricted areas. In order to bring a link between the reality of a society and what students are studying, a much more interdisciplinarity system has to be introduced, and that is one of the major challenges in universities. Another thing is that we need to make our education system more innovative and creative to generate new ideas.
Students should use creative ideas and apply them to practical problems. That is what the NEP tries to aim at. But even before the policy was announced, in JNU, we had taken several steps in this regard. The other major challenge is to improve the standards of teaching and learning process in state and private universities in the country. We need to improve the process of the research system in those institutions if we want to become a self-reliant country. If we want to build an ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’, only a few institutes can’t do that.
What steps has the varsity taken in this direction?
JNU’s School of Engineering is a very unique programme which no other institution in the country has. Under this programme, students are taught about core engineering in the first four years and in the fifth year, they study for a masters degree in any area of humanities and aesthetics. This kind of holistic education is required in other universities as well. Similarly, an integrated B Sc and M Sc programme in Ayurveda-biology is a good example. A university like JNU has to play a major role in hand holding some of the varsities which are struggling.
You said JNU is sort of a role model for other universities. But the university remained in the headlines for wrong reasons like protests and clashes, with heavy police force present on the campus. Do you think you were misunderstood by students or teachers at any point?
Having been part of the university when When I look back my last five years, I see a lot of reforms have been brought to the university — both in the academic and administrative systems. For example, we have converted entrance exams into computer-based, objective-type tests. It gives us the opportunity to increase the number of examination centres across the country and make them transparent. When we had introduced the exams the entire university welcomed the move, while the number of applications has increased by about 36 per cent.
Yes, some students and teachers had opposed the decision.
But that doesn’t mean that all had objected. Similarly, some faculty staff and students had protested when we decided to put a cap on the number of students per research supervisor for MPhil and PhD courses. Currently, it’s eight, which is still higher compared to other universities across the world. Now, after analysing the performance of our students and faculty members, I can safely say that it was a wise decision.
During your tenure, students on the campus were beaten up by outsiders, no classes were conducted for days, people outside even started questioning JNU’s education standards. How did you react to that?
Violence has no place on a university campus like JNU, or any other place for that matter. What happened was unfortunate and such things should not have happened at our university.
Now, if people are saying that JNU has become a place for anti-social elements, then they should also look at the greater heights that the varsity has achieved over the years. Consistently, in the last four years, JNU has been ranked as the second-best university among all educational institutions and number one among the central universities in the country. We are aiming to open close to 100 start-ups on the campus in the next few years. JNU is always on the move, with a focus on academic excellence.
The hike of hostel fee at JNU was one of the main issues for protest by students. Despite such a massive protest, why did you keep pushing for the reform?
Actually, there was no hostel fee hike as such. We had simply told the students that like other universities, ‘you pay for what you consume’. This was it. And there is a reason for that: our room rent is just Rs 10 for double occupancy and Rs 20 per month for single occupancy. Electricity charges are sky-rocketing and since the students do not have to pay the bills, they use it as they like.
There have been instances when students forgot to switch off their room heaters and locked their rooms from outside before leaving for home.
In the case of room rent, when we had told them that we would increase it from Rs 10 to Rs 300 per month it was well within their range. Because each research student gets a monthly stipend between Rs 8,000 to Rs 30,000. We were also ready to give 75 per cent concession to all the students who were coming from the low economic background and different categories. In fact, in the registration process of January 2020, almost 95 per cent of the students had paid the revised room rent. It clearly shows that the majority of the students did not mind paying the fee. Only a few students, who had created the ruckus on the campus, vandalising our server to stop the registration process, were against the revised fee structure. Everybody has a right to protest, democratically in a peaceful manner, but it is not a democratic right to stop the students physically who are ready to pay the fee.
You said a small section of students had created the ruckus on the campus. But why did they protest? Do you think there were some motives behind that?
As the head of the institute, my primary objective is to stand by my students and faculty members who want to involve themselves in academic activities. Those who want to create disruptions at the university should clarify their motives. For me, all students are the same. I always asked the students, who were trying to disrupt the education activities, to recognise and respect their fundamental rights, and let others do their job.
Many students and faculty members say that you have tried to change the nature of the university forcefully. How do you respond to that?
Let us first understand what is the nature of JNU. The nature of JNU is to encourage our students to be critical thinkers, to discuss, debate and raise questions so that new knowledge is evolved — this is one aspect. The second aspect of JNU is that it is cosmopolitan, as students from all parts of the country come here and study together. There is a diversity of thoughts. So, there is no question of changing the nature of JNU.
Was there any instance during your tenure that forced you to think that becoming the V-C of JNU was a mistake?
I am basically an academician, have been in the IIT system for several decades and always wanted the universities in the country to improve so that we could contribute to our society. So when I got the opportunity to head JNU, I had arrived here with that intention. JNU was already a good institute, but then, we cannot be complacent with what we already have. In the last five years, we contributed to society and kept improving ourselves. For that, the entire credit goes to my team, the faculty and staff members for standing by me. I always look forward to improving things. I don’t regret anything.
What have you learnt from this prestigious university?
This university gives you the opportunity to grow. There is also an immense possibility for growth of this university.
A new statute of Swami Vivekananda was installed on the campus recently. How much of an impact does his teachings have on you?
I am a student of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings since childhood. As I grew up, I studied more about him. In today’s world, while we are materialistically progressing, we should also care for each other, spread love and help each other in order to build a sustainable society. I personally believe that the teachings of Swami Vivekananda are very important in present circumstances.