NEW DELHI: Two weeks after a scuffle between two groups of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over serving non-veg food at a hostel during Ram Navami, vice-chancellor Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit said that the incident had been played up too much, considering that it happened in only one of the 17 hostels.
The vice-chancellor said life at the university was going on normally and she was surprised to see police presence on the campus that day. “I was against calling the police to the campus, but the student groups lodged separate complaints. Police are doing their inquiry now, while we have also called for a proctoral inquiry. Let the inquiry officers do their job,” she said.
The incident took place on April 10, when members of a Leftist students union accused Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists of not allowing non-veg food to be served citing the occasion of Ram Navmi. The ABVP responded that the other group was not allowing a pooja to take place peacefully.
Following this blame game, a scuffle broke out between the group at the time of dinner. Several were taken to hospital after suffering injuries.
However, the vice-chancellor said, “JNU has no policy as to what to eat or what not to, or what to wear or what not to. The university has nothing to do with hostels or the messes. Whatever has to be cooked is decided by the students themselves. There are just different interpretations.” She added, “Also, I believe that every student is a JNUite first. Left, Right or Centre, I don’t see them that way.”
Talking about the reforms she wants to bring in the university, Santishree said, “The first thing that I want is that people should know JNU as a nationalist institution. While differences will be there, JNU is among the best universities, whether you like it or not.”
She added that she wants to upgrade the infrastructure. “Also, I plan to improve the infrastructure of the university and modernise all the 17 hostels on the campus, especially the kitchens and washrooms. For the past 15 years, there has been no maintenance. The government has sanctioned us `57 crore for the maintenance. We also have to fill up the vacancies of 700 non-teaching staff and 350 teaching staff.”
She said that digitisation is also among her priorities. “We are planning to transform the university into a digital university, where the best of our faculties and students can have lectures online, like Harvard University does. The lectures can be free for Indians, while the foreign students can be charged. And in this manner, JNU can make some earnings. We currently have a deficit of `132 crore, so we will see what all can be done with the money we have.”
The vice-chancellor also talked about setting up the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Centre at the university campus, which will conduct research on bridging social and economic inequalities.
Succeeding M Jagadesh Kumar, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, 59, joined Jawaharlal Nehru University as the first woman Vice Chancellor on February 9, 2022. Since then she has been surrounded by controversies bordering on her ideological credentials. In an interview with Ifrah Mufti, the VC shares how “her credentials are much better than the Marxists who had problems with her joining as the VC.
Do you agree you have ideological baggage?
I don’t think so. Some people wanted to project me as a Hindu with the Hindi language bias. I come from a state where Hindi is not even accepted. My father is a Tamil, my mother is a Telugu and I was born in Russia. So, I think I have better credentials than most Marxists. I did not know who Godse was until I was 26 and until I married a Maharashtrian. I would have written on Savarkar but not on Godse. In terms of Muslims and Christians, let me say I studied in a convent school. I have great respect for these communities. Most of my students are Muslims. There were objections to the credentials because I became a VC with approval from a government they don’t like. They were also surprised because of my gender. I am a Tamilian disinclined to the so-called Manuwad.
Does the university have enough funds currently?
No. The university is short of funds. There are limitations to what the government can do which is why I am trying to be a little more innovative. I want to opt for private-public funding instead of loans because we cannot repay. The funds we get have not been raised. They gave us Rs 48 crore, but we have an expenditure of nearly Rs 110 crore. We have a contractual staff, including mess workers, and when
the fund dries up, they are the ones who are affected the most. For four months, their salary has not been paid and they went on a strike. I had to divert funds from the academic reserve.
You have been a member of the UGC committee on higher education. How do you take UGC’s decision of not allowing students to visit Pakistan for higher education and then CBSE’s decision of dropping some chapters on Mughals and removing Faiz’s poetry?
I think it was done at the highest level. They did not consult any of us. I won’t comment on what went into their decision because I don’t know. I would rather say that knowledge should be free wherever it comes from. Also I don’t know who sits on these boards to decide on dropping topics.
What is the purpose of the state-of-the-art labs inaugurated recently on the campus?
Two such labs have been opened at JNU’s Special Centre for Molecular Medicine & School of Physical Sciences aiming at developing early diagnostic markers for different diseases. These labs are being made by a private philanthropist on an American model. The government now has 54 Central universities and we have to share the money. Therefore, we have to go for private-public funding.