JNU VC Jagadesh Kumar’s Stormy Tenure Amid Unrest, Controversies

Vakasha Sachdev
·6-min read

From mooting the idea of establishing a war tank on campus to being critiqued for his handling of the multiple crises that precipitated on the Centre of Excellence, it has been a rather controversial tenure for Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Mamidala Kumar.

Appointed in January 2016, under equally controversial circumstances as his term may have witnessed, Mamidala, who was attached to IIT Delhi, is set to end his innings at JNU.

It is to this effect that the Union Ministry of Education has now put out a circular looking for a new VC, who is expected to be a person with the “highest level of competence, integrity, morals and institutional commitment.”

What is the controversy surrounding Kumar’s appointment?

When Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar’s appointment as JNU VC at the end of January 2016 was announced, it raised several eyebrows. As a professor of Electrical Engineering at IIT Delhi, Kumar was one of four candidates on the shortlist sent to then President Pranab Mukherjee, for consideration to succeed Professor Sudhir Kumar Sopory to the post.

The HRD Ministry (now Ministry of Education), which had sent the shortlist to the President, had actually suggested that Kumar would not be a good fit for the post, and recommended the appointment of reputed scientist Padma Shri VS Chauhan.

The HRD (Minister of Education), Minister Smriti Irani, in her comments attached to the note, “strongly recommended” Chauhan’s appointment, rather than Kumar’s. Although the President is not bound to follow the advice of the HRD Ministry, in this case, it was strange that a candidate with a wealth of administrative experience and both domestic and international recognition was ignored in favour of a candidate who had none of these.

At the time, rumours abounded of Kumar having RSS links, with detractors pointing to his attendance at an event at IIT Delhi organised by RSS-linked body Vijnana Bharati. In a statement, Kumar had responded to these allegations, saying “I an academician and have no formal association with any organisation.”

Why & How did the sedition row come to the fore?

Barely a week after his appointment, Kumar found himself at loggerheads with the students over an event planned by the JNUSU to protest the hanging of Parliament attack convicts Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat.

Mamidala withdrew permission for the event, but it went ahead anyway in a changed format. Following disruptions by the ABVP, former JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar and others were controversially booked and arrested for sedition on the grounds that anti-national slogans were raised at the event.

The VC did not support the students who were arrested and accused of these serious charges, and the administration imposed fines on the students for violating university rules. However, the inquiry committee set up by the administration did not find any provocative slogans that the students had raised.

Nine months after the sedition row, Najeeb Ahmad, a JNU student, went missing from the JNU campus following a violent confrontation with the ABVP, which is affiliated to the RSS. At the time of this article was written, Najeeb remains missing, and JNU students have accused the VC of not doing enough to investigate the disappearance.

When & why did VC Kumar talk about installing a war tank?

In 2017, Kumar banned demonstrations and protests near the ‘administration block’ of JNU, where the offices of the senior officials are located.

This was considered, by students and faculty, as a blow to the university’s tradition of protests and dissent, especially when viewed in conjunction with directions by him to shut the dhabas in the campus by 11 pm, and fines for those disobeying the new rules.

He also, controversially, invited self-styled guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to deliver the Nehru Memorial Lecture that year, and in a speech of his own, suggested installing a battle tank on campus to inspire patriotism in the students.

Students were also at odds with the VC over his decision to make attendance compulsory at the university for the first time in its history, even for PhD degrees.

As reported in The Week, Kumar’s constitution of selection committees for new appointments was challenged on the basis that he was using his discretionary power arbitrarily to include in them experts close to the BJP. Kumar is reported to have refused to consult the concerned centre while appointing external experts for these selection committees.

This allegedly resulted in ‘experts’ from obscure universities being appointed to these committees without relevant expertise (for instance for an appointment to the Centre for Historical Studies), and who then asked questions that had nothing to do with the post in question.

What led to the attack of January 2020?

All these problems came ahead in October 2019 after Mamidala’s administration decided to hike the hostel fee, mid-session, and introduce a number of changes to the Hostel Manual, including dress codes and curfew timings.

The fee hike was widely criticised for the impact it could have on underprivileged students – JNU has long been considered as a place where students from the poorest of backgrounds could manage to gain an education, owing to the low tuition fees and other charges.

The fee hike led to massive protests by the JNU students in November 2019, including attempts to protest at the All India Council for Technical Education where Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was speaking at the JNU convocation. The protests saw the police use water cannons on students, and even manhandle those who tried to push past a police barricade.

This was followed by widespread violence within the campus when masked goons entered JNU on the night of 5 January 2020 and brutally attacked students, while going on a rampage inside hostels.

JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) issued a statement on 6 January, in which it claimed that Kumar was “behaving like a mobster who perpetuates violence in the university he is supposed to administer... He uses all means and manner to see to it that students, teachers, karamcharis and the entire JNU community faces violence by criminals imported from outside using iron rods, stones and lathis.”

The protests against the fee hike were the backdrop of the recent attack on the students as well. Even though tensions had risen in the days before the attack as the deadline for registrations into courses and hostels were approaching, the students were continuing to protest. JNUSU representatives claim that the ABVP tried to violently disrupt these protests, and it during a peace march against this disruption that the masked goons attacked students and hostels.

The ABVP claims that it was the JNUSU and other students who had been physically stopping students from registering, and that had led to violence by Left groups. As of now, no evidence for this has been found, though several links between the violence and ABVP members have been brought to light.

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