Why is Delhi University on the verge of collapse?
The siege of the Vice Regal Lodge that began in the noon of 4th December is still on. It will be close to 48 hours now that the brave teachers have maintained their vigil day and night, in the chill of winter, in the VC lodge and outside.
You will not read about this in the newspapers—except perhaps as an insignificant bottom spread lost somewhere deep in the inside pages—nor will you see it on primetime TV, honourable exceptions like Ravish Kumar notwithstanding. Our media has other concerns, like whipping up a frenzy over religion and plotting wars with neighbours—or, mostly feeding fodder to the ever-growing cult of Modi with nauseating loyalty. Terrible though it may sound, the bitter truth is that reporting on what really happens on the ground, and having to feel the pulse of the people, at any rate, is a laborious, onerous task, and perhaps passé in today’s journalism. It is evidently far more tempting to shamelessly parrot what the party in power says to earn a hefty reward in government advertising. So, why would the “embedded” media bat an eyelid if thousands of teachers take to the roads and occupy the “Vice Regal Lodge” in the heart of the north campus in Delhi University?
I understand that possibly there might be reader fatigue with educational institutions, with all the troubling news from JNU hogging the space lately, and then the bizarre reportage from BHU where the appointment of a Muslim professor to teach Sanskrit stirred a hornet’s nest and kept the channels busy in their invidious and continuing sabotage of universities. Unfortunately though, what is routinely dished out about our public universities in the media is often calibrated propaganda—at the behest of the government, and often with the active backing of corporate houses which are only too eager to circle above like vultures, awaiting the death of public universities so that they gorge on the carrion. Everything is spun and curated meticulously to discredit the institution; it is not news.
I have been teaching at Delhi University for over a decade, but quite honestly, I have never seen anything like this before. On the 4th of December, at the stroke of high noon, thousands of teachers—and I was among them, with many of my colleagues and friends, bearing witness to this historic demonstration—descended upon the erstwhile Vice Regal Lodge which now houses the VC office and other administrative facilities of DU. The police were bamboozled when swathes upon swathes of teachers, chanting songs of resistance and slogans of victory, stormed through all the gates before settling upon the sprawling lawns of the iconic Vice Regal lodge. This majestic building, which is a heritage site now, hides so much history in its bosom, having been the residence of many viceroys and the venue of the Gandhi-Irwin pact; its corridors were once walked upon by the likes of Nehru and Patel, and it curiously also houses the jail of Bhagat Singh in the dungeons beneath. The Vice Regal Lodge, resplendent in its off-white glory and impeccable colonial architecture, was gleaming like a pearl in the warm winter sun—a picturesque backdrop to this suddenly erupting sea of humanity, twirling in a riot of colours, with hands rising and falling lustily in unison at the sound of slogans, now occupying the old seat of colonial power. The symbolism of this momentous occasion was not lost on anyone.
In many ways, university administrations in India are a surviving relic of the bygone days of slavery, still cast very much in the old colonial style of functioning; they are aloof, apart, insensitive, inaccessible and manifestly undemocratic in decision-making. Hence, it was not surprising that the agitating teachers were in high spirits. I could feel a sense of nervous energy all around, animated chatter, some anger, some angst—we were conscious of a little revolution that was underway, of our own storming of the Bastille; our own epochal moment in the making. The crowd seemed spontaneous, awash with enthusiasm, gathered under the banner of affiliating colleges united under the aegis of the Delhi University Teachers Association, popularly known by its acronym, DUTA. Soon, the word spread like fire with people using social media to devastating effect. Students started swooping down too, and this surged the crowd beyond anyone’s expectations, certainly much above the wildest estimates of the university administration and the police.
Victory was swift and bloodless. The office chambers were soon reverberating with “Azaadi” slogans; a slogan that has been much maligned by the media; a slogan that makes the incumbent government squirm in discomfort; a slogan that unhinges the Sangh Parivar to the bone. It was a genuine moment of rebellion, an act of defiance—not planned or orchestrated, but one that was born in the spontaneity of the context. At that moment, the grandiose Vice Regal Lodge appeared to us as a metaphor of injustice, its long galleries and swanky offices a symbol of red-tape, of an overbearing bureaucracy, which had callously held our lives in “abeyance”; its occupation appeared as “liberation”, the graffiti that teachers wrote and the posters that we hung on its spotless walls appeared to us not as defacement but as a testament that our collective voices shall not go unheard anymore, as proof that it will resound in the halls of power that had turned deaf. The DU administration, which was surely out of its wits, adopted what can only be described “a scorched earth policy”—the VC along with all the other responsible functionaries vacated the premises in the hope that their absence would negate the possibility of negotiation—in the face of this unexpected blitzkrieg on its mighty citadel.
If you are wondering what caused the current impasse in Delhi University which has precipitated the still evolving crisis where thousands of teachers have had to march in seething anger and resort to squatting in the administrative block, one will need to appreciate the peculiar problems that have beset the university in the last decade or so. While it is true that the issues that any university faces are usually systemic, or structural, arising out of the policy framework that governs higher education, Delhi University has a unique set of unresolved troubles that have become, over the years, a festering wound on its increasingly precarious existence. Successive governments have failed to fill routinely arising vacancies in the faculty.
The statistics are mind-boggling—out of nearly 10000 sanctioned faculty positions spread across more than 80 colleges, less than half are manned by regular appointees. This means that there are close to 5000 ad-hoc teachers. Adhoc positions are unique to Delhi University, the only saving grace being that these teachers draw the entry-level basic pay of an Assistant Professor which is much more than what the guest faculty gets. The university ordinances lay down that the Adhoc appointees cannot exceed more than 10% of the total faculty strength and that these appointments cannot be made for more than 4 months. Since 2005, though, when there were barely 500 Adhoc teachers in the entire university, this number has grown exponentially and now is tenfold. Thousands of highly qualified teachers—Delhi University still attracts the creme de la crème of the academia—have invested their youth, their energies in serving the institution in the hope that one day they will be regularised; every 4 months they have to suffer the ignominy of suspense as renewals are never guaranteed. This has a massive human cost—fractured lives, uncertain futures and the attendant psychological trauma that they must wade through in the process of earning their livelihoods is unspeakable.
The present crisis is the result of an insensitive letter by the university administration issued on 28th August which, theoretically speaking, renders all Adhoc teachers jobless, or at best demotes them to the status of guest faculty resulting in a massive loss of salary, the only sustenance they have for survival, and many of them are married and have dependents. Not to say that the Adhoc system is desirable, but to callously and suddenly remove thousands of teachers who have taught for years, instead of regularising them, is preposterous in a democracy, it is a mindless, sadist prank on those who were hoping for the exact opposite; to my mind, the university administration committed a criminal act that ought to be punished by fixing responsibility on officials who could dare to promulgate such a dastardly order—perhaps being seated in the Vice Regal Lodge clouded their heads and they forgot that they are here to serve and not to govern. DUTA has been protesting the letter since the day it was issued, but things came to a pass when it became evident that college principals were flirting with the idea of implementing it. The events of 4th December were in a sense caused by the administration itself which wilfully breached the reservoir of patience that teachers had held on to steadfastly despite repeated provocation, insults and injuries to their dignity; the floodgates of anger were understandably unleashed when very livelihoods were on the line.
At the time of writing, the siege of the Vice Regal lodge that began in the noon of 4th December is still on. It will be close to 48 hours now that the brave teachers have maintained their vigil day and night, in the chill of winter, in the VC lodge and outside. The numbers have dwindled but there are still close to a thousand teachers inside, while many more try to get in. The police have locked down the entry gates and are preventing anyone from passing through—incidents of minor scuffles and some manhandling has also been reported. On the side-lines, there have been long sessions of negotiations between the DUTA leadership and the top officials of the MHRD in the presence of the Delhi University VC, Secretary UGC and Secretary MHRD where four core demands were placed: withdrawal of the August 28th letter, issuing of promotion forms, release of EWS expansion posts, and most vitally, one-time regulation for absorption of Adhoc teachers.
Late last night, on 5th December, a document from the MHRD was being circulated indicating that some concessions might be made. It was suggested in the said document that the August 28 letter might be amended suitably to ensure that no Adhoc teacher loses their job on account of the letter. It was promised that permanent appointments shall be made before the beginning of the next academic session—a promise that has been made previously by two Human Resources ministers of the ruling regime on no less than the floor of the Parliament, but this is a promise that has been reneged on repeatedly. Some assurances have been given on expediting long pending promotions. Most crucially though, there is no commitment forthcoming on the most important demand of bringing a regulation for the absorption of all Adhoc teachers in Delhi University as regular faculty.
What JNU is to the student’s movement, indisputably DU is to the teacher’s movement in India. DUTA is a proud trade union—strong and robust, with a glorious history of shaping the national policy on higher education with effective intervention in the collective interests of teachers—especially in an age when trade unions are all but extinct. Unlike the Delhi University Students Association, leftist organisations have had a formidable presence in the DUTA—the incumbent president, Rajib Ray, who has recently won a second term in office is from the Democratic Teachers Association, a left-leaning group. However, it must be said to the credit of trade union politics in Delhi University that all factions within the DUTA—right, left and centre—have historically come together in moments of crisis, or whenever a united front was necessary for protecting the interests of the ordinary member. This makes the teacher's movement in Delhi University unique; DUTA is literally the torchbearer for the welfare of teachers in the country. Indeed, DUTA has won many important victories and seen some defeats in its chequered history.
Perhaps what is being promised is too little, too late. A vocal section of teachers is not willing to believe the government—so deep is the trust deficit. The major let down is that the August 28 letter has not been withdrawn completely and there seems to be no progress on the issue of absorption. DUTA has decided to review the situation at 2 pm on 6th December before deciding upon the future course of action; in the meantime, the strike is to continue and teachers will boycott invigilation duties. It is a moment of unprecedented crisis in the university, the future is uncertain, the battle lines are drawn. But whatever might follow, no matter how the chips fall, teachers are girding their loins and are willing to fight to the finish.