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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 38 September 16, 2023

Delhi University & the Rise of a Necropolis | B Madhavan

Saturday 16 September 2023, by B. Madhavan


This piece laments the loss of academic freedom, classroom spaces, and good teachers at the University of Delhi.

Broken glass panes at the conference hall at Ramjas College, from the attack on the ‘Cultures of Protest’ seminars in 2017
Photo: B. Madhavan

It’s been roughly 6 months since Delhi University replaced half of its teaching faculty. When this shameful process came to the doorstep of my department, it was the winter semester exams. It was also my first winter ever, covered in multiple layers and I still couldn’t protect myself from a shiver running through my body from the cold fear of losing some very good teachers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the north campus [1] and gave a speech fit for a showman at the university’s centenary celebrations. He talked about how cool the Chai, Momos and aesthetics were at the University of Delhi The Prime Minister’s security also deemed it necessary to remove the street vendors, whom students relied on for meals, thus robbing them of a day’s honest work. The whole campus was turned into a cantonment and detained student activists [2]. With our Prime Minister, his silences speak more loudly than his words ever could.

 Standing in an auditorium near Hindu college, he chose to forget that Samarveer Singh who taught philosophy there had died by suicide [3] less than 2 months before his visit. He would not speak about the Ad-Hoc teachers who were thrown out of their jobs, under his watch - almost 1044 in number [4] and counting. Samarveer was one of them. What has been happening since last the month of September of 2022 is perhaps one of the most prominent academic labour force massacres ever, in the history of higher education.
Even with all these excesses, the prime minister only sang paeans about a university whose destruction I and my fellow students witnessed.

The visit is a prime example of how dangerously the Modi government and the BJP-RSS Combine have decided to deal with India’s education policy. The increasing lack of academic freedom, shrinking space for dissent and critique essential to the health of any democracy, and the tampering with school education point towards how this regime is dedicated to preventing critical thinking in future generations.

Ad hoc teacher appointments were meant as a temporary measure at Delhi University to fill the gap between retirements and new appointments of faculty or against leave vacancies. Most of these Ad-Hoc teachers went on to teach for many years, some for decades. When the bells struck for permanent appointments, Delhi University decided that their experience was not an asset and their role in building up the space that the university is today was neglected during the process of interviews.

The University administration could not come up with one good reason not to convert their temporary posts to permanent ones. The Ministry of Education replied in the Rajya Sabha that there simply do not exist provisions for the permanentisation of Ad-Hoc teachers [5].

The Ad-Hoc teachers built the system and worked to turn the university into what is today by dedicating themselves to tireless teaching hours, mentoring students through staff council committees, being faculty advisors to extracurricular societies, and participating in all kinds of administrative work. Nobody will count the hours of unpaid work these teachers did. The role of a teacher at the University of Delhi went far beyond the classroom’s threshold.

We lost teachers who had actively tried to ensure safe and equal spaces and help us in very many ways than was expected of teachers. They were robbed of fair wages that they would have earned as permanent teachers. They were robbed of meaningful work that they pursued for decades, even if it meant working under unequal and harassing circumstances.

DU’s shine owes a lot to their efforts.

The administration’s repeated renewal of their ad-hoc appointments every four months over the past many years is all the testament needed to their skill. Keeping these teachers in unsecured posts served the needs of the administration— financially and otherwise. And when they were thrown out without a shred of dignity and grace, the university sent out a message to society- that good work is not valued by the administration of Delhi University anymore, it’s something else that you need to become a member of the teaching community here.

In September of last year, the interviews for permanent appointments started at Ramjas College which is an affiliated and constituent college of Delhi University. The Ramjas College Staff Association (RCSA), one of the strongest teachers’ unions that had a legacy of leading popular democratic movements in the university, began an indefinite strike/dharna to retain the Ad-hoc teachers. The dharna gave us students some hope, maybe we could still see our teachers gain some security in employment. Then came the curveball.

During the winter of last year, things began to look bleak. The college administration went to the Delhi High Court and got an injunction order [6] prohibiting any demonstrations within a hundred meters of the Principal’s office. These teachers never thought that the Principal would go to court against his college’s teacher’s union. With dharnas banned, all hopes of resistance faded. Each department was called to the chopping board, one after the other.

What shook many ad-hoc teachers and us students was the terrifying silence that set into the teacher’s union & senior teachers. It was as if they accepted what was happening and chose to sit silent against the sheer injustice of it. Most of the ad-hoc faculty were replaced by new appointees, at least some of them with questionable educational backgrounds. The students of the Political Science department at Kirori Mal College were protesting in April [7] against the new appointees and their inept teaching this April. One still hears students complain in undertones about how new teachers cannot handle even the most basic of concepts in the classroom.

The changes in the classrooms are drastic. There used to be a time when students filled classrooms for two-hour lectures. There was a tacit expectation that we would get to engage with interesting questions from our chosen courses and that we would learn something. The classroom lecture was the centrifugal force, generating curiosity which made students pick up books and read in depth. Students would wait outside classrooms after lectures, waiting to ask questions to their teachers. It used to be a usual sight to see students and teachers huddled up in circles discussing topics that branched out from classroom discussions over chai, cola or lemonade. Students and teachers built a beautiful rapport, helping each other through challenging times. Lectures are rarely engaging and do not cover the basics of the syllabi. As I write this article in my final year, we just trickle in to fulfil our attendance requirements.

 In a country where university students have one of the highest suicide rates, good teachers continue to be the safety net for them. This constant movement of conversation from the classroom to outside spaces was one of the highlights of the teachers of the earlier times. The sanctity of this space no longer exists.

Colleges are the first academic spaces that allow students to think freely, outside the constraints of syllabi. Schools with their banking mode of education merely turn students into rote learners. Authority is somewhat the basis of education in schools even now. The NCERT were unique in the sense that it provoked students into asking critical questions about reality. And now, even they are being mutilated, to ensure that a new generation of citizens does not grow up to question reality and critically engage with it to turn it into something fruitful. The Sciences where method and critical thinking are as vital, face the fact that may no longer research for science’s sake, but to verify the claims about innumerable powers of bovine faeces.

When you change the whole material of a house, but rebuild it along the same design...does it still have the same character, or has it fundamentally changed? As far as Delhi University is concerned, all that remains of a university is a façade. The larger student population is quiet, out of fear of being targeted by the countless news channels that would harass those who raise their voices. Many students see these changes as something that doesn’t concern them at all. They don’t consider the fact that the falling quality of their education is bound to impact their future lives and that even in the present, it is robbing them of meaningful engagement with education.

The targeted attacks on universities and academic spaces are a severe threat that has been turning violent as early as 2016 [8]. Department societies must now get their programs vetted by Internal Quality Assessment Cells [9] which function arbitrarily without set rules, like a censor board. They also must obtain permission from the university proctor and follow police-issued crowd-maintenance protocols [10] to hold events. Now, with monks, politicians and hate speech poets being called to address events rather than academics, the administration has made it clear who is welcome at the university.

The recent revisions in university syllabi, which involve reducing the available courses on Gender, Ambedkar [11] and Gandhi [12] point towards the dangerous trend of pushing forward specific political agendas through syllabi. Trying to engage in dialogue with a generation of students who fear being identified as political, only multiplies the problems. The desire to remain apolitical leads to myopia, preventing them from engaging constructively with the reality around them. There also exists an attempt to highlight principled protests as political and scare students from supporting a just cause.

Collectively these series of interventions might facilitate the creation of thousands of degree holders who might not understand how their education is meaningless and serves the purpose of a fascist plan. We are at the level of change where things are accelerating at full speed, where the remaining spaces for free speech and dissent are trying to be quashed. Living through the demise of an educational institution is demoralising. It’s even more painful when a large portion of the student population does not care about this silent massacre. A day after Samarveer Singh died, students broke the walls of Hindu College (quite literally) and attended a concert by a pop star...not a shred of dignity even in death to a former teacher by an institute where he spent years of his life educating young minds. The times are such.

The strategy seems to be if you can’t provide a good education, provide a good circus at least.

The grotesque transformation of a university, a space meant to foment critical thought and free thinking into a machine that churns out propaganda and indoctrinates students has begun. This is about the sheer agony of seeing something you cared about vanish into the ether, this is about my teachers, who were wholly deserving of their jobs, losing it against all principles of natural justice.

People who still question and want to question reality convene discreetly. They constitute students who are drained and disillusioned by the state of the university. The university’s value has reduced to a degree generator. One can only hope that things turn around, and until then fight back small everyday battles, and give each other support and strength. One of my teachers (who was about to lose their job) told me to smile through what was to come. To carry ourselves bravely through the storm, not letting monsters have the pleasure of seeing you despondent. Going through injustice with grace and all the while, giving those around you hope and strength.

I hope we can follow that advice.

(Author:B Madhavan is a final-year undergraduate student of History at Ramjas College, University of Delhi)

[2DU Student Detained Without Orders Ahead of PM Event Files Police Complaint After HC Green Light — The Wire

[3The Death of Dr Samarveer Singh Highlights The Cruel Season For DU’s Ad Hoc Teachers — The Outlook

[4Lost job, academic reputation’ — how DU’s recruitment drive left ad hoc teachers in the cold — The Print

[5Government Of India Ministry of Education Department of Higher Education-Rajya Sabha Unstarred Question No. 1625 To Be Answered On 16.03.2022
Regularisation of temporary and Ad-hoc teachers in Delhi University

[6Injunction order by the Hon’ble Delhi HC temporarily banning protests in Ramjas College

[7Delhi: Kirori Mal College political science students oppose axing of ad hoc teachers — Times of India

[8Six Tables that Tell the Story of Academic Unfreedom in India — The Wire

[10‘Police NOC, pre-registration’: DU proctor advisory on events — The Hindu

[11DU panel proposes to drop course on Ambedkar, Philosophy dept opposes — The Indian Express

[12What No One Told You About Gandhi’s ‘Punishment Posting’ and Other Changes in the DU Syllabus — The Wire

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