A paradox is a statement that may seem absurd or contradictory but yet can be true, or at least makes sense. Now, consider this. In a residential university which provides education through regular mode and not through correspondence, students are locking horns with the administration over the choice, or rather an alleged “right” of not attending classes! This paradox has come to life inside Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where blossom of spring also accompanies pandemonium and hurly-burly of political activism.
JNU administration through a circular notified that a minimum of 75 per cent attendance in a course is mandatory for appearing in the end-semester examination of that course. It is really surprising how JNU had not implemented the mandatory attendance ruling so far at any degree level, when the practise is already in place in other Central Universities like, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), University of Delhi (DU), and University of Hyderabad (HCU).
It has been claimed that the notification has displeased students and faculties alike. The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) statement dated February 12, 2018, noted that “teachers reiterated the position expressed in the last GBM that JNUTA has serious reservations regarding the new system of mandatory attendance.” The statement observes that “procedural lapses that have taken place in implementation of the new rules were in contrast to the democratic decision making process of the university.” However, JNUTA’s statement didn’t elucidate and point out the involved “procedural lapses” in the implementation.
On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union (JNUSU) has drawn the battle lines and is calling for a “roll back” and “boycott” of the mandatory attendance. They have already organised protests on Administration Block in the campus on February 10. JNUSU-led protesting students vandalised public property in the campus and assembled in the area of the campus where large gatherings have been prohibited by Hon. High Court and university ruling. They have also called for a march to Ministry of HRD on February 15. A threat for a total lockdown of university has also been issued! Evidently, the university has already been locked down since entry gates to the campus and streets inside have been blocked by students.
One needs to question the very basis of the JNUSU led protest over the implementation of mandatory attendance in a regular mode university. Someone like Prof Makarand Paranjape (JNU) prefers to call the system “attendance requirement” and finds it unfortunate that it has been dubbed as “compulsory”. On this writer’s request, he tweeted suggesting that, “JNU is putting in place attendance requirements for the first time. You may debate whether these should be 60 per cent or 75 per cent but to consider non-attendance a “right”- tell me does that make sense?” He also catechised that “Isn’t it rather ironic, if not paradoxical, if JNU aspirants must strive so hard to clear entrance test if the outcome is to earn the “right” not to attend the classes?”
Dr Dhananjay Singh (JNU) wrote an op-ed in ‘The Pioneer’ (February 7, 2018) suggesting that ‘anti-attendance group is really miniscule and that their wish to force the functioning of the university to its whims and worldviews.’
While speaking to Organiser, Dr Singh made it clear that “dissent in a society, especially in a University is much desirable, however, in the present case; it is the University circular on attendance that seeks to introduce a reform in the University.” He accentuated the fact that, “there are only a few hundred students and some teachers who have managed to provoke about a thousand students. What we are seeing is not dissent but an uncritical and anxious reaction to protect old habits of absenteeism. More than what the protests show, what the protests seek to hide is important- a deep-rooted unhealthy practice assumed to be the ethos of JNU.”
Dr Singh also highlighted the vandalism of the protesting students suggesting that, “in a blatant disregard for the High Court order, the protesters broke the flower pots and aggressively assembled at the Administration Building. In their speeches and posters, what is evident is an intention to mislead the students at large and provoke them to serve an insidious political agenda that has its goals outside the University.”
Sparring with what seems to be the popular opinion over mandatory attendance; many students are bidding welcome to the new system. Two students of the Language school, Adarsh Garg (Arabic) and Ujjwal Kumar (Russian) jointly suggest that, “Many students are already signing on the attendance sheet. However, some teachers and students of different centres are mounting persistent pressure upon us not to do so.” Another student of English department on the conditions of anonymity observes that “Class performance is already a component in grading for us. Many other centres also follow that. I simply don’t understand why our fellow students are not willing to join-in”. The same student also adds that, “The protests against compulsory attendance by all student outfits are highly populist in nature, lagging any kind of rationale.”
Some students are still not sure why the agitation has been going on at such an unprecedented level. Shweta Mishra (MA History, JNU) informs that “I have to visit campus from a long distance. After the implementation of mandatory attendance, I would’ve to do it every day which was not a case till now.” She also adds, “The ongoing protests in the campus have affected day scholars and daily commuters to the campus, like her. She has recently visited campus many times to find the gates closed and has to undergo unwanted security checks as well.”
Difficulty of Research Scholars
Research scholars of the university look so woebegone after the mandatory attendance ruling is out. The notification has made a provision that for M.Phil and PhD students after their course-work, the attendance register will be signed, and maintained in the respective office of the Centre/ School/ laboratory. Even though there have been provisions for leave of absence in different cases, research students feel that they should have been kept out of this ruling.
Anupama Tiwari, a research scholar of School of International Studies (SIS, JNU) feels that “such a binding nature of attendance requirement would not allow researchers to take up part-time jobs. Many researchers are without any fellowship, and they have to take up jobs for sustaining their expenses.” Piyush Chandra Swain, research student in International Economics agrees to the previous concern. He adds, “For research scholars, signing the registers daily is not going to produce any results. There is no sitting place for PhD scholars and it will hit day scholars a lot.”
However, it must be made known that mandatory attendance for researchers are neither a first nor unique in the case of JNU. Other central universities like BHU have already made such a practice
regular. Leave of absence for academic activities like, seminars, field and archival work, work-shop, training programs, etc. has been provided with.
Different Political Angles
Communist party’s student outfits led JNUSU has politicised the issue of mandatory attendance and now they are cashing in the opportunity to push for disorder and indiscipline. Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) is also against the attendance notification, but differently. ABVP JNU unit members and their supporting students have a different take on the execution of the protest.
Anima Sonkar, a research scholar (SIS, JNU) and an ABVP leader makes it a point to differ their stand from JNUSU on the course action of the protest on three counts. She informs that, “We are taking a different course action on three grounds. ABVP members and supporting students don’t aid and abet the vandalism unleashed by JNUSU. We respect the Hon. High Court ruling that there should be no protest near Ad-block. Secondly, we are against the JNUSU’s efforts to highjack and politicise an issue which affects common students for its agendas. JNUSU is trying to revive the same chaotic designs like one of February, 2016, which had destructive underpinnings. And lastly, JNUSU maligns ABVP as administration’s handlers which is untrue. We are doing our best, in a law abiding process to safeguard students’ interests.”
The Middle Ground
The extreme outlook of politics in campuses has to be persuaded to find a middle ground of acceptance of regulations since universities at large are publicly funded and they have to function within established norms.
Prof Hitendra Patel, a JNU alumnus who teaches History at Rabindra Bharti University, places the crisis in perspective. Talking to Organiser, he said, “Despite the fact that JNU had no mandatory attendance ever, attendance used to be sufficient. But when it is about UGC’s regulation, there is no point that JNU must not follow that. Personally, I am against any mandatory attendance, but when it is in place across the institutions around the country, why should JNU be exempted?”
Dr. Savita Jha Khan, another JNU alumna who teaches at University of Delhi (DU) agrees to the point of institutional constraints and suggests that any public varsity must follow the regulations when it operates in a larger scheme of things.
The line of action and demands of JNUSU and JNUTA suggest that they are not willing to find any middle ground with the administration. However, there are multiple voices of disagreements within the students and teachers’ community who are not willing to side with these central bodies of representation.
While Communist party’s-led JNUSU has armed itself to commence a high pitched indignation with the support of like-minded teachers, other opinions are also coming out of JNU that are all up for the implementation of mandatory attendance. A Communist student leader dubbed the whole attendance scheme on social media as ‘clerical’ and suggested that ‘In JNU, the classroom has no border.’ Makarand Paranjape provided a rebuttal suggesting that ‘he too believes in classrooms without borders, but not in abolishing academic accountability or sanctity of classrooms altogether.’
(The writer is a Jawaharlal Nehru University alumnus.)