M Jagadesh Kumar, Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), was a professor of electrical engineering in IIT, Delhi.
Kumar, a native of Nalgonda district in Telangana, did his Masters and PhD in Electrical Engineering from IIT, Madras, followed by post-doctoral research at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He specialises in nano-electronic devices.
In 2016, Kumar was appointed VC of JNU. During his tenure, he has been in the news for many controversies.
In an interview with RAMAN PANDIT, Kumar answers all questions thrown at him.
Q: For the past one or two months, JNU has been in the news for the wrong reasons.Your comment.
A: Not just for one or two months, I think, during the last three or four years, JNU has been in the news for wrong reasons. While the university is progressing well on the academic front, a small set of students and teachers do not want to see it grow and became one of the best universities of the world. The reason, perhaps, is that some teachers and students are used to functioning without following the university’s rules and regulations.
To function effectively, it’s necessary for an institution to abide by the rules and regulations formulated by a statutory body. That’s why when our administration took over in 2016 and started emphasising on rules and regulations, this set of teachers and students resisted. In JNU each professor had 30 to 40 PhD scholars under him which is against UGC rules. So, when the academic council decided that we need to follow the UGC rules, some teachers and students brought the university to a standstill through their agitation and refused to listen to any logical explanation.
We also wanted to expand academic activity to make it a world class university by introducing a special centre for disaster management, special centre for e-learning, special centre for North-east India, school of engineering and Atal Bihari Vajpeyee school of management and entrepreneurship, but the same set of teachers and students vehemently opposed it. I fail to see any logic behind their opposition as we are trying to improve the academic standard of the university.
To create better infrastructure, enormous amount of funding is required. When the university applied for Rs 450 crore fund from higher education finance agency (HEFA), the same group opposed it. So, you can see that while on the one hand, a large number of teachers and students along with JNU administration are trying to improve the university, on the other hand a small section is bent on destroying the functioning and image of the university.
Q: On 5 January, masked goons went on the rampage on JNU campus. There is an allegation that the JNU administration did not call the police on time. How do you respond to this?
A: Before we talk about 5 January, we need to look at what happened on 3 January. Our winter session registration was started on 1 January but some of the schools were locked down by a few agitating students. Therefore, we made the entire registration process online and a large number of students started registering. Then agitating students reached the communication centre and locked it down.
Next day, we somehow, managed to enter the data centre. Again, the protesters broke open the doors and vandalised the system and made the entire university dysfunctional. On 3 January, they came with their faces masked. It is very surprising that if the students are fighting for a just cause, they should be hiding their faces. From whom were they trying to escape? On 5th I came to know that a large number of students were moving towards Periyar hostel aggressively.
After assessing the situation, I personally called the police commissioner and other police officers. Because it is an educational institution, we cannot call the police at the drop of a hat, I first assessed the situation and then called the police. We acted in the most appropriate manner and I completely deny any such allegation.
Q: The major charge against you is that you allowed this violence and did not call the police on time because victims of violence were Left-leaning students.
A: We don’t see the students’ community in any binary. For us, all students are equal and their safety is our primary concern. We acted with promptness and made sure no untoward incident happened.
Q: In the 5 January incident, several students including JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh received severe injuries and were rushed to AIIMS trauma centre. Should not you have gone to meet them as the head of the institution?
A: As soon as the incident took place, the entire JNU administration under my direction made sure that prompt medical help was provided to our students and after they were discharged from hospital, I constantly monitored to make sure that within the university, their medical needs were met. I constantly inquired about their welfare. So, if anybody is saying that we were not concerned for our students when they were injured, it is absolutely wrong.
Q: All this started after the decision on fee hike. Why didn’t you take students and JNUSU into confidence before the decision?
A: We did not hike the tuition fee which is only Rs 300 per year and we don’t intend to increase that. However, in hostels, students manage the mess themselves but they are not paying the electricity and water charges and also the salary of the staff. We received letters from UGC repeatedly saying that this expenditure has to be met by the university itself. So, looking into this aspect, we formed a committee in 2016.
The committee had several meetings with hostel presidents who are duly elected by students. And then in September 2019, the draft of revised hostel charges was prepared and put on the JNU website for students’ feedback. It is very open and transparent. So, if anybody is saying that things were not discussed with students, that is not the truth.
Q: Then, what do you see behind these protests?
A: It appears that hostel fee is an excuse to make the university dysfunctional. And this is established by the fact that nearly 95 per cent of students got themselves registered for winter semester and paid the revised charges. Only a small group of students are trying to mislead the rest of the students and bring a bad name to the university. After the 5 January incident, classes and academic activities are running peacefully as now this small set has realised that majority of students and teachers are fed up with their destructive activities.
Q:Once you reportedly said that a tank should be placed in JNU to instill nationalism in students. Is it true?
A: Partly true. We have a large number of defence institutes associated with JNU. Many of our defence alumni expressed the desire that this link must be showcased by placing a decommissioned tank, ship model or aeroplane on JNU campus. Remember, now we have a school of engineering and such objects are engineering marvels. There is nothing wrong in having such an object on JNU campus while other institutes like IIT Kharagpur and IISc Banglore have them.
Q:How do you respond to the allegations that you are very close to RSS-BJP and were brought in to change the fundamental character of JNU?
A: I have spent more than 25 years teaching electrical engineering in IIT Delhi and before that I was a student at IIT Madras. My focus has always been on mentoring my students and to do outstanding research in my area. When I came to JNU, my primary objective was to improve both the academic and administrative process of university to make it one of the best universities of the world.
Is working towards the welfare of my university and defending it in adverse conditions something wrong? I completely fail to understand the logic behind such allegations. If any faculty member indulges in activities other than promoting academic excellence, I think that is very detrimental to higher education.
Q: Are you not associated with RSS?
A: I am an academician and will remain so. And my focus is to achieve academic excellence.
Q:You are from a technical background. Questions have been raised about your suitability in JNU which has a different character from IITs.
A: Today, human society is facing so many challenges. It is not enough to develop technology. The people who develop technology should be aware of how technology is adapted by society. And that is possible if there is interdisciplinary dialogue between social sciences and technology. When I came to JNU, it was a great opportunity to bring technology and social science together.
Across the world it is common practice that a person irrespective of his own specialisation can head any institute because in higher education challenges are same. Therefore, it is wrong to say that a professor of electrical engineering cannot be head of JNU where social sciences are dominant streams.
Q:Unlike your predecessor, there has been a constant tussle between you and JNUSU-JNUTA.
A: JNU administration has always remained very flexible in terms of meeting requirement of students and teachers but on the other hand some of the teachers and student leaders have remained very rigid in their approach of solving problems. Problems cannot be solved if there is no give and take attitude.
Q: Soon after you took over, the Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid episode happened and now this incident. How do you see your tenure as VC in JNU?
A: I see it as an opportunity with different kind of challenges. If you want to make JNU one among the best universities of the world, you need to bring some changes but people who are used to status quo will resist any change. Therefore, we need to motivate the students and the teachers to look at the future.