The transition from a Red bastion to a campus outpost of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad could change the character of the hallowed institution. In a sense, the transition can also signal intolerance, the hallmark of a saffronite dispensation. And so it has been at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has had the chutzpah to dishonour Romila Thapar, the ancient Indian historian of international repute.
It is no disrespect to other very distinguished historians to suggest that she is indubitably one of the greatest in her field of historical specialisation. Ergo, JNU has been direly disrespectful. This is quite the most charitable construct that can be placed upon its directive to the Professor Emerita to submit her CV, and thus enable the authorities to review her post-retirement status. It is more than obvious that at the ripe old age of 87, she has been humiliated for being critical of the changes introduced by the JNU administration, ever since the BJP assumed power in 2014.
Buoyed by the verdict in this year’s Lok Sabha election, it is obvious too that the Right lobby is now engaged in a counter-offensive. To fulfil that agenda, a committee, appointed by the university, intends to evaluate her career and then decide whether she should continue as JNU’s Professor Emerita. The short point must be that she richly deserves the appellation. This isn’t a matter of subjective reflection; a second opinion can only be ideologically driven or an expression of political vindictiveness. Sad to reflect, Prof Thapar has been a victim of both.
The parameters of the evaluation, as set by the university’s council, are a contrived defence of the indefensible ~ health status, willingness, availability, university needs. Her resounding reply, indeed an indictment of JNU’s functioning, resonates in the echo chambers of the university ~ “The university administration is unaware of the meaning of an Emeritus Professor. It is rather laughable if they think that my ceasing to be Emerita will affect my reputation as a historian or my academic work.” Not to put too fine a point on it, those who have arrogated to themselves the authority to evaluate Prof Thapar’s contribution to the discipline can’t hold a candle to her.
Emeritus Professorships are for life, and the terms of engagement afford no scope for periodic reviews, as the distinguished economist, Prabhat Patnaik ~ also of the same stature ~ has pointed out. The post carries no financial obligation on the part of the government. It is absurd to tinker with an academic honour, pre-eminently a recognition of the contributions made by the scholar during his or her tenure. Romila Thapar’s honour will be restored if Jawaharlal Nehru University withdraws its signal to assess the exceptionally erudite. Both the historian and the discipline deserve better in what was once the holy of holies.