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Teachers cant be cogs in a machine

by Mukul Mangalik, 25 May 2010

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(From: Mail Today, 25 May 2010)

It is not at all surprising that the criminal auction of a partially live gamma irradiator by the Delhi University has occurred under Vice- Chancellor Deepak Pental’s watch.

Nor is it surprising, although it is a matter of grave concern, that one of the most sustained teacher agitations at the DU in recent memory, continues with increasing support among teachers under his vice- chancellor- ship.

Pental has been a man in a terrible rush.

Hurried along by the buzz of bees in his bonnet, any questions raised and critiques advanced regarding his chosen path, no matter how significant and germane to academics these may be, are to him as so much junk to be steamrolled. Every mirror held up to him is to be cracked and immediately rubbished.


Pental’s contempt for teachers and due process comes with a cynicism for democracy and suspicion of popular participation in the making of decisions regarding University affairs. The abrupt directives from the University last year, centralising the entrance exam for the English Department as well as evaluation procedures for the University as a whole, are cases in point. The VC’s headlong rush to bring in the semester system by diktat skirting any serious wide- ranging deliberation over its academic rationale and implications for teaching and learning, his attempt to quick- fix new syllabi in place and the effective bypassing of statutory bodies in this process would all seem to confirm that the business of encouraging multiple voices and ideas regarding various issues is at best a formality which too may be dispensed with, by hiding behind legalese, if necessary.

The VC appears to be more than happy arriving at decisions on his own and reducing all members of the university community, other than those he makes privy to his fantasies, to cogs in a machine. This is the problem. Differences in the ranks notwithstanding, at the heart of the current DUTAled agitation is the Big Refusal by the teaching community to let the vice- chancellor get away with doing as he pleases to colleagues, our university and established democratic practices and procedures.

Should the DU introduce the semester system at the under- graduate level or not? This, and related issues have become the public face of the ongoing struggle between teachers and the administration at the DU. The vice- chancellor would have the world believe that he is pushing for major progressive and academically sound changes in the functioning of the DU and that this initiative is being hobbled by a conservative teaching community, resistant to even the talk of change. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The DU is home to some of the best minds in academia. Students, researchers and teachers cognisant of the need for wide- ranging academic reform, have keenly debated this issue over the years. Interesting ideas have emerged. The VC could have slipped into this world and energised a robust, open- ended, truly democratic discussion on how best to enrich academic and intellectual life on campus. Instead, he has sought to bludgeon debate on reform and change by reducing these to the question of bringing in the semester system at the earliest and insisting that he knows best what is good for the university.

It is a shame that even though the teacher’s agitation over the last many weeks has been raising issues of significance for the DU and has been committed to non- violent practices, the Head of our Institution instead of meeting with protesting teachers has become increasingly elusive. Shockingly, he has even taken the DUTA to court with the plea that strictures be passed on the right of teachers to raise issues and protest the indefensible!


The worst kind of contempt for colleagues and democratic practice was on display during the Academic Council meeting of May 13. The VC refused legitimate discussion on, among other things, the rationale for the semester system and the illegal manner in which syllabi for the Science courses were being hurriedly patched together, aborted proceedings arbitrarily and walked out, leaving elected teacher representatives with no option but to ‘ sit- in’ in the council hall over the next 4 days. In the midst of this unprecedented situation, neither the VC nor any other university official had either the grace or the minimal democratic courtesy to meet and talk with the ‘ sitters- in’. Teachers have been demanding debate.

They are not saying no to change and academic reform, even of the most fundamental kind. They are saying no to a top- down, anti- democratic and non- participatory process which is hell- bent on throwing collective procedures of decision- making to the winds, reducing democracy to a matter of niceties and aborting a wonderful opportunity for all of us at the DU to come together and infuse more meaning into teaching, learning and research. Decisions on change and reform at the university, in all their richness and enduring value, must emerge as they have in the past from free and vigorous debate, no matter how long this takes. They cannot be the impoverished truths of a few sought to be imposed, corporation- like, on the entire university.

There seems to be more to the VC’s attempt at getting syllabi stitched- up for a hurriedly introduced semester system, than meets the eye. This effort is as much about a highly dubious systemic change as it is about weakening and dismantling the culture and practice of democracy on campus. The negative implications of this for campus life and beyond are clear to the discerning, as is the suspicion that this is only preparatory to a massive restructuring— from above— of higher education in the country along lines demanded by the changing requirements of the global neoliberal regime. This understanding as also the awareness that the current DU administration has a disappointing record on a number of other scores, is adding strength to the conviction among increasing numbers of teachers that they must stay the course in this struggle. In its negativity, the Big Refusal, the DU teachers’ current agitation is in fact positive.


Vice- chancellors are not expected to wield magic wands. But they are expected to engage with the travails and textures of everyday university life for students, teachers and non- teaching staff. It would have been hugely appreciated if a signal was being beamed from behind the iron grills imprisoning our VC indicating full support to all efforts towards creating a level playing field on campus with respect to gender, caste, community, abilities, class etc. Not only have we waited in vain for such a signal— in one case of sexual harassment the opposite message was being sent out— but the university campus, like the rest of the city, has been handed over to diggers and builders who, in the name of public good and playing fields, have been allowed to openly flout labour laws, dig and level without observing any mandatory precautions and turn our green and leafy campus into a dust- bowl.

It is a shame that not a word comes from the office of the VC suggesting that he is concerned and on the job to bring things to order.

‘ There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it that unless you are free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.’ If these words, from one of the best remembered student speeches from the sixties seem to speak to us across the decades with the urgency that Mario Savio brought to bear upon them, it is because for us at the DU, the time is now.

The writer teaches history at Ramjas College