A First-hand Experience : Sunandan K N

MAY 1, 2013

This is a guest post by SUNANDAN K N at kafila.org 

From the earlier article by Hartman De Souza and comments here on recent incidents at Tata Institute of Social Science campus at Guwahati, we had a glimpse into how a Deemed University heavily funded by the UGC and by both the Central and State governments could conduct its business in totally autocratic and authoritarian ways. Even with the risk of repetition I want to share my first-hand experience at another extension counter of TISS Mumbai which is TISS Tuljapur where exactly same events unraveled six months ago.

I was a faculty for short time at TISS Tuljapur campus and I was shocked to see how easily the administration could take totally unjustifiable and undemocratic decisions and get away with it.

The TISS Tuljapur is a residential campus and it is constructed like a jail (Oh that bald French philosopher) with full security surveillance.  All students stay in hostels.  Except a barber shop there are no shops or any other amenities inside the campus. The nearest market place is 6 km away and to get there you have to depend solely on the institution’s vehicle which run on fixed times.  Students have to sign on a register whenever they go out of campus and whenever they come in.  To go out or come in you have to pass through two security gates guarded by security men hired from a private security agency.  Within the campus students are not allowed to go certain places. The reason cited is that there are snakes in those areas; everybody knows the real reason, that those are the places where students engage in dangerous activities such as: a male student talking to a female student, a female student smoking a cigarette, a group of students singing and enjoying themselves and so on. The faculty are not under such restriction, maybe because administration already considers them dispensable. There are strict rules against drinking and smoking, though nobody was ever able to impose it completely.

Soon after joining, I met the present Dean on the campus who had come with an (evangelical) mission of cleaning the campus. He wanted not only to control drinking and smoking habits among students, but also to actively curb any sort of ‘disobedience’ among them students. A group of students who were vocal, active, and intelligent became the target of Operation Clean and the Dean experimented with all forms of disciplinary mechanisms on them. Whenever a student dared to ask question or complain, she/he was labeled ‘disobedient’, included in the above group, and threatened with disciplinary action.

Once this became rampant, some of us from the faculty tried in vain to question this obsession with moral policing.  We pointed out the fact that the Director, the Dean, and most of the faculty might also have violated the rule in Maharashtra regarding alcoholic consumption which says that every individual has to take a license even for private drinking.

The issue escalated when two students (a female and a male) went out and came back to the campus probably after having some drinks (which is completely legal). They were already on the top of the Dean’s watch-list, especially the female student who always asked difficult questions to the Dean and the faculty. Since they were a little late — past curfew time (9.30 PM) — the security guard at the first gate called the warden of the hostel and the warden permitted them to enter. One of the students decided to rest / have her own time alone and so the other student proceeded alone to the second gate. The security at the second gate was already notified from the first gate that two students are coming in. When they noticed that only one student is coming, they mentioned this to the Registrar who was taking an evening walk near the gate.  He immediately ordered a search for the female student. When five security men with high beam torches came near, the student was surprised and she asked what the problem was.  The security men told her that the Registrar wanted to see her.  They walked to the Registrar and questioned her in front of the five security men. She felt that she is being intimidated by six men and so she raised her voice. The next day, the administration, aided by some students, spread the rumor that the student was lying unconscious and was heavily drunk. But the security men then confirmed that when they found her she was not unconscious and had walked half a kilometer with them easily.  She filed a sexual harassment complaint against the Registrar for intimidating and spreading rumors against her. The next week these two students were served show-cause notices asking them to show reason why they should not be expelled.

By this time, the student community had become agitated not mainly just because of this issue, but rather out of accumulated anger and disappointment. Some of the faculty pointed out that there should be some procedure before serving such notices and faculty should be consulted before taking such drastic actions.  The Director then appointed a committee which included members who were already biased against these two students.  Some of us deposed before the committee and told the members that this issue was precipitated by the moral policing-obsession of the authorities on the campus. Before the committee took any decision, three faculty members (who supported the students) were dismissed without any reason being cited!  Two of them were temporary faculty and the other was a permanent UGC faculty under probation.  It is interesting to note that two of them were part of the sexual harassment committee which would have examined the student’s complaint!

Then a group of faculty members, including me, demanded an explanation from the Dean; he claimed to have nothing to do with this and that this was the sole decision of the Director.  When we contacted the Director, he lectured to us for half an hour over through phone.  He began with these words: “I am very angry with all of you (which means ‘don’t you know you have the responsibility of making me always happy?’).  What do you think of yourself (hum.. when did start thinking that you have rights and you can make complaints) …..  I will shut down the campus if anything further happens… (I am running the shop and I will shut down it whenever I want).”  He also mentioned that if these teachers want revolution why they don’t go to villages!!! (Until that point I did not know that the Director is a Mao-sympathizer!) He warned that if any existing faculty, temporary or permanent, try to support the dismissed faculty, they too will face similar disciplinary actions.

In this conversation the Director also mentioned about the sexual harassment complaint.  He said that it was fabricated and that he knew it to be the handwork of faculty. If he knews all about it, then surely the question is whether the sexual harassment committee at TISS Mumbai forwarded the complaint to the TISS Director! In that case, this would go against the norms prescribed by the Supreme Court in the Visakha judgment. No wonder the complaint of the student was dismissed by the committee!

When the students started an online campaign for re-instating the teachers the Director sent threatening emails to them individually and informed the parents about their children’s ‘revolutionary’ activities.   At this point reputed scholars like Dr. Gopal Guru intervened and the three teachers were re-instated not at Tuljapur campus but at Mumbai campus. The two students were rusticated from the campus and were not allowed to attend the classes, but were allowed to write the examinations  Eighteen other students who were in the above mentioned group was compelled to write apology letters.
The moral of the story:

1.    The TISS director can unilaterally suspend, transfer or dismiss any employee or student at any time without showing any reason.

2.     The faculty of TISS are not able to or not bold enough to organize or protest in any manner. I have to say that most of the senior faculty at TISS who claims they are Marxist, feminist or champions of democracy and social justice did not utter a single word when all these were happening at Tuljapur.

3.    At present the Director of TISS may be an exception (or may not be) but from what we see in Delhi University and Jamia Milia it is evident that democracy, transparency or justice is not anymore the concerns of the university administration.

Sunandan KN is a post-doctoral fellow at German historical institute, London. He is based in New Delhi