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Unaesthetic tussle

The JNU professor whom the administration wants to teach a lesson talks about her research on museums and being honoured with the Infosys Prize

In July 2017, Professor Kavita Singh became the Dean of the School of Arts & Aesthetics (SAA) of Jawaharlal Nehru University. An art historian, she is known for her work as a scholar of medieval miniatures.

Singh was removed as the dean of SAA in March 2018 for not following attendance norms. Seven deans/chairpersons faced the same fate. The action was heavily criticised by the students of JNU and led to several protests and a lockdown on the JNU campus.

During the 144th Academic Council meeting (held on December 1, 2017) the administration claimed that a new attendance policy was passed.

Kavita Singh wrote on a news media website that “the Lower House in JNU’s decision-making pyramid did not discuss, let alone approve, an attendance policy for the university’s students. I know it because I was there.” She goes on to say, “the meeting of the Upper House or Executive Council in which the administration says the policy was approved, was cancelled the day it was meant to take place.”

(This piece was written before the case was accepted in the High Court. As the matter is sub judice now, Kavita Singh did not respond to Patriot’s request for a comment on the attendance policy).

“During the Academic Council meetings, she was agitated, because the decisions were taken unilaterally by the VC and his chamchas. The democratic state was not given to her or any other left-leaning professors on campus,” says Nisam Asaf, a student who is completing his PhD in Cinema Studies from JNU.

Because there are students who also come to JNU to do their PhD, the attendance policy faced severe backlash for being illogical. “Mostly all the students are in the field for research, it was impossible to obey the attendance,” says Asaf.

According to Asaf, Professor Singh was vocal about this issue in the Academic Council meetings, and strongly opposed it. “She was heckled in the meeting when she raised this concern, she was told to shut up by the VC. They tried to physically stop her from speaking. This just didn’t happen with her only, but others too,” says Nisam Asaf.

Students were getting to know all the developments through a standard democratic policy that the university follows.

As the attendance policy was not taken back, classes were happening outside the building of SAA, and when the new dean came, students did not let him enter the premises of the building.

So much so, that the vivas for MPhil and PhD admissions happened in the Administrative Block.

A petition, ‘Kavita Singh and Others Versus JNU’ was presented in April 2018 for hearing to the High Court of Delhi.

The JNUTA (the teacher’s association) had a meeting in which 300 teachers came up with a resolution which was passed unanimously, that this removal is not accepted.

Kavita Singh, was reinstated as directed by the High Court on April 27, 2018. Today, the case is still in the court.

In the second hearing on the case held on October 29, another date was given for March 2019. According to Amrit Raj, an MPhil student, “the judge said that just on the basis of attendance, the administration cannot take action against a student.”

“Currently, we are not signing any attendance, the administration is targeting the Dean because she’s the main petitioner. If she wants to go outside for a conference or needs some leave, she’s not getting it,”
says Raj. So the tussle continues.

Patriot spoke to Kavita Singh, about receiving the Infosys Prize for her study on the Mughal, Rajput and Deccan arts as well as her writing on the historical function of museums and their significance

Journey as an art historian
As an art historian, I work in two distinct areas. First, history of Indian paintings, wherein one also starts being interested in social history and architecture.

For my PhD I worked on folk paintings, I chose it because I wanted to see art functioning in its social context. While I was doing my research I realised that museums are our social context for art.

When I finished my PhD in 1996, the history of the museums had been a major focus for me. After my doctorate, I tried to understand how we the urban middle class encounter art.

I was also interested in the politics of museums. Museums are places where we represent certain aspects of our culture and not just places which preserve objects in an even-handed uniform manner.

So, there is a connection between democracy and the museum. It’s only when we start having ideas about democracy in society, that the necessity for nationalising collections as something belonging to the people arises. Then revolutions — the Louvre is a palace which was turned into a museum.

On the Infosys Prize
It’s a very prestigious award, now in its 10th year. Infosys set this up with the ambition to encourage academic work, which is a laudable intention. They’ve also put in place a process of selection through jury, which is composed of people with very high credentials. That adds to the honour of the award.

Your reaction on the award
I was completely surprised and very delighted. My peers in the university have been very thrilled and there’s been an outpouring of warmth and congratulations. For a lot of us who have been struggling through a very difficult phase in the history of JNU, many of them have rightly taken it as a recognition of not just one individual, but of the university as a whole.

If I had worked in any other institution where we had a regimented system, wherein someone sitting in some central committee had developed a syllabus and told me to exactly teach those topics in this way, I would have had a very different academic life. Here we have the capacity to develop a syllabus and to continuously revise it, so that we’re making courses that are in keeping with new ways of thinking and latest research.

Administration versus faculty members
Until now JNU had a structure premised on the idea that those who are the faculty in the university have knowledge and expertise in their areas, which should give direction to the university’s functioning.

When we develop new courses, we present them to our Board of Studies and our peers and then it goes to the Academic Council. The creativity, the intellectual commitment of the faculty, is the driving force behind the way the university has functioned. This is how we have functioned and it has served us well. JNU has done so well in all the national rankings.

Now, unfortunately, we are in a situation where our administration does not value this consultative process. Instead, there is a top-down approach, and it is dictating many-many academic elements.

When we try to make our voices heard, we are not heard. We have a lot of issues to do with funds. I understand this is not unique to our university. But since the winding up of the Planning Commission, there’s a huge crisis in terms of funds.

We’re told that there’s no predictability about what the funds are, we just keep hearing that the money hasn’t come.

Concerns about the library
The library is a very big concern for us, it should be too for universities all over the country because the UGC (University Grants Commission) used to subscribe to a basket of journals on behalf of universities all over the country. Until now I’m hearing that they’re not going to renew it, the subscription will be over at the end of December. That will be the death of research — not just for JNU, but for all universities.