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Moving the goalpost

Last updated on April 20, 2019

The appointment of the first ever woman VC in Jamia Milia Islamia is a positive step in the direction of women empowerment. So who exactly is Najma Akhtar?

Soon after her appointment as Vice Chancellor (VC) of Jamia Milia Islamia, Najma Akhtar said that she was against the very existence of a glass ceiling. She said, “My aim was not to break the glass ceiling but I was definitely against it. Why is it even there, if you hold the same educational qualifications and experience?”

Her appointment is definitely a ground-breaking development in the field of academics, where women still remain severely under-represented in leadership roles. According to another report, less than 20 women hold the position of VC among the 700-odd institutions in India, both public and private. In such a situation, this development comes as a welcome decision.

This is a historical moment: After 90 years of its inception in 1920, Jamia Milia Islamia appointed a woman as its VC for the first time in the year 2019, just one year before its centenary. Not just that, Akhtar, also is the first woman to hold the post of VC in any central university of Delhi, including Delhi University and JNU.

She was previously head of the department of the educational administration at National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA). A gold medallist from Aligarh Muslim University, she went on to become the Controller of Examination and Director of Academic Programmes at her alma mater, under the vice-chancellorship of MN Farooqi during 1990-94. According to her profile on NIEPA, she is also the founder and Director of State Institute of Educational Management and Training (SIEMAT) in Uttar Pradesh.

Akhtar’s tenure at AMU remained especially controversial and also became a hot topic on social media after her appointment at Jamia, despite it being decades earlier. A message forwarded by AMUSU President during her tenure, SM Sarwar Hussain, accusing her of “institutionalized corruption” also alleged her of assaulting teachers and thrashing student leaders.

Mohammad Allam, current Vice President of AMUSTA (AMU School Teachers Association) and a student of the Department of History during the tenure of Najma Akhtar, says, “During her tenure at Aligarh, student politics in the university was extremely volatile. If you read MN Farooqi’s book, you will know.”

Farooqi, the then VC of AMU who had appointed Akhtar, had written a book titled My Days at Aligarh, which is considered to be an expose of the rot in the student politics of the time.

Allam adds, “Admission lists would come multiple times to the office and get torn before it could even be displayed. In such a case, it was difficult for anybody to run the administration. She was a very able lady to be able to run the university, despite the ongoing stir. She refused to succumb to the anarchy for long, but ultimately gave in and resigned.”

He further says, “We were just students, observing her from afar and all we knew was from the uproar every now and then.”

MN Farooqi was the VC from 1990-94, quitting one year before his term ended. His entire tenure was marked by turbulence — communal riots in 1991, Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and a bold statement — “Refer the matter to United Nations Organisation” that got him in trouble. The year 1993 was marked by students’ uprising and in 1994, he quit prematurely.

Khursheed Anwar, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering during the AMU tenure of Akhtar and her colleague say that she had a “divisive” nature. “During her tenure, several charges were levelled on Akhtar for irregularities in admissions. It was a murky time.”

Akhtar was promoted from a clerk post (Lower Division Clerk, then Upper) straightaway to the post of Controller of Examination. According to Anwar, this was a cause of debate on whether it was an “improper” appointment.

Talking about women empowerment, he says, “Appointment of the right women is important for woman empowerment, otherwise it will just be a setback for the university.” Anwar is now a senior professor in the Department of Civil Engineering in AMU.

In an interview with India Today in 1993, MN Farooqi had accepted that he appointed Najma Akhtar despite her being ineligible for the post. Despite her not having the requisite experience required to hold the post, the VC had immense faith in her abilities and deemed her fit for the role.

After quitting AMU and before coming to Jamia, Akhtar spent 15 years working at NIEPA, where she was regarded highly by students and teachers. A research-focused university, it was set up by the Ministry for Human Resource Development and is headed by the minister, Prakash Javdekar in the outgoing cabinet. After her appointment at Jamia, she had a meeting with Javdekar, soliciting his and the Government of India’s support for filling up vacant posts in various departments of the university and introducing new, employment-oriented courses.

At NIEPA, she taught Administration and Management paper to PhD level students. Ajay Chaubey, a student of Najma Akhtar at NIEPA says, “Ma’am was full of democratic values and very friendly, although she never spoke too much. She really helped some students who were underperforming to get better, instead of just failing them. Her approach here was administrative, yet student-centric.” Chaubey was a research scholar at NIEPA who finished his PhD on Dynamics of Social Exclusion in schools and community in the year 2018. Akhtar herself has a PhD in the subject of Education from Kurukshetra University.

On April 17, Akhtar met Chancellor Najma Heptullah, who also happens to be the first woman chancellor of the university. Taking note of the fact that now both the top positions in the university are being held by two distinguished ladies, she said that this would encourage women empowerment and leadership in the fields of academics and otherwise. The Chancellor spoke about the academic and administrative experience of Prof Akhtar and hoped that under her leadership JMI will achieve many laurels.

Despite her fruitful meetings with the HRD minister and Chancellor of the university, her meeting with controversial RSS leader Indresh Kumar remains a sore issue for many.

A message accusing her of “saffronisation of education” and claiming to expose the nexus between her and the Sangh, referring to the Hindutva ideology of the RSS, started doing rounds on social media immediately after photos of her with Kumar were uploaded.

Talking about that, Mohammad Allam adds, “Building alliances with the right people today is very important. You can’t function without that.”

A previous student of Akhtar at NIEPA said, “It is understandable that she met with him since she was with NIEPA and it is very common to have interaction with central leaders. After all, RSS is also an ideology which exists — how can one dismiss it? Jamia and the student community must allow her to engage with all sorts of ideologies.”

Dismissing the flak that Akhtar received on social media due to her meeting with Indresh Kumar, he says, “All this will not affect her work. If anything, her meeting with me only makes her look more disciplined, patriotic and secular to people.”

He adds, “Everybody says BJP-RSS is taking over but nobody wants to engage, understand and critique it constructively. A university head must be trans ideological, engaging with different types of ideologies.”

During her tenure, Akhtar has expressed the desire to set up a medical college in the university. Talat Ahmad, who was succeeded by Akhtar also had ambitious plans when he assumed the post of setting up a medical college, but no progress was made on this. According to a report, she also said that the pros and cons behind the absence of a student union in Jamia must be revisited. To initiate talks on the union of a university, which hasn’t had a union since 2005, is a welcome change.

From the minority status of the university being questioned repeatedly and student politics being on a long halt to the recent case of sexual harassment in its fine arts department awaiting a decision by the VC, Jamia has a lot to deal with. “It is a big responsibility and I’ll try to live up to the expectations of the Jamia fraternity,” Akhtar had said on the day she assumed office.

Her tenure at AMU and meeting with Indresh Kumar, possibly seeking his “blessings”, landed her in controversy in the very first few days of her tenure. The burden now rests on the Jamia community to give her a fresh chance to prove herself.  Not least because she is the first woman in the post.