Kolkata: The Delhi high court on Tuesday came down heavily on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for denying professor of English, Udaya Kumar, an extra-ordinary leave (EOL) to join a fellowship programme at the prestigious Nantes Institute of Advanced Study, France.
A single bench of Justice Jyoti Singh of the Delhi high court set aside the JNU executive council’s (EC) order denying Kumar leave and directed the university to sanction it to the professor within three days. It also awarded Rs 20,000 in favour of the professor since he was “constrained to file the petition” due to the “illegal and arbitrary rejection” of his request. The professor was represented by lawyer Abhik Chimni.
Udaya Kumar, a redoubtable scholar and teacher at the Centre for English Studies (CES) at the School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, had, on January 21, 2020, applied for a nine-month EOL (without pay) to join a fellowship programme in France to be held from October 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, at the Nantes Institute of Advanced Study. The Dean of the concerned school and the chairperson of the centre recommended the leave and forwarded the application to the Executive Council (EC).
The EC, in a meeting held on February 18, 2020, rejected the application. Kumar then sent multiple letters and emails to the vice-chancellor and registrar asking for reasons behind the rejection of his leave, stating that he met all criteria for availing the same. After numerous such communications from Kumar, the administration only conveyed to him that no reason was furnished by the EC. More letters and emails followed till July, but the JNU administration refused to cite the grounds on which Kumar was denied the EOL. It is then, that he was forced to move court challenging the EC order.
In its order, the high court said the rejection of Kumar’s application for grant of EOL “is completely arbitrary and against the provisions of the Ordinance of the University and contravenes Wednesbury’s Principles of reasonableness and fairness.” It also found the defence of the university “untenable in law”.
The court added that it was a little amazed at the resistance of the university to grant the leave to Kumar as it would be a matter of great prestige for the university if a professor was offered a fellowship at a prestigious institute.
Kumar in his plea had said that he was eligible for the EOL according to all prescribed rules of the varsity. Besides, the chairperson of the centre and the Dean of the concerned school were of the opinion that the leave was justified and had recommended it only after ensuing that Kumar’s absence would not hamper regular academic activities at the CES in any way.
Not only that, Kumar had also pledged in an online faculty meeting on August 18 that he would continue to teach his course on Conceptual Structures in Language, Literature, Art and Culture online while being abroad and would duly complete course requirements.
Udaya Kumar told The Wire on Wednesday that he was heartened by the Delhi high court’s order. “Our university’s rules have rightly provided for leave for research and for taking up fellowships in reputed institutions, and these are to be administered in a transparent manner with academic considerations and sensitivity. I regard it as a matter of shame that I could not find a resolution to this issue within my university even after persistent attempts, and was left with no option but to seek legal remedies from the court,” he added. He was yet to receive the leave order from the university at the time of filing this story.
It is pertinent to mention here that as former chairperson of CES and as faculty member, Kumar has had many differences with the JNU administration over the last few years. Outside the JNU campus too, he has always taken a definitive stand on issues relating to students’ interest, and has seldom aligned himself with the political Right, which has desperately attempted to make inroads in JNU of late. Recently, he has vociferously opposed the arrest of his former colleague at DU, Hany Babu, by the NIA in the Elgar Parishad case.
The biggest flashpoint in his relationship with the JNU administration was the attendance issue. In December 2017, the university wanted to impose a mandatory 75% attendance on all students. While students erupted in protest, eight deans and chairpersons, including Udaya Kumar, were removed from their posts by the VC when they refused to implement the new rule. Six of them had moved the high court challenging the removal. The final verdict in the case Kavita Singh & Others V. JNU & Others is awaited, but Kumar and five others were reinstated by dint of an interim order.
In the recent petition regarding the fellowship leave, Kumar’s counsel mentioned that the action of the university EC ‘is mala fide and has its genesis in the earlier litigation’ to which Kumar was a party. ‘It is on account of this litigation, which is still pending, that the Petitioner has been deprived of the benefit of EOL, which is his entitlement,’ the petition stated.
The larger JNU academic community has found it unfortunate that a teacher had to move court just to avail a leave he was entitled to.
Professor of linguistics at JNU Ayesha Kidwai thinks the leave application gave JNU administration an opportunity to be particularly vicious with Kumar. “But this is not a singular case. There are at least 125-150 faculty members in JNU who are all being victimised in separate ways. Udaya was punished because he stands for the collective opposition of JNU teachers to the destruction of JNU as a place of learning and as a place where the constitution guarantees education without discrimination on the basis of caste religion or gender. Udaya is an inspirational presence on the campus — courteous, reasoned, but firm. In every aspect of the discharge of his duties as a teacher, supervisor, member of academic bodies and chairperson, he does only what is fair, transparent and adhering to the highest academic standards,” she told The Wire.
Another senior professor, who didn’t want to be named, said, “In his former position of CES chairperson, Udaya had had frequent dealings with the administration and seen numerous instances of arbitrary and unwise decisions as well as starkly illegal ones. In such circumstances, there was no ethical option but to raise one’s voice.”
“As far as special leaves are concerned, such permissions have been denied to so many professors. In some cases, leave has been granted well after it was possible for them to go. And this has been done to faculty members who have never had clashes with the administration, but are just perceived as being unsympathetic,” the professor added.
Professor of arts and aesthetics at JNU Kavita Singh, too, faced a similar ordeal in the past. She had applied for an extra-ordinary leave to join a fellowship at the Getty Research Institute in California followed by a distinguished visiting professorship at the department of art history at the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. but the EC sat on her application for five months and then rejected it. When she reapplied, she met with a similar response. She then moved the high court and, in February, 2019, her leave was granted only after a court order.
On Wednesday, she told The Wire that discouraging a faculty member from taking up research opportunities was a mode of self-harm for a university.
“The occasional break to take up a fellowship becomes a lifeline that keeps our research careers afloat. We get time to think and write. They can open entirely new possibilities for us and enhance the visibility of our work. Then there are the great benefits of being exposed to different perspectives and long-lasting connections that may benefit our academic pursuits. Every university will have provisions for faculty to go on sabbatical and to take up fellowships and visiting positions elsewhere for its own benefit. Apart from the loftier goal of supporting knowledge-creation, these also count towards the metrics by which universities are ranked,” Singh said.
Indradeep Bhattacharyya teaches literature and is a former journalist based in Kolkata.