By Towfeeq Wani:
When the President of India appointed Prof. Talat Ahmed as the Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia in April 2014, it came as a surprise to everyone associated or well acquainted with the recent history of Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI), for more than one reason.
Even though Talat Ahmed’s name was never mentioned among the ones that were doing rounds after Najeeb Jung was appointed the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi although, his tenure at Kashmir University was officially extended for three years in February 2014, it was widely hailed and welcomed in academic circles and JMI itself.
The fact that it isn’t everyday that an academician is appointed as the Vice Chancellor of JMI or Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was more surprising than anything else in the move. Unlike other central universities of the country, these two institutions have mostly seen non-academicians as their heads since 1980. From the time JMI became a Central University in 1988, it has had six VCs, of whom three, belonged to either the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) or the Army, with Lt. Gen (Retd) M.A. Zaki belonging to the latter and Mr. Shahid Mahdi and Mr. Najeeb Jung belonging to the former. It isn’t, thus, surprising that the teachers of JMI were pressing for an academician to lead them.
This isn’t the whole picture though. The circumstances under which Mr. Talat took over the post were much more complicated. The rift between the teachers and the previous VC, which was Mr. Jung, can be understood by the letter that the then-President of Jamia Teachers’ Association, Professor M. S. Bhat wrote to Pranab Mukherjee on the issue of conferring an honorary degree on Mr. Jung. The degree was being conferred on him after he had vacated the office of the Vice Chancellor on being appointed Lt. Governor.
The Association president wrote , “In our opinion, conferring this degree on a person who has not made any exceptional contribution to public or academic life will lower the prestige of the honorary degree. Moreover, awarding it to a person who has just relinquished the office of Vice Chancellor is bound to breed suspicion in the eyes of the public.”
In August 2015, I reported here that the Jamia Students Union was last banned in 2006, and Mr. Najeeb Jung not only upheld that, but also significantly curtailed other rights of the students. Even when any means of communication between students and the administration were absent apart from the undemocratically elected Subject Associations, the elected Teachers’ Association openly expressed their mistrust by accusing him of “just relinquishing” the office of Vice Chancellor and having made no “exceptional contribution to academic life”.
In this scenario, the appointment of a renowned Earth scientist who has had the exceptional distinction of being a Fellow of all the science academies of the country and had previously served as a Vice Chancellor and a professor of Geology was more than just welcomed. Many saw it as the dawn of a new era for the institution. The identification parade at the university gates was eased, the promise of holding an election of the students’ union was made and many new courses were introduced. The trenches were being filled and bridges were being built. At least, that was the idea.
However, the worries of the new VC have just begun.
In March 2015, NAAC gave JMI an ‘A’ grade after a team from the same, visited the varsity from February 17-22, 2015. Many months later, an RTI query revealed that the university spent over Rs 26 lakh arranging a ‘regal treatment’ for this team which included a lunch, the advance of which alone was Rs 1.75 lakh, and 16 rooms (Rs 7,000 for a night) and a suite (Rs 14,000) booked at a top hotel in the city. Rs 1.93 lakh was also spent on over 80 cars hired for the team members.
Even though the administration maintained that the money was not spent to ‘influence’ the team and that the hotels were booked because the university guest house was being renovated at that time, questions about the necessity of such a huge expenditure were raised from every corner.
Another RTI in January 2016 revealed that the JMI administration had allocated a whopping Rs 1.5 crore for renovation of the Vice Chancellor’s office even when Rs 4.8 lakh was spent on the office’s renovation during the previous VC’s tenure and Rs 54.8 lakh was spent on refurbishing during the tenure of Mushir-ul-Hassan before that, prompting activists to seek the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) intervention in the issue.
In another, somehow linked, incident, a JMI professor who wrote to President Pranab Mukherjee, alleging financial and administrative irregularities in the university and opposed a decision to have 5 percent reservation for wards of employees, was suspended for 90 days in February 2016 on charges of ‘misconduct’.
In his complaint filed with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) in August 2014 and July 2015, the professor had mentioned the alleged abolition of the SC/ST quota in faculty and staff employment, the ‘arbitrary’ introduction of a supernumerary quota in admissions for the wards of university staff and the absence of a regular registrar and finance officer in the university, among other issues.
In April this year, the Delhi High Court ordered the UGC to look into the complaints of the professor mentioned above, after which the concerned Ministry sought a response from university Vice Chancellor, Mr. Talat Ahmad, on allegations of administrative irregularities. The same court, in its judgment on February 29, had directed the HRD Ministry, UGC and JMI to forward complaints and representation sent by the professor, along with their comments and recommendations, to the President.
Accordingly, the ministry sought Ahmad’s response, which was then forwarded to the UGC for comments.
At this point of time, Professor Ahmad told Indian Express, “The professor who has made the allegations was suspended two months ago and obviously has an axe to grind.”
Summing up all the issues, the HRD Ministry had sought the President’s approval to launch a ‘Visitorial Inquiry’ and the government has recommended that UGC conduct a probe into at least five charges, including wasteful expenditure on the NAAC visit, arbitrary introduction of a supernumerary quota in admissions for wards of university staff and misuse of government accommodation.
Mr. Talat will become the fifth Central University Vice Chancellor to come under the NDA government’s scanner since it took charge in 2014, if President Mukherjee, who is also the Visitor of all central universities, allows a probe into the matter.
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