By Sarath Sasikumar & Georgekutty M V:
Since the beginning of the winter semester, 2018, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice Chancellor, Jagadesh Kumar imposed an illegal and unilateral decision to implement the policy of compulsory attendance for students. The overwhelming majority of students and teachers in JNU rejected this policy and abstained from signing registers and teachers resisting intimidation and coercion from the administration. This article is trying to point out the problems and effects of the implementation of compulsory attendance in Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the first part, the consequences of the implementation of compulsory attendance on students are elaborated, which contains two sections; one, the B.A & M.A students and second, Research Scholars. In the second part, the different and conflicting opinions existing among the teachers, apart from opposing/supporting binary on the issue of compulsory attendance, is traced.
The victims of the present decision can be broadly divided into two- the first is the BA&MA students who are asked to ensure their physical presence in their classes and the second is the research scholars who are asked to come to their respective centre’s/schools and sign in a sheet of paper without any purpose. To the first section, the present decision has raised a question on their free choice to decide which classes are to be attended and which classes can be skipped. It wrongly presupposes that involuntary physical presence of a student in the classroom ensures better academic achievements. In a university atmosphere like that of JNU, skipping a class need not necessarily mean that the student is wasting his time on some unproductive activity. B.A & M.A students use the wider exposure that they get in a space like JNU by attending conferences, seminars, public meetings, discussions etc, conducted by different centre’s, students’ organizations, discussion groups etc. For that, sometimes they may skip some classes if they think that won’t affect their overall academic achievement of that semester badly. There is no situation of students completely keeping themselves away from the requirements of courses they attend, as already there are mechanisms to ensure their participation. The skipping of certain classes is to be seen as a conscious decision that a student makes, where he thinks he can do better things than merely ensuring his physical presence in a classroom.
Along with this, the policy that the JNU administration is trying to force upon students is also based upon the assumption that the onus of falling attendance, if any, is to be squarely placed on the learner. It overlooks the role of teacher, the importance of a rich and attractive syllabus, the relevance of innovative classroom activities etc in attracting the students. The whole system, especially the course instructor, is supposed to make such an atmosphere which will attract the students to the classroom and make them attend lectures; participate in classroom discussions and other activities. This fact is completely overlooked and it is assumed that everything is perfect with the system and you need to just force the learner to be physically present for the lectures. This is a very superficial understanding of the learning process and the attempt is to destroy a better system, where JNU teachers sometimes have classes with students flowing in from other centres or even from outside JNU thanks to their intellectual attractiveness, with a system of coercion, mechanical style of delivering lectures and involuntary attendance by the students. It is interesting and relevant to note that the voluntary attendance system that had been working well in JNU for decades had been acting itself as a system of feedback for the course instructor and for the centre which offers the courses. The teachers could improve themselves by taking the turnout they could ensure in their classes, as a scale for their own performances.
Again, a case of falling attendance, if any, is also linked with the larger socio-economic cultural milieu to which the student belongs to. Discrimination based on social identities, economic deprivation, exclusive nature of the academic spaces etc can lead to failure of learners in adjusting to the system. The Sangh-appointed policymakers of JNU are not only blind, but also antagonistic towards any discourse that brings these conditions to light. The Abdul Nafey Committee report which suggested a reduction of weightage of viva-voce was rejected, 100% viva was introduced in the entrance exam, deprivation points and constitutionally guaranteed reservation system have been sabotaged, GSCASH was dismantled, no step for timely revision of fellowship amounts and it’s time-bound disbursal is being considered. The university atmosphere is becoming more and more hostile to the socially marginalized and economically deprived students. The cultural regimentation of Hindutva also criminalizes their self-assertion. Thus, at a time when important questions regarding making university spaces more inclusive are being deliberated, all such questions are being set aside and further pressure is being put on the students in the form of compulsory attendance. Thus the attendance system that is being forced upon JNU student community now is an additional blow to the students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Genuine socio-economic-cultural reasons for their possible disharmony with the present educational system will never be addressed and they will be criminalized and thrown out with the help of the new draconian provision.
Now let us come to the case of the second section- the research scholars. Research comprises of a variety of activities such as visiting libraries and archives, attending conferences, doing fieldwork, conducting interviews etc. This needs greater freedom to use one’s time according to one’s priorities and even to travel freely. There is a supervisor to guide the researcher, faculty committees to evaluate the work from time to time and also mechanisms to ensure that the work is completed in reasonable time limit. Thus a greater amount of freedom is not only desirable, but also inevitable for researchers, the present decision to force them to come to the centre office and sign everyday without any purpose, envisage research in the most bizarre manner. It is further ordered that the researchers will have to take prior permission from the ‘competent authority’, if they have to travel as part of their research. Who is the competent authority is yet to be defined, but what is clear that the research scholars will have to go through a rigorous bureaucratic procedure which will have counterproductive impact on their research. It also creates the problem of development of multiple power-centres upon the research scholar. For example, if the scholar would like to conduct fieldwork for his research, even after getting approval from his supervisor, the actual conduct of the fieldwork will also be dependent upon the permission provided by ‘the competent authority’. Paper presentations, fieldworks and other academic engagements that go against the vested interests of those in power can be kept under constant surveillance and can be stopped when they want to stop it.
The debate on the implementation of compulsory attendance system in JNU visibly created a binary rift between the teachers, the supporting and the opposing groups. Apart from this support/oppose binary, when we analyse this little more closely we can see more nuanced stances existing among the teachers. Below, an attempt has been made to trace the layers of opinions existing among different sections of teachers with respect to the implementation of compulsory attendance system.
The first section of teachers clearly opposes it due to the conviction that this unilateral imposition will never enhance learning, rather it will produce a counter-productive bureaucratization and regimentisation of education which will lead to climate of intimidation and fear. They believe that voluntarism is the only guarantee for excellence in education and that can be achieved only through accepting the idea of responsible freedom. They believe that learning is a two way process that challenges both student and teacher, forcing them to continuously update their knowledge as the process of learning and unlearning goes hand in glove. This section also believes that classroom is a site of experiment, of creativity and new thinking where ideas and concepts are born and debated. This section will be academically strong, believes in a healthy cooperative teacher-student relationship, and thinks that the use of power destroys ideas and creates unproductive classrooms. This section believes that compulsory attendance is a farce which creates suspicion and surveillance.
The second section of teachers clearly accept compulsory attendance as a positive step to enhance learning, as they think that it as a tool to discipline the students, and believe that routinisation and compulsory presence in the classes will fetch more marks. This section is the representative of the dominant pedagogy and style of education followed in our schools, colleges and universities. They are merely, implicitly reflecting/reproducing the dominant social conditioned norms in the society. This section also enjoys power and dominance over the students, which they think will automatically produce respect for him/her among the students.
The third section is related with first and second section but a different category. They will be academically strong and will be adamant about attendance as they believe that it would help the students, as to them the loss of one class will ruin the continuity of lectures. They believe in noting down the presence and absence of students in the class and make it a point by telling the student in the next class not to leave the lectures. They are at times hardworking, academically efficient, genuine, student-centric teachers. Hence they are concerned when a student misses the class. But they are also implicitly reproducing the norms and values of the society and justify it by saying that after all some form of attendance will benefit the students.
The fourth section of teachers are the ones whose classes will remain empty if the students get the option to take the course voluntarily. They may be from the right wing, who are weak in academics and quality education. They implicitly enjoy the ‘respect’ which is obtained from the students through the act of intimidation and often creating fear among the students. They are also carrying the behaviours of the second category, are adamant in teaching the students discipline, never entertain counter-questioning of the teachers, believe in the values and norms of society which kills the creativity and responsibility among the students. The JNU VC himself is a classic example of the fourth section of teachers with his recent handpicked appointments in various centres. In sum total, this section of teachers is ideologically right wing, most often academically poor, and whose lectures are filled with mere rhetoric and lack content. JNU VC is adamant about increasing this category of teachers, by twisting and bypassing all conventions and norms existing in JNU, preparing every possible ground to kill the alternative education style and method of pedagogy practised and developed by the first section of teachers.
The fifth section of teachers are neither academically strong nor ideologically oriented, they are simply irresponsible. They are not bothered about whether students are learning or not, nor have an opinion on whether to implement or not to implement compulsory attendance. They will probably say no to attendance due to the bureaucratic work that they have to undertake, not because they are ideologically opposed to that system. This section is a curse to students and academics. They can easily become prey for the right-wing tendencies and over time, they can become like the fourth section of teachers.
Though binary is a product of the present fascist climate in which it is essential to keep differences and it needs to be channelized through us vs. them categories. The binary produced is undoubtedly between the first section of teachers and other sections combined; the supporting and opposing groups. There is no doubt that JNU stands clearly for that first section of teachers, who undoubtedly stands for counter-hegemonic structure of education and pedagogy, who continuously challenges each other, argues and updates their knowledge, learns and unlearns knowledge through cooperation and healthy interaction, and minimizes the elements of suspicion and surveillance. To be short, it is a battle of two pedagogic visions- one which sees individual freedom and liberty to make choices as integral for a healthy academic atmosphere, and the second which envisage maximum restraints and the curtailment of individual freedom as the means to make students ‘work more’.
The present decision to implement compulsory attendance in JNU can be understood completely, only if it’s less obvious pedagogical dimensions are seen along with the more obvious political dimensions. It marks a retrograde shift in the pedagogical approach that governs the university administration. The pedagogical understanding of university administrators are important in ensuring quality of education, as the structures, norms and practices that they construct as facilitators, seriously affect the overall framework in which the students acquire knowledge or engage themselves in knowledge-production. The present decision was taken without any comprehensive study on the need for amendment in the attendance policy hitherto existed, the possible merits and demerits of the policy and the opinion of various stakeholders of the university. Unfortunately, at the helm of the affairs, we don’t have a well-thinking educationalist, but an RSS-trained, dictator VC who is obsessed with his dreams of regimentation and intimidation. This has made an informed debate impossible and the ongoing almost unanimous mass disobedience from the students inevitable. But as the impact of the decision will have a long-lasting impact on the way in which universities are run in this country, there is an urgent need to link the present struggle with larger questions of pedagogy.
Sarath Sasikumar is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Political Studies, JNU
Georgekutty MV is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Comparative Politics & Political Theory, JNU.