Campus rumpus

Sending former security officers, civil servants to head institutions like Jamia conveys the wrong message.

Academic fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low, goes the saying. But the discontent over high-level appointments to Muslim-focused institutions like Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) involves the important question of whether it takes a special kind of person to head them. Rather than persons of academic excellence or experience, the job often goes to former civil servants, police and armymen with a reputation for bringing order to unruly places. The Jamia teachers union has written to the prime minister, asking for its new vice chancellor to come from an academic background, as specified in UGC guidelines.

Jamia has lacked a vice chancellor ever since its former VC, Najeeb Jung, took over as the lieutenant governor of Delhi. The frontrunners for the job come from a predictable roster of civil servants and men in uniform, the same small pool of establishment Muslims who troop through elevated positions in government, for reasons of symbolism as much as substance. A more telling instance is AMU, where the vice chancellor is a former deputy chief of the Indian army, brought in straight from the Armed Forces Tribunal, Lieutenant General (retired) Zameeruddin Shah. Shah's pro vice chancellor is also an army man, Brigadier (retired) Syed Ahmad Ali, and both clearly see their task as one of disciplining the institution into shape, after a phase of violence and turbulence on campus.

The point is not that these individuals lack the capacity to helm these institutions a VC's role is largely about competent institutional leadership, and sensitivity for academic concerns is more important than a stellar research resume. However, there is no denying the unseemliness of appointing people who represent the power of the state to head Muslim-dominated institutions of higher learning. Consider the idea of such appointments being made to other prestigious Central universities, like Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University, to deal with student unions or difficult faculties. Why should Jamia or AMU be seen through a different prism? The search committees of these universities should ponder the optics of their decisions more seriously.

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