Millennium Post

Kapil Sibal Underground

‘Politicisation of the Academia’ is the red-alert phrase that has been coming up time and again in last week’s media directed discourse on Delhi University’s abominable FYUP. Any talk of politicisation frightens the middle class stakeholder like little else. It also helps in short-circuiting debates and making every opinion appear shallow or motivated. But in the case of DU, those who are decrying politicisation in the wake of the government’s decision to scrap the FYUP and go for the vice chancellor’s jugular seem to believe that all that was allowed to happen in the previous UPA regime was squeaky clean and free of any political agenda. They are conveniently ignoring the fact that almost all parties and groups that have sat in opposition in the last five years, ranging from the extreme Left to the Right, have welcomed the current government’s decisive move against the farcical reform of undergraduate studies in DU.

Regular images of dharnas, protest marches, strikes and violent burnings of effigies in university campuses are the staple of a modern historian’s archive; yet these are disconcerting for a public that has been persuaded to think of education as a sanitised pursuit of global happiness. The sixties fomented some of the most effervescent and radical upsurges in university campuses across the world. These movements spawned new forms of political and civil awareness but also helped to redefine academic enquiry and knowledge. Neoliberal intervention in the last few decades has significantly blunted the impact of the sixties and has helped popularise a new sense of managerial autonomy, replacing the older intellectual and academic autonomy, for universities. As a result, it is commonsensical to think of universities as incubation centres for a global knowledge economy, wherein politics should have no role. But neoliberalism has to be read between the lines. Its interest is not limited to curricula and syllabi. It is a comprehensive strategy to overhaul resource management and redefine institutions. It looks closely at every inch of free space within the university campus and tries to create a commercial spin-off out of it. While keeping away from any recognisable micro-political process, it undertakes to accomplish a macro-political agenda. Delhi University’s makeover in the Sibal era is a textbook example of this all-too-subtle intervention.
Of abiding interest is the fact that while there has been a widespread questioning of the previous HRD ministry’s role in guiding the DU vice chancellor’s hand in taking academically destructive decisions, Kapil Sibal has made no consequential public statement so far.

His name has cropped up on numerous occasions – as the architect of recent ‘reforms’ in the education sector – yet, his catalytic role in bringing about the mess in DU remains unclear. Cleverly enough, perhaps, Sibal intends this debate to remain focussed on the University’s so-called autonomy versus the politicisation of stakeholders’ interest. Had a deeper reckoning been occasioned in the public sphere, the Pandora’s box of political management vis-a-vis Delhi University may have been unlocked.

Take the ousted South Campus Security Officer’s testimony, for instance. He wrote to the DUTA president early this year, detailing the manner in which the South Campus director, a high official in the DU administration, had been overseeing the felling of trees for commercial purposes in an area within the campus that comes under the reserve forest cover. Despite the Forest Department’s warning, the felling spree was allowed to continue unchecked.

Then, there is the allegation of illegal quartzite mining going on in the ARSD college compound which lies squarely on the spurs of the Aravalli ranges. A leading national daily published a report and the social media was briefly flooded with photographs of rare blue and pink stones being quarried from rocks situated within the college. This too, was not inquired into. The Dyal Singh college principal wrote off a piece of the college compound to the Delhi Metro Corporation for its use without consulting the staff council.

And yes, there is more. The VC used his brute majority in the executive council to block any investigation into the CWG scam related to the games-infrastructure created within the University. He did not seek permission from any statutory body before hiring a whole train (Gyanoday Express) for the University-sponsored educational trips for semester programme students. He chose to unilaterally divert more than 172 crore rupees from the recurring OBC grants (meant for general infrastructural expansion and upgradation) for the purchase of laptops meant exclusively for FYUP students. He also knocked off a fairly large sum from the OBC grant to stage a festival for the promotion of FYUP, the Antardhvani.  None of these financial decisions were made known to the members of the statutory bodies. A string of RTIs had to be filed in order to get these interesting nuggets of information about the expansive range of political decisions that the University has made in the previous government’s tenure.

It is a well-known fact that Dinesh Singh was attached to the apron strings of Kapil Sibal while he was given the free reign to wreak destruction in Delhi University. Yet, few people raised the issue of politicisation back then. The edifice of undergraduate education in DU was hurriedly brought down and replaced with a substandard, commercialised array of courses to suit the interests of equally third-rate American universities and the numerous private universities that have mushroomed in the former minister’s tenure. Insiders in UGC and MHRD know that none of this could have happened without politicking in high places. Yet, the bogey of politicisation is being raised even as the new government has felt pressurised enough to respond to a genuine movement of students and teachers against these sham ‘reforms’.

To give the devil his due, Kapil Sibal has chosen the right time to go underground. One important aspect of the DUTA-led movement in Delhi University is the demand for a comprehensive inquiry into the vice chancellor’s financial and administrative misdeeds. His removal is being sought in order to pave the way for an impartial probe into the decisions that have currently brought the University to its knees. No university can be expected to function in a normal way unless special efforts are undertaken to restore justice and accountability in it. As Sibal knows well, any move to open a multi-pronged probe against the VC and his team of officials will also implicate the previous ministry and its chief. Hence, his silence is deliberate.

But the hallmark of a consummate politician lies in being able to have the cake and eat it too! Kapil Sibal’s biggest accomplishment in this regard has been to keep the FYUP safely away from the National Education Policy. This way, his government had not only saved time but had also freed itself from the obligation of earmarking funds or committing additional infrastructure and teaching-posts for its illegitimate offspring. While this became a factor in the simmering discontent among teachers in Delhi University, the vice chancellor is now being held solely responsible for not seeking approval or aid from the government. His Faustian bargain has benefitted Sibal more than he could have imagined. Had the new government not intervened, Sibal’s baby would have been forced to get onto its feet without an extra penny being officially spent on it. Today, Dinesh Singh can be pilloried and put in the dock for overlooking infrastructural needs, but Kapil Sibal cannot be held directly responsible.

Even so, Kapil Sibal faces grave danger. Dinesh Singh as vice chancellor is bound to continue groaning under the yoke of his master’s sharp practice. But if Dinesh Singh is allowed to resign, the entire gamut of irregularities in his tenure may be open to scrutiny. Hence, Dinesh Singh’s resignation has been conveniently put into the backburner for now. For how long, though?
Popular movements have a logic and momentum of their own. They are powerful because rather than focussing on one narrow aspect, they feed off all related discontent and begin to incorporate many dimensions of the problem that have not drawn attention before. For Sibal and his spin-doctors, FYUP may just be the tip of the iceberg that is DU. If the movement is allowed to run its course they may be in for a long haul.  Fearing this, and to help him remain underground while the storm tides over, those who have sworn fealty to him are working overtime to bring about a compromise between Delhi University and the new government. But the conspiracy of silence seems to have been broken for now.

The author teaches English at Delhi University
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