Historian Romila Thapar has refused to submit her curriculum vitae to the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which says it is “reviewing” her position as Professor Emerita. Instead she has written a letter explaining what her status means.
“No, I don’t intend to send them my CV. They have contradicted themselves in the letter they sent to me. When the status was originally conferred, it was stated that this was a lifetime honour. They are going back on that, negating what they originally wrote. They have changed the rules and are applying them retrospectively,” she said, in a telephone interview with The Hindu on Wednesday.
On July 12, JNU Registrar Pramod Kumar wrote to Professor Thapar asking her to provide her latest CV by August 16 so that a committee appointed by the University’s Academic Council could “assess [her] work and decide on [her] continuation as Professor Emeritus.” A similar letter was sent to 11 other Professors Emeritus, all of them distinguished scholars in their respective fields.
Active at 87
Professor Thapar herself has been awarded the Kluge Prize, known as the American Nobel, holds honorary doctorates from half a dozen of the world’s top universities, and is the author of a slew of books on ancient India which have been required reading for generations of students. She taught at JNU for over two decades, helping to found the university’s Centre for Historical Studies, and has been a Professor Emerita since 1993. At 87, she is still actively involved in research, teaching and writing and was preparing for a workshop even as much of the academic world exploded in outrage at her treatment by JNU. Her CV is available on the university’s website.
“I sent them a letter explaining what was meant by a Professor Emeritus, for if they knew what it meant they would not be demanding my CV to re-evaluate my status,” said Professor Thapar. “The university has not yet responded to me.”
She pointed out that the position of Professor Emeritus is an honour given on the basis of work already done. “How can it be based on future expectation?” she asked.
On Monday, the University defended itself by claiming that it was only following rules — which were amended in August 2018 — and that the letters were written to Professors Emeritus “not for discontinuation”, but to “know their availability and their willingness to continue their association with the university”.
Professor Thapar pointed out that the letter sent to her has the following subject line: ‘Assessment of past work of “Professor Emeritus” in Jawaharlal Nehru University for the Committee to decide on Continuation’, thus exposing the administration’s defence as baseless.
When asked what might be the motivation behind the JNU’s administration’s actions and what the fall out would be for Indian academia, her opinion was that the university was being reduced to a pedestrian educational institution, thus destroying what had been its intended characteristic of a high quality centre of scholarship and research. These actions, she felt, were not accidental but deliberate.
‘Think, argue, debate’
“They don’t recognise that the university is a place where you think freely, where you do research, where you argue and debate ideas," she said. “This is why the academic component of a university is more significant than the administrative staff. It is the academics who protect and nurture the intellectual work of a university. That is why they are the more respected component.”