Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India’s one of the premier education institutes, is reportedly discriminating Ph.D. applicants from SC, ST, OBC, and Muslim categories by giving low marks in interviews. Student organisations in the varsity university students union have called for protests against discrimination in viva-voce in JNU Ph.D. admission. This is a joint statement released by JNU units of AISA, AISF, BAPSA, BASO, COLLECTIVE, Committee of Suspended Students for Social Justice, CRJD, CRLD, DSF, Fraternity Movement, Hundred Flowers Group, JNUSU, MSF, NSUI, SCS, SFI.
Student organizations of JNU and JNUSU have received a massive number of complaints from candidates from SC/ST/OBC/PwD categories and minority communities who appeared for viva-voce examinations for PhD admission this year. These candidates have received extremely low and undignified marks for the viva resulting in their automatic exclusion from JNU. Despite scoring well in the written examinations, they have been unable to secure admission simply because they have been awarded marks as low as 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Viva-voce discrimination is not a new issue in JNU. Several committees have been formed over the years who have unanimously agreed that discrimination is rampant in viva-voce evaluation. Irrespective of the blatant empirical data which was the basis of recommendations of several committees such as the Bhatt Committee (2012), Thorat Committee (2013) and the Nafey Committee (2016), the JNU Administration has rejected all these recommendations in the admission process for PhD programme. In 2016, instead of reducing the viva voce which has been a long-standing demand to ensure equal and democratic access to higher education, UGC Gazette was brought to increase the share of viva-voce to 100% and implement massive seat cuts by putting cap on number of research scholars the teachers in different positions can undertake. After a resolute fight against the regulations of UGC Gazette, especially by students from marginalised communities, which also led to the suspension of 11 students by JNU administration. An amendment was made in 2018 to UGC Regulations where the viva-voce only restored to the earlier ratio of 70% weightage for written and 30% weightage for viva-voce.
The Nafey Committee recommended that the viva-voce weightage be reduced from 30% to 10%-15% but the administration refused to implement the recommendations. The core problem remains with the structure of the 70-30% written-viva ratio, whereby the extreme marking in 30% viva (in extreme ranges such as 0-5 for candidates from SC/ST/OBC/PwD categories and minority communities) washes out the performance of the candidates in the 70% written. As a result, 30% viva becomes the only effective criteria of selection and performance in the 70% written exam remains merely qualifying. So, in spite of a candidate scoring up to 70% marks, the single digit marks can lead to the direct exclusion of the candidate.
Thorat committee (2013) had also suggested that an external faculty as an observer from outside the school or centre should be present during the conduct of the viva-voce. The observer should be one of the signatories while finalizing marks awarded at the end of the viva on a particular day. This committee also suggested that as far as possible, the interview board should include one member from any one of the reserved categories.
Both the Thorat Committee (2013) and the Nafey Committee (2016) suggested that the broad format of the viva should be made available in the public domain and known to the candidates well in advance. This would allow the candidates to know what is expected from them during the viva voce. Yet, till date, there is no transparency on either on the format of the viva or on the marking scheme followed to evaluate the candidate. Both the committees also suggested that the marking for viva-voce be split into 3 parts including research proposal, domain knowledge & analytical understanding. All the three committees aimed at making the admission process transparent and non-arbitrary. Yet, none of the recommendations of the committees have been followed.
Due to the pandemic situation, when the interviews are being conducted online, the easiest way to increase the transparency is by recording the interview proceedings. Recording of the viva voce was also an important recommendation made by the committees to enforce accountability. But this too has been blatantly discarded by JNU administration resulting in zero accountability and transparency. This could clear several discrepancies like the amount of time dedicated to each candidate, the relevancy of the questions and whether the marks obtained in viva-voce actually reflect the candidate’s performance in viva-voce. This year, with the testimonies received by the candidates by several organizations, we are able to make cases of open and blatant casteism and islamophobia happening to the candidates during interviews through comments or behaviours of the interviewers which often go unnoticed or unquestioned.
The unconstitutional implementation of EWS reservations, which is against the maximum cap of 50% reservations which has been observed by Supreme Court of India in the case of Indra Sawhney vs Union of India need to be questioned again. While the merit of candidates coming from marginalized communities is always questioned, several instances of EWS cut off being less than that of SC/ST/OBC/PwD cut off have been brought to light. The discrepancy exposes the Brahmanical notion of ‘merit’ which is utterly casteist in nature, as well as questions if the Reservation mandated is truly fulfilled. The removal of the Deprivation Points given to the students, as well as points given for Quartile Districts, were removed from admission in Research in 2017 in JNU was enough of an attack on the students from the marginalized communities already. We demand for the restoration all Minority Deprivation point with all Deprivation points.
Despite the blatant discriminatory policies above which makes access to higher education for marginalized students difficult and exclusionary, the new UGC regulations for PhD Admissions from the year 2022-23 which is tied with the marks obtained in NET seems to further this exclusion. This move has to be seen in continuation with the earlier policies where NET was made mandatory to access the national fellowships like NFSC, NFOBC and MANF, which were earlier open to all the students belonging to the marginalized communities. The decrease in the number of above fellowships due to the mandatory NET qualification has been a big blow to the marginalized students aspiring for higher education, as fellowship was the sole basis on which they depended. This exclusion will also follow in admissions if the NET criteria is implemented. NET as a criterion for admission will initially leave many seats emptied out as only a few candidates clear NET because of the number cap, and gradually lead to massive seats cuts again. NET as a criterion for admission in research is unreasonable as well because NET is qualified only for Lectureship where Lectureship and Research can be both very different fields, and not every Research Scholars would have aim for Lectureship. Where Research should be a training for Lectureship alongside many other fields, making qualifying examination for Lectureship as a criterion for Research admission is absurd.
The proposed CUCET (Central Universities Common Entrance Test) is not just going to take away autonomy of the universities over admission process, but also will create more hurdles in terms of transparency and create spaces for more arbitrary measures as because of the centralization of examinations, and take away the space of students to question and resist. We witness how NTA has been taking arbitrary measures, having discrepancies in question papers, not showing the final paper key as responding to the questions/answers challenged by students, and delay in result declaration which go unsolved. With NEP (New Education Policy) MPhil was also withdrawn across universities this year. These must be opposed tooth and nail.
The above points clearly indicate a sustained attempt at implementing Manusmriti to make University spaces as Agraharas and to affect a Brahminization of higher education. The number of Dronacharyas is on the rise in spite of the deserving number of Ekalavyas, who have been tricked by deliberate single-digit marks in viva-voce. The all-organization meeting that has been held in this regard deliberated upon the above issues and wants to fight against the discriminatory higher education policies. The historical discrimination in the field of education of SC, ST, OBC, PwD and Minority communities and working classes is obvious and hence it is mandatory to follow the affirmative action policies, not just in word, but in spirit, when it comes to admission process and also make the admission process more transparent and accountable, in higher education institutions like JNU, which is known for its progressive culture, as higher education is the sure shot way of achieving the social mobility. We urge all the students to fight against these discriminatory Brahminical policies, and to agitate against in an organized united manner.