Kiana Manian, Undergraduate Class of 2021 17th September was a historic night for Ashoka, as students
By Aritro Sarkar (UG21)
About a year ago, we were greeted with a rather surprising email: there was to be a change of guard in the Vice Chancellor’s office. In a surprise declaration, Prof Pratap Bhanu Mehta announced his intention to devote more time to his academic pursuits, and, one suspects, his generally stringent criticism of the current establishment.
This alteration in priorities meant vacating the VC’s office, which was now to be occupied by Prof Malabika Sarkar. Professor Sarkar was no stranger to the post, having held the office in her time at Presidency University in Kolkata. The prevailing sentiment within the student population was anxiety and excitement intertwined: a fresh start perhaps; an administration with a renewed vigour under the tutelage of a highly respected professor and experienced vice-chancellor.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that a year down the line, the administration has spectacularly flattered to deceive.This is not to declare that the university is completely scampering down the wrong administrative path; we do attract fine intellectuals who know how to run a college perfectly well. Indeed, if anything, Ashoka has become increasingly cited as a breath of fresh air in Indian higher education – testament to the administration’s ample capabilities.
However, over the last year, the manner in which a number of policies have been enacted, and the sheer high-handedness of this administration in the face of vehement student dissent, was bound to have vast repercussions. Observations about how student trust in the administration is at an all-time low will not be unfounded. This poses serious questions about Prof Sarkar, the very spearhead of the authorities, under whose nose the administration has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn.
The gaffes began with the unilateral revoking of cross-access, a month before the new VC was to take charge, immediately making it an unenviable job. As for setting the tone, it could not have gone down worse with the student body. The sheer suddenness of the move – comparisons with a loud news anchor notwithstanding – left even the Student Government dumbfounded, having been intimated of the administration’s decision less than forty eight hours before it was to come into effect.
The problem, it must be noted, was not with the revoking of the cross access policy – certainly, multiple factors were at play, and it was indeed a pilot project. The objections were with the abject lack of communication between the administration and the students: an exhibition of the patronizing turn taken by the authorities. It was the beginning of a series of policy decisions taken throughout the year, without consulting the democratically elected government – the flagbearer of student representation in the university they inhabit and adore.
The authorities outdid themselves the moment college reopened for the academic year 2019-2020. The ASP women , having bought themselves another year on their beloved campus, were greeted with the prospect of living in the under-construction SH 5. The building in question was at best two missed deadlines and a lot of noise away from being home. At worst, it was a monkey-infested incomplete block of cement.
Questions about the shoddy and downright dangerous accommodation were understandably posed to the administration. It must be acknowledged, the Vice Chancellor attended the townhall regarding the debacle and apologized, and the pro-VC Rajesh Garodia too offered a written apology to the ASP women in attendance. However, despite this display of empathy, many students, particularly the ASP women, still felt short changed and one can hardly blame them after such a catastrophic administrative and logistical meltdown. While it is entirely understandable that this too was a situation wherein multiple factors could’ve been at play, no action-taken report has been shared as to why this happened and how this could be avoided in the future.
Understandably, there was quite the uproar about the administration, starting with the twin issues and fireballing into a larger clamour for accountability. However, student dissent did not elicit much response from the authorities and the issues were seemingly brushed aside. Months later, a damp squib of a townhall was organized, with a rare public appearance of the pro-VC, who sought to address these issues. The disconnect was obvious, as one would expect from an administration whose members routinely fail to interact with students, and offer reassurances. This is epitomized by said Pro-VC: if you asked the average Ashokan what post he occupies, a worryingly high number of people will draw a blank. Questions from the student body yielded no favourable response, in what was perhaps the worst townhall this university has witnessed in its nascent existence – a terrible advertisement for an already unpopular administration.
A large part of the draconian limelight was hogged by the Office of Student Affairs. It is an unhealthy coalition of the Residence Life and Student Life teams, and the combined ambit of the two teams give it an abnormally large and centralized mandate: the SG called for greater decentralization in its Charter of Demands, but to little avail. With the outrage still simmering over the undemocratic revoking of cross-access, the OSA thought it a good idea to cap all campus events at 11pm. This was bound to ruffle multiple feathers in a college environment, which for myriad reasons (such as its location), had healthy nocturnal activity. With classes sometimes stretching upto 9-9:30pm, clubs and society meetings could take place only after that, a tendency the administration forgot to keep in mind.
On top of that, the admin asked the Cultural Ministry to sign an undertaking, making the ministry members legally responsible for any untoward incident that may happen at events: though withdrawn subsequently, it was perhaps the lowest point they stooped to, seeking to vilify students instead of protecting them, and washing their hands off all responsibility. To rub salt into the ever-widening wound, members of the administration themselves attempted to – in their personal capacity, as publicly clarified – organize an event that went against their own 11pm deadline. Realizing this blunder may have caused the administration’s rare brush with reason, and the policy was quietly modified.
However, the damage had been done. The unease had set in, and faith had subsided. There was no attempt at dialogue with the larger student body about the policies enacted, and there was barely ever any attempt to take general student opinion into account. The finger was wilfully kept away from the pulse, in order to retain the high-handed, unapproachable, holier-than-thou image the administration had curated for itself. The tragedy lies in the fact that perhaps this may not have been the admin’s intention at all. But for whatever reason, the insistence on maintaining an opaque facade really flew in the face of any attempts on their part to win friends.
It was a perch they seemed intent to keep hold of. Reports surfaced of unacceptable behaviour meted out towards Ashoka’s workers, who toil day and night to keep campus functional. Widespread accusations of casteist abuse and, of coercing further physical exertions were made – accounts suggest that workers were made to clean up to three floors individually, as opposed to the one floor they were in charge of, earlier.
Wardens and members of the Residence Life team – now reporting to the Office of Student Affairs – lifted not a finger. They were often accused of not just enabling this, but partaking in it too. Workers were warned to not get ‘too friendly’ with students, else they would face punitive action; they were not to use their phones, or they’d be fired; they were regularly at the receiving end of slurs. The administration has kept a watchful eye over their relationships with other workers as well.
When questions have been asked by a vocal student body about this, the authorities have blurted out the same answer at all times, and pinned the blame on ‘third party vendors’, in effect washing their hands off the problem. Once the pandemic hit, reports emerged of workers being indiscriminately terminated, without much of a justification, through coerced resignations. When pressed into a corner, standard corporate answers began pouring out: this is a ‘routine’ activity, apparently. Every year, Ashoka reportedly lets go of workers in the summer and then hires back the same number of people laid off in August, while preparing for the new academic year. It is only now, over the last few weeks, that conversation around workers welfare led the administration to appear more invested in what third party contractors do with workers from Ashoka.
Furthermore, it took the administration till this year to feel the need to revive a defunct workers welfare committee, even after admitting regularly to its students that whatever reports of troubles they have heard is caused by the third party vendor. They were aware of this, passed the blame, and then decided to do nothing beyond having a Grievance Redressal Cell, which could – theoretically – be accessed by workers too. However, it did not have any worker representation, and has since been inexplicably disbanded as well. Even a welfare committee free of conflicts-of-interest was an idea pushed for by the students in the Charter of Demands from Monsoon 2019, according to SG sources; before this, having a dedicated committee for these individuals who earn their salary at plot number two seemed to be too much of an ask.
As the name suggests, it declares its purpose to be for the welfare of Ashoka’s workers, and yet, there are zero workers who actually serve in the committee. So what constitutes workers welfare is decided by people who are not workers, and do not face troubling working conditions. An observer student member has been permitted as well, without much of a say. Further, sources allege that a lot of the provisions promised by the administration after the meeting with aggrieved Teaching Fellows last year have not been followed up by the administration, such as creating bands of pay based on number of students, and waiving of rent.
The reasoning doesn’t have to be spelt out. The administration is not one that believes much in the merit of dialogue with the stakeholders concerned, and would rather spring decisions upon them : parallels to the current approach of the Indian government, therefore, are bound to arise, and arise with considerable currency.
It has been a disaster of a year as far as student-admin relations go, and it has entirely got to do with the remarkable power trip the latter has decided to undertake. The concern has become one of brand-making, at the expense of the very populations who reside on, or earn their bread from campus. Such an approach explains the admin’s staunch refusal to pursue trans-friendly housing – “what will parents think.”
This patronizing path has led to a sheer refusal to listen, and just to act. Demands for a sexual harassment accused to be removed from the list of compulsory courses taught, at the very least? Nothing doing. Allow students and workers greater say in policies that affect them? Radio silence. Sort out the financial aid gaffes that have been made all too often? Don’t fire workers arbitrarily? Keep a check on the authorities of the residence life teams? Maintain a separation of powers instead of clubbing everything together as ‘student affairs’? Nuh-uh.
It is all this, and more, that the Vice-Chancellor has overseen, and defended. Apart from the SH5 fiasco, not one public townhall was conducted with her before the pandemic hit, an approach aligning with that of the broader administration she heads: just don’t meet the student body, and the clamour will go away on its own, an attitude that has only largely been altered since the shutdown in March. The Student Government has been shoved into a corner of non-importance by the admin, and it is only now – with student opinion so low of the administration – that the SG has successfully managed to whip up support for its demands and its work, which has been largely great. Whether the government’s work feels great because the admin has been so abject is a question worth asking.
This plummeting of student faith in the admin has happened under the present VC’s watch, which has made her a rather unpopular figure. Questions need to be asked of her and of the vision with which she leads this administration and the college, because if the past one year is anything to go by, student interests do not figure in that vision.The alarm bells need to be rung, for this is not the vision or the leadership the student body wants.
The VC led administration needs to do better, actively seek to win back student support, and give them greater say in the running of the university: the lack of transparency and the sinister ways of the administration cannot be a blueprint for the future. If that seems to be too much of an ask, then it is evident that the administration has escaped the VC’s control. She in turn has also allowed the administration to create this nightmare: her perpetual turning of a blind eye to the admin’s excesses has directly created a chasm so wide that students themselves feel alienated in their own college.
This effectively leaves the VC with two options: she needs to either step down for good, or step up big time.
The writer is Co-Editor in Chief, The Edict. All views expressed in this article are strictly personal.