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UNIVERSITY’S SUMMER OF SHAME

“People are people through other people” — Xhosa proverb

“We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery” — Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Colleges of the Delhi University are in the grip of frenzy. With the university administration breaking promises about appointing permanent teachers against existing and newly sanctioned posts since 2009-10, large numbers of ‘ad hoc’ appointees are being shown the door as new ad hocs are poised to replace them. This has been happening systematically since 2012, but the scale on which it is being pursued this summer appears to be unprecedented.

This is being done through the unfair practice of holding repeat interviews for the same jobs. Serving ad hoc teachers, it must be emphasized, have been selected at different times through due process for these jobs. This renders the repeat interviews nothing but forms for the exercise of power over ad hocs, and instruments for deepening the presence and footprint of malleable labour at Delhi University. The large-scale sacking, or threat of removal, of teachers currently under way needs to be brought to an immediate halt and dignity and secure employment guaranteed for all colleagues.

Ad hoc’ appointees become teachers after going through merit-based interviews. They are appointed for durations of up to four months. Within this period — in the event that the vacancy in question may be longer than four months — selection committees are supposed to be constituted, fresh interviews advertised, and appointments made against temporary or permanent posts. University ordinances are clear on this issue.

If, for whatever reason, this does not happen, the fairest practice has been that the previously appointed ad hoc teachers, who are not responsible for delays in interviews, continue until such time in the near future that this process is completed.

All of this has been informed by the understanding that ‘ad hoc’ conditions must remain, at most, a transient moment in teachers’ lives, and that too only if absolutely necessary. The regular work of teaching demands regular forms of employment. Anything else would have a negative impact on teachers’ work apart from constituting unfair labour practice. There is also adequate evidence regarding the long-term mental and physical destruction caused when people are faced with job insecurity or unemployment. Yet, all across the colleges of Delhi University, undergraduates are being taught by thousands of teachers struggling to offer the best they can in the face of indignities, terrible economic insecurity, and the increasing threat of stress-related illnesses.

In spite of the provision in Ordinance XVIII (7) of the University of Delhi, that “Not more than one-third of the total number of the teaching staff shall be on a temporary or contractual basis at the same time”, 4,500 of 9,000 plus teachers at the university are teaching as ‘ad hocs’, with many continuing in this capacity for years. This number, together with the few hundred guest lecturers, paid per lecture delivered, makes it clear that Delhi University is being run largely on the exploited backs of casual labour, and has been witnessing the rapid normalization of ad hoc employment practices.

This is unfair enough. The widespread compulsion now, that ad hoc appointees sit for repeat interviews for another set of ad hoc appointments at the same department of the very college where they are already employees, instead of appearing in a fresh round of interviews for a new category of posts, is massively compounding injustice. It is rendering the already precarious and unequal employment conditions for ad hoc employees, those in harness as well as those who begin afresh, much more vulnerable. It is transforming a rapidly growing number of teachers into a floating pool of low-cost migrant labour, men and women who will remain scared and easy to control and programme for the deadening ‘instruction’ and indoctrination of students that is set to take hold of Delhi University through the imposition of the four-year undergraduate programme at the behest of capital and the State.

Rampant democracy-devouring practices unleashed fairly successfully by the Delhi University administration over the last three years to bring in the semester system and the FYUP have set the stage for creating this situation which bodes ill for ad hoc teachers in other ways too. It jeopardizes their work of reading, writing and contemplation and the integrity of departments and institutions of which they are members. It jeopardizes their freedom to think critically, speak and teach without fear and live and breathe equality and independence instead of sycophancy and obsequiousness. It threatens the already besieged culture of rights and liberties without which the pursuit of higher education becomes a joke.

It is worth bearing in mind that 75 per cent of all professors in American universities today are adjunct faculty. This has contributed, in no small measure, to the decline witnessed by the American academia in recent years. It is alarming that Delhi University is rapidly and uncritically travelling the road taken by American universities, not the least with regard to employment practices.

If ‘ad hocism’ goes unchallenged and comes to definitively determine employment relations at Delhi University, if the ground cannot remain beneath the feet of university employees, we are well on the way — as is increasingly the case at workplaces around the world — to allowing informality, arbitrariness, personal whims, prejudices, vendettas and a myriad deeply entrenched hierarchies to inform all practices of college and university functioning. We are then close to allowing power unbridled sway. Such a condition can only spell devastation for higher education and demands immediate redress.

“In all people I see myself… I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,” wrote Walt Whitman in his poem, “Song of Myself”, the words resonating with Xhosa sensibility and Chaplin’s speech towards the end of the film, The Great Dictator. The humiliation being visited on ad hoc colleagues at Delhi University colleges and the havoc, fear and insecurities being wrought in their lives as they are robbed of their livelihoods and sense of self-worth, robbed of the possibilities for creating meaning through sustained work, and of experiencing the sweat-drenching, all-consuming passion, anxieties and joys of teaching freely inside the classroom and outside, all of this is not happening to ‘others’. It is happening to each one of us. Let us not forget that freedom, a sense of well-being and the possibilities for living out the potential of becoming fully human are indivisible and can only be fully experienced when they accrue to all.

“You don’t know who we are, we don’t know who you are, but if you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then we are comrades.” That was Che Guevara at another time, another place, but we too, at different colleges of the Delhi University and elsewhere, largely unknown to one another, need to come together today, in solidarity, and to uphold nothing less than our rights, our common humanity and our abiding commitment to higher education. “Let us fight,” in Chaplin’s words, “for a... decent world that will give (wo)men a chance to work, youth a future and old age a security.”