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VC who thinks he knows best tests govt
Math teacher who can quote classics, religion

Delhi University vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh

New Delhi, June 24: There may be a bit of John Keating (Robin Williams) of the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society in Dinesh Singh, though only a bit. Keating didn’t have a Smriti Irani to duel with. Nor a singularly motivated confederacy of teachers’ and students’ unions of all existing hue, bar none.

Keating merely blew an insurgent whistle in the tradition-bound corridors of a remote American prep school. This vice-chancellor has left his much-vaunted Delhi University stalled at the onset of admission season with a dare he momentarily appeared to drop this afternoon but swiftly resumed. Now, more than ever, for Singh, it’s the four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) or nothing, like it or lump me.

“I strongly believe one shouldn’t succumb to any kind of peer or societal pressure,” Singh had written in a portrait of himself in 2012, “Work is not all there is to life.”

That line has suddenly acquired prescience. And to Singh’s formidable rivals ranged from the HRD ministry to the UGC to clotted power lobbies on the campus, the ring of a girded loin my-way-or-the-highway challenge.

It is unlikely the embattled vice-chancellor is prepared to give an inch on his pet and controversial project; it is quite likely he means the recall of his “resignation” as a taunt to the establishment: you can have my head, not the way it thinks.

“This was always waiting to happen with a man like Dinesh,” says a peer who would not be named, “he has always seemed to me a man set on the virtue of his ways and unwilling to give. I am not surprised he has refused to engage on the FYUP issue and brought it on without due deliberation and consultation. I am surprised even less he is sticking his ground.”

Someone who is willing to be quoted on Singh suggests a man similarly driven by his convictions.

“I have known him a long time and I can tell you he is a man who has strong views and will not drift on the high seas, he will choose a course and follow it,” says Pavan Varma, former diplomat, JD(U) member-elect to the Rajya Sabha and, most pertinently, Singh’s senior at St. Stephen’s.

“Without going into the pros and cons of the current row, I can say he has impeccable academic credentials and I have known him to say his piece and stand by it. I have always known him as being that sort of person.”

For another Stephanian, though, the Dinesh Singh he knew as a student is not the Dinesh Singh he has come to oppose as vice-chancellor. “As a young fellow at college he was quite chilled out and we got along,” Rukun Advani, editor and publisher of Permanent Black, told The Telegraph.

“But of late, I haven’t liked the kinds of things he has done. I have not been in touch with him in a while, but my sense of him isn’t good, I don’t know why, perhaps because people come into power and such things and it changes them.”

Dinesh Singh’s residence in New Delhi on Tuesday. Picture by Prem Singh

Advani had crossed swords with Singh three years ago over the dropping of A.K. Ramanujam’s Three Hundred Ramayanas from the Delhi University syllabus, allegedly under pressure from groups that argued the text hurt Hindu sentiment. “The way that text was dropped under Dinesh Singh’s vice-chancellorship was disturbing and upsetting, it did not speak of him as a man of convictions.”

Too many of Singh’s academic colleagues have complained over the years of his “arrogant and rejectionist” ways. He brought on the FYUP, it is widely held, without enough discussion or deliberation, without getting enough views on board.

“He does not believe in consultations,” a senior university teacher railed. “He is the kind who thinks he knows best and will railroad his way. It’s unheard of that teachers have to wait days, often weeks, to get an appointment with the VC, but with Dinesh Singh, that routinely happens. No wonder he provokes such antipathy. There is a sense he does not believe in discussing, even talking.”

And yet, his flair with the tongue is a campus legend. Students speak of his “sparkling” lectures, the only mathematics teacher they’ve known, some said, who can break into Sanskrit or begin to illustrate his point with classics of literature and religion in the middle of a discourse on pure math.

“His range of reading and recall is just out of the world,” one old student gushed. “It’s astonishing how he can jump streams and subjects, still remaining essentially on math, a dream teacher and, to anyone who cares to listen, an extremely accomplished one.”

His own legend is nothing Singh is unaware of; on the evidence of his many critics, it is a halo the vice-chancellor lives in embrace of and it has probably fed his equally legendary arrogance.

Singh has brought himself — and his university — to a critical crossroads with the stand-off on the FYUP. It’s a juncture he might want to pause and replay what John Keating of Dead Poets Society had also to say on calibrating rebellions: “There is a time for daring and there is a time for caution,” the iconoclast would tell his Welton Academy class, “and a wise man understands which is called for.”