“India debates a nationwide tenure system,” reads a headline in Nature.1 It seems academics across the country are debating whether to adopt a tenure-track system for faculty, or keep the current one. This should confuse anyone who has spent any time in an Indian institution. Senior professors in our institutes seem to have no worries about losing their jobs, with some of them not even turning up at their office. What is the cause of this nonchalant confidence, if they don’t have tenure? Why is our current system not a tenure-track system? The Nature article clarifies the difference,
“Some scientists are calling for the nationwide adoption of a five-year tenure-track review structure. After around five years, research faculty members are reviewed on the basis of their publications and funding received. Teaching ability and service to the institution usually have a supporting role. If the candidate is granted tenure, they receive a permanent appointment. If they are not, the appointment is terminated.
“Under the probationary system in India, research faculty members who receive a positive assessment at the end of their first year are given permanent positions as assistant professors. After another five years, they can apply to become associate professors — a position with higher rank and pay. If they are unsuccessful, however, their appointments are not terminated. Faculty members can stay at their institutions as assistant professors until they retire.
Okay, we lied. It clarifies the difference between the current system and the proposed one, but doesn’t even attempt to resolve our original confusion. We usually think of academic tenure as a guarantee of continued employment, not a question about whether this guarantee comes after one year or five. The discussion summarised in the article takes for granted that professors should be given tenure; the discussion is not about whether professors should be given tenure but about which of two models the tenure system should follow, and whether tenure is called tenure. Why is this being discussed at all? Because the NEP 20202 has proposed such a change.
I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.
Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the
“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1
Recently, “The Mine Field,”1 a powerful testimonial that was published in NotA, received many heartfelt responses. Two of particular interest to us were those from faculty members in Indian institutes.2,3 Since one of the prime purposes of this publication is to start a conversation about life in Indian academia specifically and academia more broadly, we must begin by thanking them for participating.
What follows is more than 1000 words in response to a couple of tweets from months ago. This is somewhat self-evidently ridiculous. We would like to offer the following in the spirit of countering harmful ideas that we thought were reflected in the tweets, while fully acknowledging that it is unreasonable to assume that these 140 characters, or what we read into them, is a reflection of the authors’ true opinions.
R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. A petition with 167 signatures was sent to the administration, and no reply has been received. Some students and alumni organised a meeting regarding ways to move forward. The NotA Collective was asked to speak at this meeting. What follows is the text of what we said.
“Let us begin by expressing our appreciation for all the students here, as well as prof. Sudharson, fighting the fight. And thank you for sharing your stories. We are humbled that the NotA collective has been able to play its tiny part in all this. We at the NotA collective would like to learn how to help more with these important and necessary battles, please reach out to us if you’d like to discuss. We will leave our details in the chat box.
“The unlawful termination of Prof. Sudharson from the Madras School of Social Work is the most recent addition to an already long list of instances where faculty at colleges and universities in this country have been intimidated, harassed, suspended, or dismissed for doing precisely what is expected of them: thinking critically and speaking honestly. The case of Prof. K.S. Madhavan at the University of Calicut, who was issued a show-cause notice by the university administration for authoring an article highlighting how reservation policies are being subverted, is just one more example, but there are many others. There are some common features shared by all these events that we would like to highlight. We believe that these three features are all different faces of the same overarching process.
R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. A petition with 167 signatures was sent to the administration, and no reply has been received. Some students and alumni organised a meeting regarding ways to move forward. COLLECTIVE was asked to speak at this meeting. Here we publish the text of their statement.
Thank you for giving us your time this afternoon. On behalf of my organization COLLECTIVE, I extend solidarity to RG Sudharson who has been unjustly terminated by the Madras School of Social Work due this political beliefs. I thank you for coming forward with your experiences and, I think I speak on behalf of all of us here, that we hear you and you are not alone in this struggle.
As I see this gathering today, I am reminded of the lines of the revolutionary poet Paash, who says (I paraphrase), ‘They thought they could bomb our schools and hostels… They did not know we were grass, we would grow back over their injustices.’ MSSW thought that they could eliminate struggling voices in campus by removing one teacher, and here we are, so many of us, thinking together about the way forward as a result.
On the 6th of June, 2021, the students and alumni of the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW) and Notes on the Academy organised a webinar on the theme of Rights in Our Campus. The meeting was precipitated by a growing list of issues faced by MSSW students on their campus. The need for such a discussion was realised after the unlawful termination of Prof. R. G. Sudharshon, a popular faculty member in the Department of Developmental Management who was known for his strong pro-student views and his consistent opposition to hierarchical practices on campus. Also invited to participate in this webinar were Collective (a Delhi-based revolutionary student organization), and The Teachers’ Collective (a Chennai-based teachers organisation).
The meeting was attended by several faculty members and students from other colleges as well, and saw a lively and wide-ranging discussion of the suppression of democratic rights of students and faculty members in MSSW and other campuses across the country. In particular, the discussion of the campus environment and practices of several faculty members by MSSW students and alumni shook participants to their core.
R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. His appeal for an enquiry into the circumstances of his dismissal was ignored. We are republishing this piece by Sudharson regarding the reason for his dismissal from Ground Xero, with permission.
I’m writing this lengthy post in an attempt to recount what led to my summary dismissal from a Social Work Institution in Chennai and how I feel about it. I would like to thank ‘Notes on the Academy‘ (NotA), ‘Collective’ , my beloved students & alumni, friends and comrades, for your continuous solidarity. Growing up as a student, my individuality and original aspirations were scarred by unsparing teachers, egged on by an education system where the vast majority of students are set up to ‘fail’. It was made sinful for me to have my little quirks and to function as a child. Whenever I become an embarassment to my teachers or parents, the only means I had to escape the daily punishment and abuse was by zoning out or sleeping off the trauma. In both school and college, toxicity was the one unchanging rule of the game. During my adult years I have dreamt of being many things, of which being a kind empathetic teacher ultimately assumed the most significance. It is extremely motivating for me to have met all of you who share those very same dreams.
It is shocking that the Institution chose to dismiss me amidst the double pandemic of COVID and unemployment. I have worked with the Institution for 4+ years without a single blackmark. However, on multiple occasions fellow faculty and well-wishers from inside the Institution have alerted me to the management’s monitoring of my political views including my Facebook posts. There were instances when my position on gender-sensitivity and objections to tolerating sexism resulted in open confrontations with the college authorities. I was even cautioned by a few well-wishers that my political views and pedagogical methods, if not made discreet, might cost me my job.
Recently, Prof R G Sudharson was terminated from the Madras School of Social Work without due process. A petition with 167 signatories was sent to the administration, and they did not reply. The NotA Collective wrote an op-ed for The Wire, reproduced here.
On May 5th, R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. His appeal for an enquiry into the circumstances of his dismissal was ignored. The letter of dismissal makes no reference to any complaints against Sudharson, and indeed, in the testimony of many students over the last four years repeated mention is made of the positive environment Sudharson had cultivated in his classroom, his thoughtful and diligent mentorship of postgraduate students, and his steadfast commitment to and advocacy for the welfare of students not just in his college but in the wider city of Chennai.
No charges were brought, no committees were constituted, no due process was followed. He was given an impossible choice: to either resign or face termination. Further, to the surprise of many, his letter of dismissal casts baseless aspersions on his professionalism, by alleging that he was not “diligent in the discharge of duties expected”, a vindictive move that is surely calculated to make it difficult for him to secure another academic position.
I vividly remember watching Nagraj Manjule’s searing debut film Fandry for the first time, a few years ago. I had never quite seen anything like it until then. Fandry uses tropes of love stories from mainstream cinema and yet does something these movies consciously avoid – it indicts the caste system. Manjule said in an interview,1
“Caste is the foundation of our society. It’s a reality that you need to have a special talent to avoid. Bollywood has that talent, I don’t…”
Indeed, Hindi films largely gloss over the subject of caste and blunt most conflicts down to a class disparity, as illustrated particularly starkly in the Bollywood remake of Manjule’s sophomore feature Sairat. Manjule’s Fandry introduced me to a radical artistic voice, the kind that was conspicuously absent from the media I had consumed until then. It made a deep impression on me. It implored me to seek out a different kind of cinema and expand the scope of art I engage with. It is on this path that I discovered Yogesh Maitreya’s excellent collection of short stories Flowers on the Grave of Caste.
Yogesh Maitreya is a writer, poet, and translator who also runs Panther’s Paw, a publishing house with a strong focus on promoting anti-caste literature. His collection contains six stories across which he widely experiments with literary style and scope. The result is an eclectic collection of short-fiction that is written in simple but often poetic prose. Yogesh’s sentences invoke powerful imagery and nowhere is this more apparent than the contrasting images that begin and end the first story “Re-evolution,” a fable of revenge, in which Yogesh weaves a personal journey coming to full circle.
All graduate students spend a significant amount of their life at grad schools, for me it has been a quarter of my life to be exact. This time significantly changed me and my thoughts on how academia (or at least a part of academia) works. When I joined graduate school I was jubilant to escape my undergraduate institute. The graduate school I am in is considered one of the premier institutes in India. If you are an outsider, the look of the institute itself is enough to convince you to join. I had read and heard stories of great scientists who were and are working here, the passion these great scientists have for science and the extraordinary intelligence they carried in their big brains. Eventually I started my work in a theoretical field. I had my ideas of what I am going to do, as every naive person has; how I was going to understand all the beautiful ideas that existed, how I would learn science beyond my stream, and how I was going to think about deep problems and come up with new ideas. It was a beautiful glass painting. This glass painting developed so many cracks over the years that I don’t recognise it any more.