Renowned economist Prabhat Patnaik, who was served two warning notices by the JNU administration for having addressed a public meeting organised by the JNU Students Union (JNUSU), has responded with a stinging letter.
The JNUSU’s public meeting on “The Idea of A University: Democracy, Resistance and Future Challenges" was held on 4 August 2017. Apart from Prabhat Patnaik, It was addressed by former JNU professor and Hindi author Chaman Lal, historian Harbans Mukhia, and former Rajya Sabha TV Executive Director Urmilesh.
Patnaik, who taught at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP) at JNU for more than two and a half decades, was served the first notice after the JNUSU’s programme was announced. The letter, dated 3 August 2017 and signed by University Registrar Pramod Kumar, asked Patnaik to not address the public meeting. It claimed that the venue of the meeting “falls in close vicinity of the Administrative Block, which is a prohibited area within the University Campus for such activity”.
The letter quoted rules to argue that gheraos, sit-ins or any of their variations are prohibited, and says that hunger strikes, dharnas and other “peaceful and democratic forms of protest and group bargaining” should be conducted at a distance of 20 metres away from the Administrative and Academic complexes.
The letter, however, did not explain how JNUSU’s public meeting on the Idea of the University was in violation of the quoted rules.
Patnaik replied to the letter, pointing out that if the meeting is being held at a venue where it should not be held, it is a matter that the administration should take up with the students. He said that he shall go ahead to speak at the meeting since he had agreed to speak at the meeting which has been called to discuss an important academic issue.
Here is the full text of Prof. Patnaik’s reply to the Registrar:
Dear Dr. Pramod Kumar,
I did not know where the meeting on the 4th was going to be held. But if it is being held at some venue where it should not be held, then that is a matter for you to take up with the students and not with me. Since I have agreed to speak at the meeting which is to discuss an important academic issue, namely the idea of a university, I shall do so. I am not an organizer of the meeting, and I am a retired professor with no regular contact with the students' union. It is not for me to tell the students where they should hold their meetings. You should take up the matter with them and not with me. With regards,
The public meeting went ahead as scheduled and witnessed a large turnout of students. However, Patnaik received another letter from the Registrar on Thursday, 10 August, this time framed in an even more hubristic tone.
The letter said that the meeting was “convened by Mr. Mohit Kumar Pandey who is currently not even a registered student of the University”.
Mohit Pandey, the JNUSU President, had been fined Rs. 20,000 and slapped with hostel transfer for having led a protest demanding justice for Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU student who has been missing since October 2016. He and other JNUSU office-bearers were the hosts of the event.
The Registrar accused Prof. Patnaik of not having cared to respect the rules of the University, and warned him not to repeat “such violation of rules” in the future.
The letter is given below.
The Prabhat Patnaik’s reply to this thinly veiled threat was polite, but firm:
Thank you for your mail. I would like to remind you that I am not a salaried employee of the university but only a professor emeritus, whose relations with the university authorities of any particular time are governed by mutual courtesy, and not by obedience to these authorities. Your letter which demands obedience is clearly based on a misconception. I shall be grateful if this is conveyed to the competent authority.
Ever since M. Jagadesh Kumar took charge as the JNU Vice-Chancellor in early 2016, the JNU administration has taken a number of steps to curtail the culture of vibrant discussions in the University. As such measures elicited massive protests from students and teachers, the administration has increasingly tried to restrict spaces where protests can be held in the campus. The administration block has been particularly targeted for such restrictions ever since last year’s Stand With JNU movement. The space, which has been for many years the main area where protests in the campus are held, earned the name ‘Freedom Square’ as it became the key gathering space for students during the movement.
The JNU administration’s latest attempt to muzzle debates and discussions in the University has come in for severe criticism.
“Such a letter to a Professor is atrocious”, said Satarupa Chakraborty, General Secretary of the JNUSU. “Prof. Patnaik has been singled out, and the second letter amounts to threatening him”, she said. “We will stand our ground to engage in critical questions with more vigour. Such threats can cow down cowards, not those who fight for ideas”.
Prabhat Patnaik is an economist and thinker respected worldwide, and has been among those who made the most significant contributions in building up JNU as one of the top Universities in the country.
Patnaik was part of a four-member high-power task force of the United Nations, chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, set up to recommend reform measures for the global financial system in 2008. He served as the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board from 2006 to 2011.
The JNU Registrar’s haughty missive is widely seen as having crossed all limits of civility, and Professor Patnaik’s sharp response is now being extensively shared on social media.
Watch Prabhat Patnaik's speech at JNU Students Union's 4 August public meeting here: