What constitutes ‘unsatisfactory’? — Presidency University and Continuing Villainization of the marginalised.
Established in 1817 (formerly Hindoo College and Presidency College), the now Presidency University has recently dismissed two Assistant Professors of its Department of Hindi, on the grounds of ‘unsatisfactory performance’. Dr. Anil Pushker Kaveendra is a Dalit, while Dr. Satyadeo Prasad belongs to the Other Backward Classes. Both of them (having joined the university last year in May) received severance letters on 21st April, 2017. The letter stated:
[Y]our performance during the probationary period of service has been found unsatisfactory. It has been decided not to further extend our period of probation which will expire on 26.05.2017, and not to confirm your service.
While Dr. Satyadeo has had a long experience of teaching at one of the Delhi University colleges, Dr. Pushker left his post doctoral fellowship at Allahabad University to join Presidency. Both endured a steep cut in salary, lured by the promise of the institution which has variously been the seat of Bengal renaissance, radical politics and the site of excellence and merit. Excellence and merit: two terms that have repeatedly been pitted against students and teachers in Indian universities who happen to belong to marginalised communities, and gain entrance in institutes of higher education through reservation. “They do not have merit”: shrill voices chant, as if merit is something other than the cumulative effect of cultural capital (a function of class and caste position), nurturing and literate home environment (that has historically been held solely by the upper castes in this country), coaching classes and access to premier institutions such as Presidency (one that was barred to the marginalised till the introduction of reservations). Merit and excellence then, are nothing but fancy words for caste privilege.
So when such a university claims that these two marginalised professors’ performance was ‘unsatisfactory’, should we not stop to enquire what does unsatisfactory mean? Was his performance found to be unsatisfactory when the Head of the Department of Hindi informed Dr. Pushker that she prefers the Gandhian term ‘harijan’ to the political term ‘Dalit’, since it indicates that they were the children of the illicit union of savarna men with avarna women? Or was his performance deemed unsatisfactory when Dr. Satyadeo was taken out for coffee by a colleague and asked his caste identity, even though he had qualified for a general post? Or was his performance unsatisfactory when Dr. Pushker raised political questions in departmental seminars, and thereby destabilised the predominantly sanitized version of Hindi studies that seeks to keep caste privileges intact?
And what happens, when someone else’s performance is found unsatisfactory? Clause 1 in Presidency University statue clearly states:
The period of probation shall be one year extendable by a maximum period of one more year in case of unsatisfactory performance. The confirmation at the end of one year shall be automatic, unless extended for another year by a specific order before expiry of the first year.
It is obligatory on the part of the university to issue an order of confirmation to the incumbents within 45 days of completion of probationary period.
However, at the discretion of the Vice Chancellor, the service may be confirmed earlier than one year if it is needed to strengthen the university in administrative and academic affairs on urgent basis.
We then, need to ask: how is it, these two professors were not granted the extended probationary period as stated in the statutes to address their supposed ‘unsatisfactory’ performance? Why were they not even informed that their performance was not considered to be up to mark, a mark set undoubtedly by the university?
When the two professors appealed to the court, having exhausted all forms of appeal raging from the head of the department to the chancellor of the university, the Justice Subrata Talukdar’s bench granted them an interim order to rejoin their services. The judge also commented on the lopsided mode of evaluation upon which the performance of the two was judged, commenting that the only one to have received favorable feed back in the entire department was the head. Instead of enquiring into such impossible feedback and its effectiveness as a tool to judge individual performance, the university went ahead and obtained a stay order on the judgment. In the process the two professors were made to wait for hours on end, their applications were not received and none of the administrative officials of the university deigned to meet them.
The stay order has been revoked by the court on 25th May, but Dr. Pushker and Dr. Satyadeo have not been asked to join their service, till the hearings are completed at the court of Justice Talukdar and a final judgment reached. While the university puts all its might to prove that these two marginalized teachers were indeed ‘unsatisfactory’ for this ‘meritorious institution’, Dr. Pushker and Dr. Satyadeo have to struggle with paying legal fees, now that their salaries for the interim period might not even be paid. They have to find new accommodation in this alien city, being asked to vacate university accommodations, and live with uncertainties regarding their future and bear the stigma of not being up to the mark, while their brilliant academic careers attest otherwise.
This university recently concluded a hugely expensive bicentennial celebration, part of which was the etching of the names of illustrious alumni on its walls. Were there Dalit Bahujan names flourishing these walls? No, because till the democratization of higher education through reservations, such people were probably only allowed to enter the university for menial tasks, not as students and definitely not as teachers. This is a university whose students, supported by some teachers, have named dogs on campus after a Dalit professor (Dalits and the Dogs: An Autobiographical Note, RTI). This is also taking place at a time when Dalit scholars across the country, in the most esteemed universities, are being institutionally murdered.
In this backdrop, how do we read these accusations of ‘unsatisfactory performance’, accusations that only indicate caste bias, and little else?