“We have been informed that there are cases of discrimination in the viva-voce for JNUEE PhD entrance in many centres. Students who think that they have been discriminated for the same, we request you to mail us the screenshot of your result card...”
This was by the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association, a student group at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Two days later, the group received over 100 emails – a conservative figure, they claimed – alleging that PhD aspirants from marginalised communities had been discriminated against during the university’s viva voce, or oral examination.
This has snowballed into a massive controversy for the university, which is often projected as a liberal bastion. While the JNU administration has there was “no discrimination”, students and some faculty members have claimed otherwise.
A committee in 2016 had also recommended changes due to a “discriminatory pattern”, but these recommendations were never implemented. A protest march was accordingly held on campus on Monday.
Students carrying out a protest march on campus on Monday.
For context, students applying for JNU’s PhD programmes must first appear for the JNUEE, an entrance exam. On qualifying, they appear for a viva voce. The written exam is given a weightage of 70 marks while the viva has 30 marks weightage.
For students applying for JNU’s junior research fellowship programme, the viva component has 100 percent weightage.
Students who performed well in their written exams have alleged they received single-digit scores in the viva voce. Those speaking out are predominantly from marginalised and minority communities.
For example, an ST student from Northeast India, who is associated with one of JNU’s student bodies, told Newslaundry he appeared this year for the junior research fellowship programme. He scored 20 out of 100 in the viva voce. He then appeared for the JNUEE, where he scored 66 out of 100 in the written and 5 out of 30 in the viva voce.
“We are first-time learners,” the 29-year-old student said. “It is very difficult for us to come out and speak about what is going on in the university like this as we fear it could affect our careers. We’ve worked so hard to come to this level and, after all this, we face such a casteist approach, making it difficult for us to move on.”
There are different numbers of seats available for every PhD programme in JNU. Out of these seats, a portion is reserved for students from SC/ST/OBC, while the rest of the seats fall under the open category. However, candidates from the reserved category can be selected under the open category as well, unless they opt for age relaxation in the selection process.
But according to some candidates, the low marks were being given in vivas to stop this from happening.
As things stand now, students are demanding the implementation of the recommendations of the 2016 committee. They also want the vice chancellor to release the lists of candidates called for the viva along with their categories and the date and time of the interview, the list of faculties assigned to take the viva, an explanation of the parameters by which marks are allotted and the method of calculation, and to make public the list of total marks given to students in the exams.
Not a new problem
On Monday night, just before around 100 students held a protest march from Ganga dhaba to Chandrabhaga hostel on campus, BAPSA’s vice-president, Debjyoti Sarkar, rolled out a white cloth on the ground. The cloth had the name of the organisation printed on it alongside a photo of Dr Ambedkar.
Debjyoti told Newslaundry this issue has been raised since 2014; it only gathered momentum this year due to social media.
“This fight is not a fight against the administration,” he said. “We are trying to question the brahmanical attitude of the faculties. All the emails and testimonies we have received have been from people belonging to marginalised communities.”
After allegations of discrimination in its viva voce process, JNU had formed three committees to investigate the allegations and offer recommendations. The first committee was formed in 2012 under Rajiv Bhat, the second in 2013 under SK Thorat, and the third in 2016 under Abdul Nafey – all of whom were professors at the university at the time.
After studying admission data from 2012 to 2015, the Nafey committee had recommended that the weightage of viva be reduced from 30 to 15.
“...the data consistently indicate the pattern of indifference in the written and the viva voce marks across all social categories, which indicates discrimination,” the committee . “It is the considered view of the committee and it therefore recommends that the discriminatory pattern would get mitigated if viva voce marks is reduced from the present 30 to 15 marks.”
This was never implemented.
JNU professor Yashadatta S Alone, who was part of the Nafey committee, said that they had studied the data of the past few years and considered all possible variables.
“We observed that there is discrimination in the pattern present,” he explained. “There is an attitude which plays a major role – it depends on the kind of ethical and moral position taken by each centre, school, and teacher.”
The UGC’s notification in 2016 had made viva the sole factor for selection. It went back to the entrance test method of 70 percent weightage in written test and 30 percent in viva. But since it was a UGC notification, Alone said, JNU claimed this was why they could not implement the committee's recommendation of reducing the viva marks to 15.
“Since it came from the UGC, it was deemed mandatory. However, the university is empowered to exercise its autonomy and make amendments, but this only happens according to the conveniences,” said the professor. “As a teacher, I don’t understand giving just 1 mark to anyone. One way of resolving this, besides reducing the viva weightage, is to record interviews. If anyone has a problem, they can be made available to everyone.”
Shortly after the Nafey committee submitted its recommendations, nine students were suspended in 2016 for “disrupting” an academic meeting while protesting the issue.
Rahul Sonpimple, one of the students suspended at the time, told Newslaundry there has been no change over the years, despite the students’ protests and the recommendations of the Nafey committee.
Rahul said the administration’s “trick” was to allow very few students from reserved categories to get admission in general categories, as that decreases the number of upper-caste admissions.
“So, while the formula of 49 percent reservation looks from the outside like the reservation policy is being implemented, it is antithetical to the very idea of reservation policy, which allows students to get into general category,” he said. “If the marginalised sections don’t have space in a democracy, can you really call it a democracy?”
Earlier this week, six faculty members wrote a letter to JNU chancellor VK Saraswat, alleging “irregularities” in this year’s interview process to select PhD candidates. It sought Saraswat’s “immediate intervention” as well as an “impartial enquiry” into the manner in which the viva voce process was conducted.
“This is discrimination,” said Aarif, 26, who applied for JNU’s PhD programme for the second time in a row. In both cases, he said, he qualified for the viva voce component but scored poorly.
“How can you give a student 1 or 2 marks out of 30?” asked Aarif, who is from Shomali in Uttar Pradesh. “Even after scoring good marks in the entrance and written exams, this happens. Now, I’m losing hope. The ones who are from poor, rural backgrounds are not valued in higher education.”
After student delegations met the administration and subsequent protests, the administration released a notification saying that applicants could send their “feedback/grievances/queries” by email, and that all candidates could not check their scores in the written and viva in their portal.
A student from the political sciences department, who has been in JNU since 2016, said she had applied for the PhD programme in 2019. The student got 8 marks out of 30 in her viva, she said, but ranked second in the OBC category. She claimed this was “intentional” so she couldn’t be selected in the open category.
“Students from reserved categories are asked a lot of difficult questions. Meanwhile, my friends from the open category told me that they were not asked any questions, so they thought they wouldn't be selected but they were, with the highest possible marks,” she said. “The faculty should be proud that we are doing PhD under them. In classrooms and in their articles, they are very progressive and are making careers out of the issues of the oppressed. But when it comes to treating them well, this is what happens. And if this is happening in the most ‘progressive’ university, it’s definitely happening everywhere else as well.”
The student added that JNU “talks progressive but it's not visible in their actions”.
“Even after getting selected and being a student here, there’s a lot of discrimination that happens: in the classroom, outside the classroom, and with the student unions,” she said. “Student groups from the left will raise slogans of ‘Jai Bhim’ but won’t directly say that they are fighting against the faculty, who also mostly follow the same ‘left’ ideology as them. In issues of caste, they will come forward only when the movement is building.”
JNU’s statement on the matter was categorical.
Issued by Jayant Tripathi, the university’s director of admissions, it said: “The Jawaharlal Nehru University categorically rejects the reports in certain sections of media alleging discrimination against PhD aspirants from marginalised sections of the society. As per the admission policy adopted by the university, every SC/ST/PWD candidate who qualifies JNU entrance examination for PhD admissions is called for viva voce irrespective of the number of seats available for admission in their respective categories.”
According to the statement, members of the PhD selection committee who conduct the viva are not provided with information regarding the categories of candidates, in order to eliminate any prejudice. It claimed that the university followed a “fair, transparent and inclusive admission policy which is the foundation of its proven academic excellence.”
A faculty member who is part of the viva panels pointed out that the scores given to PhD aspirants in their written and oral components are “unrelated” and should not be compared.
“The written exams test the domain knowledge of the student while the viva tests the readiness they have for doing the PhD and their research aptitude,” the professor said, speaking to Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity. “So prima facie, there should be no correspondence between the two. This is not a college that we have to award first division, second division, etc.”
The professor added, “The 30 marks weightage for viva is there because, as we’ve seen in India, just knowing the subject domain doesn't mean one will be able to follow the research and submit it.” The professor added that if students from rural backgrounds were more comfortable with communicating in Hindi, they were allowed to do so in the interview.
Another faculty member said their department had “informally” decided to distribute marks during viva between domain knowledge, research proposal, and articulation. There was no chance of discrimination taken place, they said, because the department had “people from different backgrounds” observing the vivas.
“The weightage of the viva should not be decreased as it is equally important. In written exams, the questions are objective. But in vivas, candidates can express their opinions and speak about their research proposals,” said the professor. “It is important for them to be able to defend their proposal.”
The faculty member described JNU as having a “balanced approach, as we believe everyone ought to have access to our university”.
“We try to make candidates comfortable by talking informally,” they said. “But there are a large number of candidates and only a few seats, it is understood that the majority of students will not be selected. So, maybe some of them feel bad and say it is discrimination.”
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.