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1 call, 3 emails, 10 hours that rocked NUJS: How VC Ishwara Bhat was ousted, and why some are still concerned about the future

Sometimes just a good-ol fashioned protest may not be enough
Sometimes just a good-ol fashioned protest may not be enough

It’s the very early hours of Wednesday morning, and Prof Ishwara Bhat is awake. The NUJS Kolkata vice chancellor (VC) has barely three hours remaining until the students’ 9:00am, 28 March 2018 ultimatum calling for his resignation before the “passive” protest is scheduled to turn into an “active” one.

At 5:43am, Bhat presses send, replying to a two-day-old email from the NUJS’ Student Juridical Association (SJA), with: “Dear Students. I totally deny all the allegations made against me in the notice as they are untrue and unjustified.”

Only 17 minutes later, Bhat receives a reply from the SJA’s official email ID, and less than 10 hours later that same day, NUJS Kolkata’s vice chancellor of six years hands to students and faculty a signed letter of his resignation.

Much went down in those 10 hours.

The 3 emails

While the SJA denies that it had replied to Bhat, an over-enthusiastic protesting student, a sleep-deprived troll or possibly a current or former SJA member must have gained access to the official SJA email account and fired off two emailed responses, one of which copied in most faculty and the entire student body, noting that “only the few who are up at this hour”. We received a copy of the email thread by 6:12am.

And while the emails were not abusive of Bhat as such, they would prove controversial, with their content was later described as “uncouth” by a faculty member and it being fair to say that they certainly lacked the diplomacy that had been a hallmark of the students “passive” protests with “academic integrity” until that date.

The email, however ill-advised it may have been, noted that “we were planning to call you at 8.50 AM, but since you’re up, we will wake up our President right now so that he can call you on our behalf”.

And so, SJA president Arjun Agarwal duly calls Bhat some time before 9am that day, beginning by apologising for the email sent by “random students” who he says had “hacked” the SJA’s account, in a 16-minute phone conversation with Bhat.

In the call, a recording of which we have heard, Agarwal says that he would “probably find out who sent [Bhat] that email and also give them a moral lecture about not being so disrespectful to such an elderly and respected man”.

But Agarwal also used that phone conversation to hold a near-monologue at Bhat, alternating between conciliatory, emotional, respectful and assertive, that there was no other way left for Bhat but to simply hand over his resignation before 9am that day, and that Bhat had run out of lease on the patience that the law school’s students had extended him.

“In your seven years of running the college the college has gone into the grave,” an audibly emotional (and probably sleep-deprived) Agarwal tells Bhat. “Why don’t you understand? Even I want to understand I am crying in front of you... There is a lot of unrest in the student body sir we don’t want to miss classes. Sir why don’t you understand?”

Agarwal repeatedly questions Bhat:

  • on why he has not been able to recruit faculty for the last five years as the academic head of NUJS,
  • on why he wouldn’t address students in a SJA general body meeting “even after” the students signed not one but two no-confidence motions expressing loss of faith in his leadership,
  • on why he had “lied” to the SJA that he was not in receipt of the NUJS review commission report until February 2018, and,
  • most importantly, why he had excluded the students from representation on all of NUJS’ statutory bodies despite students requesting such representation, and the statutory bodies members being keen to hear out the students.

Agarwal tells Bhat during the call: “That [email] just represents the amount of frustration and anger that has come into students since they have come to know that you’re in Calcutta but didn’t even try to come and address our demands in an open and democratic fashion. You’re just running away from us is what most of the students feel.”

Eventually, Bhat responds to Agarwal, with: “I am not continuing, after the 7th [April] I will tender my resignation.”

Agarwal responds repeatedly, on the phone call with permutations of: “Sir, please resign right now, what are you waiting for the 7th?”

The morning starts in earnest

After that phone call, and the expiry of the 9am ultimatum, students start protesting “actively”, which includes shouting slogans outside the gate, raising banners asking for Bhat’s ouster, and more.

Chants of slogans such as “Ishawara Bhat Jaldi Hat”, among others, are heard and video livestreamed on Facebook.

Three faculty members - acting registrar and de-facto Secretary of the Executive Council Sarfaraz Ahmed Khan, EC member Prof Anirban Mazumdar, and assistant professor Saurabh Bhattacharjee - are liaising with students, telling them that Bhat would resign by the executive council meeting of 7 April, but not before. There is talk amongst faculty of letting him leave with “dignity” in his own time, but students do not believe that he necessarily will, so they demand an immediate resignation, but it in writing.

The clock is running against both students and the administration.

For students, other than the potential loss of lectures due to protests, probably the most important annual day in the law school calendar is coming up this weekend, with “Day Zero” of recruitments.

The administration, meanwhile, does not want protests to continue because several state dignitaries are expected this coming weekend.

Students are concerned. As Agarwal had pointed out to the VC in the phone chat, Bhat had seemingly made a career out of effectively stringing along the students for years, on topics such as an unfulfilled promise to carry out an effective faculty recruitment drive, or coming up with excuses to exclude student representation from NUJS’ statutory bodies.

One faculty member we spoke to, tells us on condition of anonymity: “I wouldn’t say that [while he was VC] he would not hear out any faculty or student wanting to meet him or speak to him about an issue or grievance, but having heard them he would go on to take no measures [to implement what was discussed].

“Now you can’t keep on doing this beyond one year or two.”

Eventually, however, the students’ misgivings find some traction, and three students led by Agarwal, and the three professors go to see Bhat at his residence.

Agarwal recounts: “We were called to his residence by the vice chancellor as he had decided to tender his resignation. When we met him, he gave us ‘gentleman’s promise’ that he will not, under any circumstances continue beyond 7th as the Acting VC. He also said he will be happy to spend time with his family.

“As a result, students have taken off every poster and called off the protest completely and hope there will be no betrayal like before. When at his residence, the registrar (acting) also assured us of physical representation in the next EC meeting on April 7.”

Agarwal & co leave his residence around 3:55pm with a letter in hand, signed by Bhat, in which he tenders his resignation effective 7 April.

Bhat’s wishes

While Bhat has not responded to our calls and messages seeking comment, it’s not altogether clear if Bhat even really wanted to stay at NUJS in the first place.

In 2016 applied for the top job to Karnataka State Law University (KSLU), Hubballi.

And of course, only earlier this month, he had been selected to be the next VC at CNLU Patna, as we had first reported, though he’s unlikely to take that up after students protested and Bhat apparently decided to continue at NUJS.

At the same time, Bhat had managed to cling on to the top job at NUJS against all odds, getting his term renewed in 2016, apparently after having struck an unpopular last-minute deal to appease the West Bengal (WB) state government by agreeing to open two new NUJS campuses.

However, Bhat may have attracted WB’s ire, after that plan was in 2017 shot down by the executive council (EC), eventually resulting in a watered-down proposal for NUJS to help open two new NLUs.

Against that backdrop, even more ominously to some students and faculty that we have spoken to, it is understood that now Bhat, as chair of NUJS’ finance committee (FC) is showing greater pro-activity than the average outgoing VC perhaps would.

Bhat has called a meeting of the FC for 2 April, just five days before his resignation takes effect.

The possible topic of discussion: the state government’s proposal to double NUJS’ student intake.

Was there another way out?

A major roadblock to Bhat achieving any sort of truce with the students or a reasonable way forward other than a cold exit was his own lack of engagement with them as stakeholders, according to campus sources we spoke to.

The demonstrations only begun around 10 AM on 28 March but as of the night of 27 March, the SJA had already moved the NUJS EC against Bhat. The SJA had asked for his dismissal from the post of VC in a 13-page petition listing grounds for their request and stating:

The Vice Chancellor has deliberately and immorally foreclosed any possibility of students finding out about not only the contents of these decision-making processes but also tried to make these processes of decision-making effectively invisible to the students. The incumbent Vice Chancellor’s reign has been marked with unilateral imposition of his despotic, undemocratic and authoritarian decisions on students, faculty and other employees.

Observing one of Bhat’s failings, one faculty member says that it is generally agreed within and outside the NUJS community that Bhat was not the most fluent in spoken communication - even Agarwal is heard on the call repeatedly checking with “hello? Sir are you even listening to me”.

One faculty commented: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that [the student movement] was wrong. Even though not ideal in the manner [the movement was carried out] it was the best possible resort left to them and I am glad for them they did it.”

What next?

Agarwal cried to Bhat over phone on Wednesday morning that right now it is “really depressing for the entire student body of what has become of a really great institution”.

The presumption seems to be that Bhat almost single-handedly destroyed the greatness of NUJS. If Bhat’s resignation letter turns out different from his alleged administrative style, i.e. not containing empty promises, NUJS will be looking at the task of appointing not just a new VC but a VC who is ostensibly Bhat’s anathema in terms of restoring NUJS to its pre-Bhat glory.

“Right now whatever success students are gaining are not because of education but because of socialising, this is said in the report. Because the alumni are great, the students are hard-working and not because of the things that are taught within the college by the teachers,” Agarwal noted in his phone conversation with Bhat.

Agarwal tells us that the students are rooting for a VC with “a proven track record of getting good funding and getting teachers”.

According to several NUJS students we spoke to, Indian Law Institute (ILI) director Manoj Kumar Sinha, who was also one of the recommendations parallel to Bhat when he was first appointed as VC six years ago from Mysore University, would be a popular preference for students to succeed Bhat.

But it won’t be easy, acknowledge several students we have spoken to. That they could get someone “worse than Ishwara Bhat... was a very big concern even before we started,” said one student. “Maybe Ishwara Bhat is a bad guy, but even once he’s gone, as students we don’t have any power to influence the process.”

For now, the SJA has called for the the appointment of “unbiased interim Vice Chancellor with unimpeachable integrity who does not use his short stay at the University to prejudicially affect our long term interests (especially given we shall be on a holiday during this period and an Executive Council meeting is currently scheduled to take place in May).

“It would be ideal for a retired high court or Supreme Court judge to be appointed as the interim-vice chancellor in line with the recent examples of CNLU and NLIU. Since we want a good and worthy Vice Chancellor to be appointed soon, this will ensure that our long term interests are not compromised during the existing leadership vacuum.”

The SJA has also called for the postponement of the 2 April Finance Committee meeting, to a “date after the appointment of an interim Vice Chancellor.”

The SJA adds: “The Registrar (Acting) confirmed that the financial approval of the final building plan for the 18-storied residential complex will be tabled before the Finance Committee in the upcoming meeting. This development must be seen in the backdrop of the Executive Council’s decision for doubling the intake last year in a meeting over which the incumbent Vice Chancellor presided, to our own exclusion from the process of democratic decision-making.

“The Vice Chancellor is also a part of the Finance Committee and will represent us as our Vice Chancellor if this meeting were to take place before the appointment of an interim Vice Chancellor.”

And finally, the SJA has called for physical representation of the SJA on 7 April’s EC meeting (which has only happened once in recent years, after the controversial plan to set up new campuses in 2017):

The student body gets a physical representation in the Executive Council meeting on 7th April which shall be taking a call on the appointment of the interim Vice Chancellor and the constitution of a competent Selection Committee for selecting a new Vice Chancellor. In fact, this was assured to us by Registrar (Acting) at the Vice Chancellor’s residence that day. While it might be not in our place to suggest a candidate for the next Vice Chancellor, we believe that the criteria used for selection of the next Vice Chancellor should be made transparent and must strongly account for a proven track record of resource generation and a defined and clear vision for NUJS. This is the need of the hour given the overarching observations and recommendations of the Review Commission. We are currently in the process of personally reaching out to the EC members and working with the Registrar (Secretary to the EC) regarding both these agendas and ensuring the oral representation in that meeting.

It’s clear, for one, that students understand that this fight for the future of their beloved college, is far from over...

Bhat did not respond to our calls and messages seeking comment.

The full email from SJA to students dated 30 March, 19:07

The events over the course of this week have been an inspirational success story of the exemplary unity, determination and resilience in fighting for our cause and rights. It serves as a reminder that as long as we stick to legitimate means of realizing our rightful demands, the only way is forward.

However, at the cost of reiteration, our movement does not end with the resignation of Prof. Bhat. As we had decided from the very beginning, it was never about a person or a group of people as it has been portrayed by certain people with vested interests of late. His resignation was only the first step in our effort towards rebuilding our institution. In the long run, the movement is about ensuring the implementation of our valid concerns as acknowledged in the Review Commission report, under an institutional leadership that can carry out requisite structural and administrative reforms while accounting for every stakeholders’ legitimate concern.

Over the next week, we will work together to ensure three of our more immediate demands:

1) Appointment of an unbiased interim Vice Chancellor with unimpeachable integrity who does not use his short stay at the University to prejudicially affect our long term interests (especially given we shall be on a holiday during this period and an Executive Council meeting is currently scheduled to take place in May). It would be ideal for a retired High Court or Supreme Court judge to be appointed as the interim-Vice Chancellor in line with the recent examples of CNLU and NLIU. Since we want a good and worthy Vice Chancellor to be appointed soon, this will ensure that our long term interests are not compromised during the existing leadership vacuum.

2) Ideally, the Finance Committee meeting scheduled for 2nd April, 2018 be postponed to a date after the appointment of an interim Vice Chancellor. The Registrar (Acting) confirmed that the financial approval of the final building plan for the 18-storied residential complex will be tabled before the Finance Committee in the upcoming meeting. This development must be seen in the backdrop of the Executive Council’s decision for doubling the intake last year in a meeting over which the incumbent Vice Chancellor presided, to our own exclusion from the process of democratic decision-making. The Vice Chancellor is also a part of the Finance Committee and will represent us as our Vice Chancellor if this meeting were to take place before the appointment of an interim Vice Chancellor.

The Registrar (Acting) has assured us that at the very least all the developmental agenda, including the residential complex, can be deferred without any administrative hassle. He also assured us that he does not have an objection with student representatives being present in all future Finance Committee meetings.

We had also agreed to show our magnanimity by calling off the protest, taking off the posters and allowing the incumbent Vice Chancellor to complete the exit formalities and have a dignified exit on 7th on the understanding that he won’t represent our interests in any manner as our Vice Chancellor after tendering the resignation that day.

3) The student body gets a physical representation in the Executive Council meeting on 7th April which shall be taking a call on the appointment of the interim Vice Chancellor and the constitution of a competent Selection Committee for selecting a new Vice Chancellor. In fact, this was assured to us by Registrar (Acting) at the Vice Chancellor’s residence that day. While it might be not in our place to suggest a candidate for the next Vice Chancellor, we believe that the criteria used for selection of the next Vice Chancellor should be made transparent and must strongly account for a proven track record of resource generation and a defined and clear vision for NUJS. This is the need of the hour given the overarching observations and recommendations of the Review Commission. We are currently in the process of personally reaching out to the EC members and working with the Registrar (Secretary to the EC) regarding both these agendas and ensuring the oral representation in that meeting.

Given the inspirational and undeterred resilience we have shown so far, we are optimistic about the same, considering we have also petitioned the EC members already and the Review Commission report explicitly recommends a non-voting invitee status to the SJA President in the General Council meeting (The General Council comprising of the Chancellor (sitting Chief Justice of India) is the ultimate governing body of the University even above the Executive Council).

To sum up, during this this, it is important to honor our end of facilitating a dignified exit while at the same time, ensuring that the other end is also adequately fulfilled.

Warm Regards and Cautious Optimism,

Arjun Agarwal Samarth Sharma

(President) (Vice-President)

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