First female Indian central university leader ‘strict on protesters’

As political turmoil mounts in India, Jamia Millia Islamia v-c says she will protect students, but suspend those who go ‘too far’

March 22, 2023
Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia university Najma Akhtar addresses a press conference a day after police stormed into the campus, in New Delhi, India, Monday, Dec.16, 2019.
Source: Manish Swarup/AP/Shutterstock

Just months into her job as the first female vice-chancellor at one of India’s most rapidly improving universities, Najma Akhtar faced her initial test in navigating clashes between students and police, amid growing national political turmoil.

It was 2019 and across the country, student protests were erupting over India’s amended Citizenship Act, which critics saw as favouring non-Muslim immigration and undermining the nation’s secular constitution. Dozens of Delhi police came on to the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) campus, allegedly entering the library and dormitories and beating students. For Professor Akhtar, the incident crossed a line.

“I went to highest court saying this is not the way they can enter my university,” she said.

The move gained her the approval of the government – which oversees central universities, funded and managed by the central government – showing that “this lady v-c” it had selected could handle political clashes at a time when many other universities faced greater disruption. It also won her respect on campus.

“This was highly appreciated that in spite of everything, the vice-chancellor stands with the students,” she said.

Four of a total five years into her leadership of JMI, the struggle with political turmoil has remained a theme, not always garnering Professor Akhtar the praise of her young charges. This January, her administration came under fire from some academics for its handling of the controversial BBC documentary on prime minister Narendra Modi. The government banned the online sharing of the documentary, or clips from it.

Professor Akhtar said: “I could see that if anything goes wrong, outside there are a lot of police – they could have entered my university. So I told my students, ‘no downloading of this banned documentary on the campus, you do it on the road, or wherever you want, but not on campus’.”

Students “have to be within the limits,” she said. “In the campus they are safe. But if they’re going to go out and [protest off campus], I’m not with them.”

If students cross the line, she has “no problem writing to their parents” or suspending them.

“At the risk of one or two students who are not good, I cannot spoil the future of the whole university,” said Professor Akhtar. “I am very strict. It’s like being a mother. You’re telling them not to do something, but if they do, you have to punish them.”

Like leaders at other universities, she has also been dealing with decreases in government funding – but she refuses to complain about the removal of the “silver spoon in our mouths”.  

“We have been encouraged to earn for ourselves. This is very good,” she said, noting that lessons in resource generation, gleaned during her degree in university administration at the University of Warwick, have come in handy.

As JMI’s first female v-c – and the first female head of an Indian central university, she feels the pressure to perform, not only for herself.

“If I succeed, they’ll make more [female] v-cs. Now…I can see a number of women v-cs coming up.”

She has pushed her faculty and students, especially women, to seize opportunities to advance. In 2019, the first year of the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship supporting top research talent, JMI students won eight of the prestigious grants – outperforming their peers at larger institutions. Even more of a point of pride, seven of the eight winners were women.

“That shows the readiness of the girls. They’re just waiting for their time,” said Professor Akhtar.

Her other efforts seem to have made a difference. When she came into the v-c post, JMI was far from the top-ranked universities in India. In the last four years, it has climbed up the National Institutional Ranking Framework. In 2018, the year before Professor Akhtar joined, the institution was in 12th place – by 2022, it was third.

She jokes that “now the university can relax for five years”. But relaxing doesn’t appear to be on the agenda.

Recently, Professor Akhtar met with India’s president to discuss plans for her institution to be approved to create a medical college – which she said could accommodate a “huge” number of Delhi residents who cannot afford healthcare.

She’s given up on her initial request for the government to fund the college. But she’s convinced that she can wrangle a deal before her time as vice-chancellor is up.

“I said, ‘No money, no matter. But…give us approval,’” she said. “I still seriously believe that before I go, I’ll have a letter in my hand.”


Print headline: First female v-c of Indian central university is ‘strict on protesters’

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Reader's comments (1)

The objectives of education are shaped by the socioeconomic conditions of the place and social group. Universally it is a social service that helps in expanding the horizons of the mind, through teaching and critical thinking i.e. questioning of the status quo and where difference of opinion and debate is the basic tool to explore and progress. The subsequent objectives are different in the Industrialised world from those in the developing world such as India. Jamia Millia Islamia is expected to provide a window of opportunity to the socioeconomically disadvantaged groups that historically (more specifically in JMI) have included Muslims. Central Universities in the Indian context are intended to be fully funded exemplary institutions that would be benchmarks in their specific fields. Therefore any fund cut has to be contested, not accepted as something we didn't deserve like "silver spoon...' , how do we earn money ? by raising fees and putting education beyond reach of a majority of citizens. Similarly dissent and debate should not be disallowed on the pretext of 'spoil the future...', maintaining peace on the campus should not negate the basic fostering of questioning. The so called New Education Policy NEP wasn't debated and accepted in laudatory terms, whereas everywhere in India teachers have pointed out how it is a very bad policy which is neither here nor there.