Recently JNU got its first female Vice-Chancellor, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, however, instead of unequivocal support for her appointment, there was huge clamour against it. The hullabaloo was not for nothing: it had its reasons and the reasons were her past tweets and comportment as an administrator in her previous workplace. Her tweets were at best unscholarly, and at worst communal, jingoistic and amounted to genocide mongering. She, however, has categorically denied any association with the Twitter handle momentarily after all the tweets were expunged. She also claimed, contrary to the previous statement, that the Twitter handle got hacked by some JNU mischief (how can something be hacked if it did not exist in the first place is beyond anyone’s depth!)
Despite the nature of her alleged statements, the critics were called out for disparaging the “first female VC” and hence were deemed misogynistic and patriarchal. She herself claimed to be the victim of this scrutiny because of her gender. However, this entire episode begs the question, is it unfair to criticize a woman in important position despite her misconduct because she is a woman? Or is it unfair to not criticize her and hold her accountable just because she is a woman?
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Dichotomy of achievement and accomplishment
Drury Stevenson argues that there is a significant difference between achievements and accomplishment. According to her, the dichotomy becomes “particularly confusing while celebrating the successes of women or other historically subjugated groups”. While achievements are the “remarkable things that we attain, like titles and positions”, accomplishments could be understood as “remarkable things that we do”. While the former acknowledges merit (itself a disputed term), the latter creates it. For instance, one can become a queen by the virtue of their royal birth and can claim to bring democracy to their country or improve the living condition for their citizen but she would be hardly taken seriously if all she bragged about is being a woman head of state. For achievements rarely belong to an individual alone. Like merit, it does not have a straight-forward origin and most of the time a direct result of multiple factors beyond human control like socio-economic background, chance, caste and class position among others.
This dichotomy becomes starker when applied to several leading figures like Indira Gandhi, Benezir Bhutto, Madeline Albright, Pratibha Patil, Margaret Thatcher, Mayawati among others. It is needless to say that these women were great achievers, despite the odds, becoming the firsts in their respective spaces, however, a closer look at their accomplishments could generate polarizing reactions, which is expected when one is a public figure, despite their gender. Nevertheless, toting the “first female so and so” honorifics can rightly generate the question: what have you done for your kind? Did you, in any way, help other women reach the position that you have attained? Basically, what are your accomplishments? Most of the times, these figures are reduced to a symbol, a totem. Being in the position is considered as good enough, irrespective of what you have done with that position. It is not to say that these leaders have not accomplished anything. In fact, most of the time they have outsmarted their male peers on multiple occasions. However, coming to the original question, are their positions and achievements enough to shield them from any fair criticism and scrutiny? Is it enough to become the “first female so and so” or do you also have to work and act according to your position and be ready to be held accountable whenever required?
This brings us back to the new VC of JNU. The statement that she is the “first woman VC” and that’s why held accountable for her past actions remains baseless and in fact, is extremely misogynistic. She should not only be judged as an administrator (who is supposed to be non-partisan) but also as a scholar, since she is heading one of the premier institutions of the country.
Is evil banal or deeply ideological?
Her defenders also requested to not judge her on her personal statements on public issues but her works as an administrator, since she is not the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh but a Vice-Chancellor of a university. However, since it has only been a little while that she began heading the institution, one can only gaze her work through her past comportment and reports show that she has two pending enquiries in her past workplace. Nevertheless, even if one ignores her conduct as an administrator, the question still remains: do her views have no implications of how she is as an administrator? Hannah Arendt, in her work ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, gave the concept of Banality of Evil, where she argued that Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat that carried the extermination of millions of Jews, was merely an “ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat”. In other words, he was a man who did evil without being evil due to his thoughtlessness. However, German historian Bettina Stangneth, in her work ‘Eichamann before Jerusalem’, argued that rather than being a banal, apolitical, career-oriented bureaucrat, Eichmann was a “self-avowed, aggressive, Nazi ideologue strongly committed to Nazi beliefs, who showed no remorse or guilt for his role in the final solution”.
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Regardless of the interpretation one chooses to belief, both thoughtlessness as well as genocidal thoughts are problematic and dangerous and can lead to disasters of Biblical proportions such as the Holocaust. Both the hangman and terrorist can cause death, irrespective of their intention or lack thereof. Thus, it is totally justifiable to criticize the new JNU VC on her statements made in the past (if proven to be made) despite her position as a woman or an administrator. It is important for her to not only be non-partisan but also someone who encourages new thoughts and ideas, and being a “first female…” hardly suffices for that.
Rishija Singh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Instagram.