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Politicised and polluted: Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s biggest academic institute, is sick of protests and padlocks

The central office of Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s oldest and biggest university, has been shut down for over two months now. The padlock, put up by the various student unions, is not close to being off as the dispute continues to escalate between the university officials and them.

Moreover, there are regular demonstrations. Student unions, teachers and staff of the Tribhuvan University have been protesting for their own selfish needs. They have nothing to do with academics or the betterment of the university. Despite that, none of them wants to budge as they want political appointments in various positions in the university.

This is not the first time that such a protest has taken place. Since 2006, the university has seen a lot of these protests which has affected the future of over 400,000 students that are affiliated with the university. So what does this imply? How can the country’s biggest university be held to ransom by unions associated with political parties?

Setting a (bad) example

The government time and again has been promoting good governance. But, examples from the Tribhuvan University show where the country stands.

Resham Thapa, associate professor at the Department of Economics, says this problem should have been solved by the prime minister.

“TU officials can’t solve this issue. Unless the prime minister does something, the central office will remain closed,” says Thapa. Thapa says so because the prime minister is the ex-officio chancellor of the Tribhuvan University.

Currently, the student union affiliated with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress is at the forefront of repeated protests, say TU officials. The union has padlocked the offices since January 20. The union has demanded that people who gave a private college in Janakpur the permission to operate the bachelor’s in computer application resign. They have accused the people involved of taking a bribe. There has been no proof to support their allegations so far.

A few weeks later, on February 6, some Tribhuvan University professors added another padlock demanding that the university fulfil the promises it made to them before.

In reply to the allegations made by the student union, the university has already formed a high-level investigation committee. 

When it comes to the teachers, the university says it has three options. First, they want the affiliated colleges to hire their own part-time teachers. Second, the university hires the teachers through the service commission. The third option is urging the government to release funds to hire 1,480 staff as asked by it.

This was done a month ago yet, the padlocks remain. Hoping to make things better, the Tribhuvan University officials met Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Education Minister Devendra Paudel. They urged the two to create a system that would stop padlocking from happening in the future. Deuba did ask his party’s cadres to unlock the offices, but a month on, nothing has changed.

The polluted politics

Tribhuvan University
Tribhuvan University central office. Photo: Shankar Giri

The trend of protesting to get a permanent appointment at the Tribhuvan University started around 1990. The head of the Department of Anthropology, Dambar Chemjong, says once Nepal was declared a multi-party democracy, things started to get worse at the university.

He says that after 1990, people started getting jobs without even being eligible for it as political parties started appointing people.

“This escalated further after 2006 when whichever party was in power started appointing people close to them as professors and head of departments,” says Chemjong.

He says that after 2006, power-sharing between parties and the idea of inclusiveness further weakened the Tribhuvan University.

But, former education minister Giriraj Mani Pokharel says this had started in the 1990s when political parties started using their influence to appoint people and share various positions in the university. But, it was only after the king was overthrown in 2006 that the student unions also started to get involved in this.

The Department of International Relations and Diplomacy professor Khadga KC says if these people do not have their way, they may protest and cause chaos until their demands are met. “That is what is happening now,” says KC.

Professor Chaitanya Mishra says this shows how political parties and not the government runs the Tribhuvan University.

“The country is run by political parties. Its effect will definitely rub off on this institution too,” he says. “When political parties use their power to appoint people for their interest without considering the rules and regulation, things will definitely get out of hand. That is what is happening at the TU right now.”

Resham Thapa from the Department of Economics says student unions have also started to get financially rewarded because there is a belief that it is the student union that decide who gets appointed in the university.

“They use the protests to get money. They do this via their role in getting someone appointed or via infrastructure development in the university. Because they see financial gain, they continuously try and disrupt things at the university,” says Thapa.

Locked in, locked out

Temporary teachers padlocked the TU’s central office demanding they get tenure.

Student union protesting against the Tribhuvan University for giving a private college the permission to run the BCA programme is odd, say professors. 

“If they think and have proof that TU officials were at fault and took a bribe, they could have gone to the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Why do they lock the campus,” questions KC.

Other professors feel that there is another issue surrounding the process. One professor believes that the padlock became a trend during former VC Thirtha Khaniya’s term.

“When he was the VC, this group of students saw how they could get away with doing anything and even earn money through political appointments. When you have so much power and it gets taken away now, things will get out of hand,” says the professor.

After the government changed, Khaniya, who was close to the Nepali Congress, was replaced by Dharma Kanta Baskota who is close to the CPN-UML. Similarly, the registrar and rector of the Tribhuvan University were also appointed from the CPN-Maoist Centre and UML fronts respectively making the Nepali Congress student union angry.

“That is why they are creating a scene. They want their people in power,” says a professor. 

When Baskota and others came to the university, they started removing people and that did not go down well with the student union, after which they resorted to protest, the professor adds.

Assistant professor Prem Chalaune had proposed that the university break the padlocks and commence classes. But, the Nepal Congress student union issued a notice threatening to cut the hands of anyone who broke the lock. A few days after the notice, Chalaune was beaten up.

Police arrested those who beat Chalaune and said that they had done so upon orders from Hari Acharya and Yogendra Rawal.

These people were found guilty and asked to pay Chalaune compensation and released on bail of Rs 500,000. Following their release, Acharya and Rawal were both active around the Tribhuvan University premises and have locked down the central office.

A professor says what they really want is to transfer Chalaune and make him take back the case against them.

Part-timer professors on strike

That was about the students padlocking the Tribhuvan University office. Let’s look at the teachers doing so.

A few part-timer temporary teachers on February 11 padlocked the TU office demanding to be made permanent.

But, this is not the first time that TU professors are on strike. In 2006, some teachers staged a protest on campus and even staged a hunger strike demanding they be made permanent. The then Girija Prasad Koirala-led government gave in to their demand and announced that 1,380 contractual appointments would be made. Out of them, 900 even landed permanent jobs.

Those that were not included on that list have been protesting that should also be made permanent. Some of them were on the verge of getting contractual appointments during Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s term as prime minister in 2009, but it was never implemented. Since then, the issue has been constantly plaguing Tribhuvan University. 

After Baskota was made the vice-chancellor, there was a verbal agreement with these teachers about finding a solution. A committee was also formed. The committee recommended the university raise the per-class wage of temporary teachers forms Rs 360 to Rs 500. But, even this was not implemented resulting in the teachers locking the central office.

After discussion with the teachers, the Tribhuvan University decided to speak to the government ask them for the funds to make 480 seats, that were vacant, available for these professors. While some accepted this, many were still against it and with the decision not being implemented, they were back to padlocking the office.

The root of the problem: The prime minister

File: Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers
File: Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers

Many blame Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba for the problems at Tribhuvan University. Ever since he took office, he has said nothing about this. Professors at the TU want politicisation at the university to stop. KC even says that maybe it is time to remove the prime minister as the chancellor of the university. 

“Maybe, we need to start this discourse,” says KC. “I don’t think TU will be free from politics until we remove this provision.”

Thapa also says the root of the problem is the government, and hence it needs to come up with a solution.

“When the university is locked for over a month and the PM doesn’t say anything, I think we need to start thinking he is the problem,” says Thapa. “But, he also has the solution.”

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Rai is an Onlinekhabar correspondent.

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