Civil Disobedience under Democracy: The Case of Boycott of Centralised Compulsory Attendance in JNU

It is often advised that civil disobedience in the form of breaking a law must not be practiced under a democracy. It is because democracy by giving the space for open discussion prevents a situation wherein people are compelled to think of civil disobedience. Moreover, if citizens develop faith in civil disobedience then that only undermines the rule of law. Such an act doesn’t strengthen democracy but rather helps in diminishing its ethos. People must be discouraged to break laws because in a democracy, it is they who elect their representatives through free and fair elections. These representatives then make laws to which open disobedience must not be practiced. Citizens can also vote for change of leadership in the subsequent election cycle, if they feel their representatives have been incompetent. However, while these provisions fulfil the conditions of a well functioning procedural democracy, what recourse do citizens have, when their representatives don’t act in the interest of the governed continuously but function in an autocratic manner? What if laws are made without following the spirit of democracy? Does that really result in making a substantive democracy?


It is in such instances, that it becomes utmost necessary to practice civil disobedience as a form of peaceful and passive resistance. Laws derived in an un-democratic manner must be broken. That would strengthen the case for substantive democracy. In such cases, it would help to actually reinforce democracy rather than erode it. One such case, in this respect, is the recent case of numerous research scholars boycotting the centralised compulsory attendance rule in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

The administration has unilaterally imposed, since the beginning of the semester in January 2018, has mandated compulsory attendance rule (vide circular no. IV/Eval.II/28/AS/2018). It has meant that an attendance register shall be kept in offices of various research centres of schools of JNU. Every research scholar in M.PHIL/ PHD must come everyday to the centre on every working day to sign this register. This signing, in no sense ensures my accountability to my supervisor, to whom I anyways meet regularly to show the progress on my dissertation. This signing, I can only think of as a way to prove each day that I am alive.

However, I as a research scholar like many other students, have chosen to boycott this rule of signing in this register everyday.

Before you make judgements that I am an “anti-national” JNUite, that I don’t study, that I only waste the precious “tax payer money”, and that I am a “leftist” activist performing political stunts, let me make some clarifications. Please do not get me wrong. These clarifications are not to brag about myself at all. But they are a prayer to you to continue reading this. To clear your doubts about my inclinations, I do not belong to any political party. I have never even fought any JNUSU election independently. To clear your doubts about my academic credentials, I want to inform that I have been amongst the toppers during my masters in International studies in JNU. Although, I don’t  believe in the philosophy that the quantity of marks is directly proportional to the knowledge one has, I do hope these academic credentials, assuage in some way, your fears that I am a “non-serious” student. And I hope now, you continue to read this piece without any biases.

My main submission is that the compulsory attendance rule has not been passed in a democratic way. Although, the Vice Chancellor has claimed in his interviews to TV channels like the Republic and the Lok Sabha TV, that the highest statutory body the Academic Council meeting has passed this rule, there have been many questions raised on the veracity of this claim. From the JNU Teachers Association, to Professor Kavita Singh (Dean of Arts and Aesthetics who was present in the Academic Council meeting) and to the Vice Chancellor’s appointed external member Madhu Kishwar, all have denied the passing of this academic attendance rule. Allegations have also been made that the minutes of the AC meeting have been fudged.

Interestingly, it is not the first time that such allegations of bypassing the AC have been made against the VC. While the voices of dissent have not been recorded in any minutes of AC meetings, many have spoken against the way the VC made quick unilateral decisions to scrap away with JNU’s unique deprivation point system and instead increasing the weightage of viva, in the entrance exam. If these were not enough to change the face of JNU, the current attendance rule can be seen as the last attempt to close JNU as a university altogether.

As a mere student in JNU, now you may advise me not to break any rule. You may remind me that at the time of my admission, I entered into a contract with the University to abide by its rules and regulations. But, there is as you can see potential procedural violation with the unlawful passage of this law. Today if I sign the register, I will not only enter into a contract, whose democratic derivation I am doubtful about, I fear that I may sign into further contracts that are actually null and void.

Consider this, because many students chose to boycott this rule in January, a new circular was issued on 8th February 2018 (vide circular no. Ref./Eval.II/28/AS/2018), wherein it was said, that those students who don’t consent to this rule and sign their attendance, will loose their scholarships, hostels and medical facilities. I can say this confidently because the administration has till now not released the attendance records for January as thousands of students would have been defaulters as they have chosen to boycott attendance. Now even if we agree for a moment that the 10th January circular was indeed passed by the Academic Council (AC), how come these additional penalties enshrined in the 8th February circular were not disclosed then? And if these penalties have been decided on the 8th of February, then how come they have been passed without the AC meeting?

The only reason I see for this new circular is to make the students consent through threats. But this consent won’t be free consent. The Vice Chancellor, the representative of the JNU administration, is in position of authority over the students wherein the will of students can be dominated upon. By this, he is using his influence to gain our consent. Any signature after the 8th of February would mean signing on a contract that is not based on “free consent” of the student party because it has an element of undue influence from the other party i.e the JNU administration in this case. And as per the provisions of section 16 and 19A of the Indian Contract Act 1872, any contract made through “Undue Influence” is voidable at the option of the party whose consent was so caused. This means the students have a right not to sign if they feel this is not based on their “free consent”. I am using my right to make this contract based on threats and undue influence as null and void.

Also, apart from such threats, laws are also being misrepresented and half truths are being spread. For example, nowhere it is mentioned in the UGC (Minimum Standard and Procedure for Award of M.PHIL/PHD) Regulations, 2016 about the criteria of attendance so required. Furthermore, guidelines like the item 4.3 on “leave”( that stipulates only 30 days of leave in an academic year) of the UGC guidelines on Junior Research Fellowship in Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences has been made to appear as a “law” that must be imposed through an attendance register on everyone. Again, I doubt whether this has been considered in the AC meeting!

But even as I write, I know many students will and are being coerced to sign on that register. They are signing under a fear as many cannot bear the penalties of forceful expulsion from hostels, no registration for the next semester, no fellowships or medical facilities. Is this really substantive democracy or dictatorial rule based on fear?

I know I have not elected the VC. But the current government elected by me has appointed the VC. And by that link, the VC ought to administrate in the interest of this university. The AC is an important part of that university. The provision for an AC is to foster an atmosphere of debate and discussion regarding the formulation of important academic rules and regulations. Any unilateral imposition and doubts raised regarding the decisions of AC is detrimental to not only the academic future of students but also to democracy.
By not signing the register, I am reiterating my faith in the institutions of democracy that happens to be the Academic Council in this case. I am choosing not to obey laws whose democratic credentials seem doubtful.

Once upon a time, Mahatma Gandhi, indulged in civil disobedience in his famous salt march to bring about freedom for this country. Unfortunately, today we need the same civil disobedience to uphold the institutions of democracy in our independent India.




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