The Tamil Nadu government introduces a Bill in the Assembly that will enable it to take over the 85-year-old Annamalai University, which is in turmoil following serious allegations of corruption and intense agitations by staff and students. By R. ILANGOVAN

OFTEN called the “Nalanda” of Tamil Nadu, Annamalai University in Chidambaram has fallen on hard times. At least that is the impression one gets while reading the 47-page The Annamalai University Bill, 2013, introduced by the Tamil Nadu government in the State Assembly recently.

The move to “repeal” the existing The Annamalai University Act, 1928, which governed the university until recently, and to “re-enact” one has far-reaching consequences for this higher educational institution. Its primary objective, however, is to end the eight-decade-old hegemony that the heirs of Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar, its founder, have enjoyed in the varsity. The 1928 Act confers certain powers and privileges on the founder’s heir(s) as Pro-Chancellors and officers of the university.

“The founder as Pro-Chancellor has wielded enormous power. This is the only university where the Pro-Chancellor literally appoints a Vice-Chancellor. No other State university can do that,” points out S. Mathiyalagan, joint convener of the joint action council (JAC) of the Annamalai University teaching and non-teaching staff associations. This forum has been spearheading an agitation to protect the rights of the employees.

The agitation emboldened the State government to adopt certain strong measures in order to meet its social obligations. “The Chief Minister has taken the decision [to table the Bill in the Assembly] exclusively for the welfare of the staff and students in the university,” State Higher Education Minister P. Palaniappan says. The Bill, once passed, will make him the Pro-Chancellor.

The agitation, unprecedented in Tamil Nadu, intensified when the Vice-Chancellor, Dr M. Ramanathan, announced in November 2012 that “a string of stringent measures including wage cut and retrenchment to shore up the institution facing a financial disaster” would be taken up, fuelling fears and apprehensions among the teaching and non-teaching employees. “But our agitation was positive and non-violent. Students’ academic pursuits were never affected except for a few days in November. Classes went on, examinations were held, and results published. We courted arrest in a peaceful manner and were in prison for 15 days,” Mathiyalagan says.

Cuddalore district president of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) K. Sunilkumar endorses his views. An engineering graduate, he says that the students extended moral support to the striking employees. “In fact, the SFI organised a five-day hunger strike in September 2012 urging the university to get recognition for the self-supporting, five-year integrated courses started in 2006, since the future of about 50,000 graduates of these courses remain uncertain even today,” he says.

He says there was an attempt to bring in amendments to the 1928 Act in 1981 itself, when M.G. Ramachandran was the Chief Minister. Even earlier, in 1948, a committee to suggest amendments was formed. That committee submitted its report, after a woefully long delay, in 1964, when M. Bakthavatsalam was the Chief Minister. “But none of its recommendations was implemented,” Sunilkumar claims.

The staff received a rude jolt when the university, which has 12,000 employees, including 8,900 non-teaching staff, and 35,000 students, besides a total of 4.5 lakh students under the Distance Education stream, submitted a deficit budget of Rs.49 crore for the first time in its 84-year-old history in the late 1990s.

The decay had permeated so deep into the system that at one stage the campus was agog with all sorts of rumours, forcing the staff and the students to resort to frequent strikes and agitations. To overcome the fund crunch, the panicky university authorities resorted to various modes of fund mobilisation, Mathiyalagan says.

They started collecting huge sums as “University Development Fund” from new students of professional and self-supporting courses. Mathiyalagan further accuses the university authorities of diverting funds from the State government and grants from the University Grants Commission to purposes other than academic. He claims that the funds collected through these means were not credited to the university account for almost 10 years. “Where did all the money go?” he asks.

Many JAC members also urge the State government to initiate a detailed inquiry into the financial irregularities. With the State-appointed administrator Shiv Das Meena, a senior officer of the 1989 Indian Administrative Service (IAS) batch, at the helm of affairs, the university, which pioneered distance education in the country, must scrap the entrance examination for admissions to professional courses in Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering and Agriculture and, instead, the single-window system should be followed, they say.

The academia feels that the government has adopted a meticulous approach to this issue, which is of a sensitive nature. It first exposed the rot within the university through a special audit team that probed the alleged financial irregularities. The team’s report pointed out financial irregularities including diversion of funds, higher fixation of wages, excess expenditures due to excess number of posts, appropriation of Provident Fund and contributory pension fund contributions, non-remittal of pension, lapses in collecting dues, and so on.

On the basis of the report, Apurva Varma, Principal Secretary to the Tamil Nadu government, Department of Higher Education, in a communiqué dated March 7 to the Registrar, Senate and Syndicate, stated that “serious malpractices” had occurred owing to “gross abuse of power and privileges conferred on founder”. He further said the university had incurred an “overall deficit of Rs.27,264.47 lakh (272.64 crore) and liability of Rs.23,821.14 lakh (238.21 crore) over the last 15 years”.

The audit report and the unrest on the campus were reasons enough for the government to appoint the administrator and introduce the Bill, which is hailed as historic by the staff and the students, with the primary objective of annulling “family rule”’ in the university. The JAC convener, R. Udayachandran, says the Pro-Chancellor had become the victim of groups that had virtually usurped the university administration.

Though reluctant to talk about the issue, Shiv Das Meena, appointed by the State under Section 28(4) of the 1928 Act, when contacted, said that he needed time to study the administrative and financial issues. The ousted Vice-Chancellor, Ramanathan, said he was “wounded”’ and “upset”. “I am in a dejected state of mind. For all the good work I did, I should have been treated a shade better,” he said.

The Governor-Chancellor placed him under suspension on April 6, within two days of Meena assuming charge, holding him responsible for the lapses in the administration. The Registrar, R. Meenakshisundaram, also demitted office. “The Vice-Chancellor has been made a scapegoat,” says Mathiyalagan.

The support of the political class to the agitation has been a refreshing one. “All the parties, besides the CPI(M), extended support to the striking employees. We wholeheartedly welcome the State’s new law that aims to restructure and revitalise the university administration,” says Chidambaram’s CPI(M) MLA K. Balakrishnan.

Calling it a “history-making” decision, Balakrishnan, who was a Senate member, says that the CPI(M) pursued the issue relentlessly both on the floor of the Assembly and outside.

“We took up the issue with the good intention of saving the university from further decay,” he points out. He insists that any move that will jeopardise the interests of the staff should be discouraged.

The State, says noted educationist M. Anandakrishnan, has taken the most sensible decision. “There is no other way to redeem the university which was founded with a philanthropic intention,” he says. In the pre-Independence era, he says, two universities—Banaras Hindu University established by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Annamalai University—were founded with high ideals. “While Banaras University has attained a world-class status, Annamalai deteriorated. The founder was a noble man but those who succeeded him paid little attention to its development,” he points out.

“I feel very sad at the recent developments,” says well-known Bharatanatyam exponent Dr Padma Subrahmanyam. Annamalai University, she says, was known for creativity. “When Sir C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar was its Vice-Chancellor, he encouraged me to do a doctoral study on dance after the University of Madras refused permission since it was of an interdisciplinary nature,” she said. She says that her thesis on “Karana—Indian Dance and Sculptors” involved three departments: Music (then headed by the doyen of Carnatic music M.M. Dhandapani Desikar), Sankrit and History. She recollects how she felt at home on the premises to pursue her research work. “It was a unique experience,” she recalls.

Many share her views. Noted parliamentarian Era Sezhiyan, an alumnus, says that the happenings in the university will have a direct bearing on the standard of higher education. “I blame none but the State government. There should have been an audit by a public trust. In those days no one knew what corruption was,” he said.

In fact, the university has a very impressive line-up of who’s who as its Vice-Chancellors and alumni. A few of those greats are Rt. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, R. Venkatarama Sastri and Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer. Former President R. Venkataraman was its students’ union president. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer as also the Tamil scholar T.P. Meenakshi Sundaram studied here.

The campus was fertile ground for the growth of Dravidian political ideology. It was at the forefront of the Hindi agitation and other related protests. Campus disturbances in those days were not uncommon here. Dravidian leaders such as R. Nedunchezhiyan, K. Anbalagan, S.D. Somasundaram and K. Veeramani were some of its proud products.

Since the British era, the university has produced lakhs of graduates, scholars, eminent scientists and intellectuals.

After the State government introduced the Bill, there is a pervasive feeling of relief in the academia, which hopes that the glorious past of the institution will be resurrected.