The new JNU VC’s statement has bad grammar. So?

I strongly disagree with some criticism that has emerged on Twitter against the new JNU vice-chancellor Santishree Pandit. The object of criticism is a statement that Pandit has apparently drafted and in which she states, broadly, what she considers to be her mandate. In response, BJP MP Varun Gandhi wrote:

Here are screenshots of tweets by two other people, both with a not-insubstantial number of followers on Twitter:

At the outset, while Pandit deserves the criticism that has come her way for her use of abusive language on Twitter against the country’s students and farmers, using the quality of the English language in the statement to deride her is unfair. I have two reasons.

First, listen to this talk (also embedded below) Pandit delivered in 2015: her diction is much better than her new statement would suggest. It suggests strongly that someone else wrote the statement and that Pandit simply signed off on it, as a formality.

Second, even if we assumed Pandit wrote the statement, or that the criticism of Varun Gandhi and others were really to be directed at the statement’s real author…

English is a difficult language to learn and use. Its grammar often has a mind of its own – typically in the form of what linguist Noam Chomsky has called opaque structures: turns of phrase that allow us to deduce nothing about their origins based on their composition itself (“trip the light fantastic” comes to mind; it means, of all things, to dance in a nimble way.)

There are word and sentence constructions in English into which someone who doesn’t read, write and speak the language regularly is unlikely to ever stumble. As such, the language is part deduction and part memorisation (sort of like biology), and unless someone claims to wish to succeed Mary Norris or Mary Beard, or wishes to draft law, criticising a person’s flawed use of the English language can only amount to a criticism of their lack of access to English-speaking habits, circles, etc., and in turn a criticism of either their inability or their unwillingness to have this access. And this is not a sin. In fact, I suspect that the statement’s author is more fluent in a different language than in English and that if that person had penned their statement in that language, it would have been much less grammatically iffy.

One may contend that the critics expect better from the vice-chancellor of JNU. What is this ‘better’? At the risk of affirming the consequent, let’s flip the argument such that it becomes: “A vice-chancellor of JNU must be able to string two sentences together in a grammatically correct way.” Why must this requirement be met?

There is a presumption here, however slight, that the goodness of Pandit’s knowledge of the English language is an indication of her being unfit for the job, or more generally that it could be a proxy for the many, many things that count towards literacy, not to mention her prowess as a teacher and her familiarity with the subject matter. (Before her appointment, Pandit was a professor of political science at the Savitribhai Phule Pune University.)

If the requirement must be met nonetheless, should we subject all future vice-chancellors to this ‘test’, to have them demonstrate their literacy? Should we also extend these tests to the heads of other important institutions – such as, say, S. Somanath of ISRO or health minister Mansukh Mandaviya? Pandit works at a university where many classes are conducted in English and where English is also an important language of administration – but this is easily true of ISRO and the health ministry as well. Most extant knowledge of space science, engineering studies, medical science and Indian public administration exist in English.

Attacking Pandit’s grammar could in effect set up a requirement for vice-chancellorship that could easily say nothing at all about the appointee’s competency. Pandit’s statement expresses itself without confusion and, given the context, its real author likely didn’t have and/or enlist the assistance of other people who could fix the grammatical mistakes (it’s entirely possible they didn’t check for grammatical mistakes and/or that they believed that they wouldn’t matter to her intended readers).

In fact, I appreciate that the statement dispenses with appearances and seems to come straight from Pandit’s or another author’s desk without having visited a PR unit in between. If such a PR team had helped draft the statement and we all hadn’t discovered today that her English isn’t perfect, we wouldn’t have lost any bit of the information we actually need to scrutinise her Twitter comments and her vice-chancellorship – as much as we haven’t gained anything today by knowing that Pandit is okay with using “would” instead of “will”.

Ultimately, the only criticism that makes sense here, assuming someone else did draft Pandit’s statement, and if that person’s job is to draft statements, then a) they should do better, and b) Pandit should read public statements before signing them. If she doesn’t, that signals another kind of problem.

Featured image: Santishree Pandit delivering her 2015 talk. Source: YouTube.