On 3 December every year, Rajendra College in Chhapra, west Bihar, hosts a “cultural programme” to mark the birth anniversary of India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad, from whom it gets its name. It’s usually a staid event. Attendees pay tributes, sing patriotic songs, have a meal, and return home well before bedtime.
This year looked like it might be no different. But when the function had ended, and everyone was packing up, someone started playing Teri Aakhya Ka Yo Kajal, a dance-number by Haryana’s pop sensation Sapna Chaudhary. Some students went up on stage and broke into an impromptu jig. A few teachers joined in and, at some point, so did the college principal.
A few onlookers recorded it all on their cellphones. By the next morning, the sleepy town was abuzz; the video had gone viral on WhatsApp. Some found it refreshing, others saw it as a breach of propriety by the teachers.
More than three months, three committees, suspensions and a transfer later, the controversy is yet to die down.
“We (the print media) had ignored it at first,” says Thakur Sangram Singh, bureau chief of the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar. There were two main reasons for it, he explains. One, they didn’t want to divert attention from the jayanti. Two, it would have affected the reputation of the private college, known as the crown jewel of the town’s Jai Prakash (JP) University.
“Phir ye video [TV] channels ke haath lag gaya,” sighs Singh.“Aur channels ko to aap jaante hi hai (then TV channels got hold of it, and you know what they are like).”
Sample this broadcast by Richa Sharma, a journalist from News4Nation, a local TV news channel. The incident, she says, in a clip that can be seen on YouTube, “ruined the importance” of Prasad. “Teachers are meant to inspire the students, but what would you say if woh thumke lagane lage, naagin dance karne lage?” she asks, referring to the dance moves made by the teachers. “Jaisi jaisi raat gehri hote gayi, shikshakon ki masti se deshratna ki aatma bhi karah rahi hogi (it would have made the spirit of the former president cringe).”
The college administration seemed to share this view. On 5 December, Faruque Ali, vice-chancellor of JP University, set up a committee of three senior professors to inquire into the incident. Two days later, Phagu Chauhan, governor-cum-chancellor of the university, set up another committee, comprising vice-chancellors of the universities of Patna and Darbhanga.
The first committee submitted its report on 10 December. It held the 13 people accused “guilty” of dancing and recommended disciplinary action against them. The university stopped the increments and dearness allowance (DA) of all 13 professors. The principal, Pramendra Ranjan Singh, was sent to Narayan College in the neighbouring town of Goreakothi.
The governor’s committee took it a step further. It pulled up the professors, members of the university’s inquiry committee and the vice-chancellor. On 13 February, the governor’s committee gave the stamp of approval to suspend all 13 professors, holding them guilty of “misconduct” and “dereliction of duty”. This committee also charged the three members of the inquiry committee with not conducting an “impartial probe” and trying to “hush up the issue” —and suspended them too. The vice-chancellor must bear responsibility for “such indiscipline, public disorder, public non-moral, public non-ethical practices,” it added.
On 9 March, it set up another inquiry committee against the vice-chancellor on charges of financial misappropriation—for appointing a financial officer for two months without a nod from the governor’s office. “The VC is being targeted,” says a senior professor from the university, who requested anonymity.
The result: There are only 35-40 teachers left in the college. Several departments, like English, Chemistry and Hindi, haven’t functioned since December; their teachers are among the suspended. Indeed, few in the town’s academic circles can square the nature of the crime with the scale of the punishment.
“The scale of this punishment is unprecedented,” says U.S. Ojha, dean of student welfare and one of the now suspended members of JP University’s inquiry committee. “I have been teaching for 24 years. To have to justify (one’s integrity) now is quite painful.”
Most of those suspended for dancing were young teachers, appointed between 2017-19. Principal Pramendra Singh, too, had been appointed shortly before admission season in 2020. He was a “dynamic type”, several academics from the university tell Lounge, and had even represented India at the Physics Olympiad at several forums. He had reportedly sought to streamline the admission process and spruce up the campus, giving it a fresh coat of paint ahead of Rajendra Jayanti.
Singh and another professor seen dancing in the video weren’t willing to be interviewed. Those who were—journalists and other academics—suggested myriad reasons for the stiff penalty.
“Vested interests,” says H.K. Verma, a professor at the college who retired in 2015. “People were taking money to get students admission in the college. Under this principal, they were not successful.”
“Internal politics,” says A.K. Jha, dean of the faculty of science and a suspended member of the committee. “People want a contract in college for a construction or development or repairing work. Whoever doesn’t get it, they try to act against you.”
“Electoral politics,” a local journalist claims, requesting not to be named. In 2010, Pramendra Singh had contested and lost the assembly election on a Rashtriya Janata Dal ticket. It was possibly the work of his rivals, he adds. None of them could substantiate their allegations.
Then again, why should a few teachers shaking a leg result in pay-cuts and suspension? To understand this, local journalists point at the subject line of the press release Raj Bhavan sent out on 7 December: “The governor has ordered a probe...for the viral video of professors dancing on a Sapna Chaudhary song.” The dance playlist had popstar Badshah’s Abhi To Party Shuru Hui Hai and Amit Trivedi’s London Thumakda. But only Chaudhary grabbed the headline.
To Ambrish Pathak, social activist from the neighbouring town of Dumraon, none of this comes as a surprise. West Bihar is the home of Bhojpuri music and cinema industry. Many there can’t relate to the affluence shown in Bollywood dance numbers. Bhojpuri music, often featuring members of the working class, filmed against a rural backdrop, aims to speak to them in their own dialect. But its crude aesthetics and double entendres can often be alienating.
“Bhojpuri music, as we know it today, is crass and full of innuendos,” says Pathak. “You hear it everywhere—autos, buses and in private parties—but you don’t listen to it at family functions or formal events.”
Sapna Chaudhary, 30, plugs this gap. Her Haryanvi music videos are often set in the countryside where Chaudhary, in a ghoonghat, ghagra or Patiala salwar suits, prances around invitingly. She teases but doesn’t titillate, making performances accessible to both children and adults. In her five-year career, her foot-tapping numbers have notched up hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. She was a participant in Bigg Boss Season 11 and has done cameos in Bollywood item numbers in films like Veere Di Wedding and Nanu ki Jaanu. But for the most part, Chaudhary earns a living by headlining dance shows and private parties across north India.
This may have fed into the controversy, says Pathak.
“There’s a clause in the Bihar government’s service conduct rules for teachers,” says Jha. “It goes, ‘Koi aisa kaam nahi karenge jo ashobhaniya ho.’ To not do anything that’s unbecoming of a teacher.” It doesn’t define “unbecoming” behaviour but Jha recalls an instance: “When I had joined the college in the 1980s, I had once worn a printed shirt to work. One senior asked me, ‘How can you dress like youth? Shikshak ho, shikshak wala kapda pehno (you are a teacher, dress like one).” This meant plain shirts, preferably cotton.
But times are changing, so are sensibilities. “The new teachers we get from the Bihar Public Service Commission are products of Central universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Indian Institutes of Technology. How they think and how we think is different,” says Jha. Back in the day, you wouldn’t even think of teachers shaking a leg in public. “Par aajkal DJ chal gaya hai. Jo cinema mein dekhte the samaaj mein aa gaya hai (DJs have become popular these days. What you'd once see in cinema, is now part of the society),” he adds.
Jha was part of JP University’s probe committee. He says they asked each of the 13 professors to give a written statement explaining their involvement. “We compiled them and asked (the VC) to take the necessary action. The VC said you should suggest a recommendation. But we didn’t have the power to. There is a disciplinary committee and a legal counsel of the university. We asked them to take a decision using them. They didn’t accept that.” Finally, the VC decided to remove the principal and cancel increments.
The governor’s probe committee, however, focused on a break-in in the principal’s chamber and the college on 6 December. “They said the principal had a DVR [containing footage from the event] stolen to erase the evidence,” says Jha. On phone, he read out a portion from the report: “We are of the view that after the popular item number songs and dance upon it became viral on various social media sites, it was he who in order to wipe up the proofs arranged for the so-called theft of DVR and tutored the teachers to repeat the same version before the team.”
Jha says the probe also claimed that the principal “showed least respect for university laws and without proper approval, organised the jayanti and inserted item songs and dance in the programme, under the banner of Rajendra Prasad Jayanti Samaroh (celebrations) along with cake-cutting ceremony in his office chambers.” Such acts, the report said, “deserved to be proceeded against for such unethical and non-moral practices”.
The governor’s public relations officer didn’t comment for this piece. The vice-chancellor of JP University, too, didn’t respond to emails requesting comment.
However, the teachers association of Rajendra College has refuted the allegations in a official statement, as reported by The New Indian Express on 18 February. The incident, the statement reads, happened after the official conclusion of the event and the dinner, when students and teachers had gathered on the stage for a photograph.
“After this, upon the enthusiastic insistence of the cultural participants, the teachers indulged their zealous requests and danced with them and other family members and children to some songs for hardly four-five minutes. This precise and innocuous sequence of events was captured and has been manipulated and edited conveniently to satiate the misbegotten interests of some miscreants,” the statement says.
The entire incident is a result of “retrogression”, the association said. “We (teachers) were subjected to threats, criminal intimidation and unrelenting verbal abuse from local anti-social elements. Our efforts became unpalatable to all those retrogressive miscreants who spared no opportunities to manipulate the transparent system according to their requirements.”
Besides, they added, Rajendra Prasad himself believed folk songs were an intrinsic part of India's cultural scenario. “Can a dance routine performed with family members and children be considered obscene? Is a five-minute dance performed to celebrate the gaiety of successfully conducting the programme obscene? Are the songs composed and performed by Sapna Choudhary vulgar? If so, who has the moral authority to decide it?” they were quoted as saying by the newspaper.
For the past three months, the teachers have been reporting to the college for attendance but have not been allowed to teach. Some, like Jha, are contemplating legal action. The matter has reached the state legislature, too, with the local MLA and MLC raising the issue of the college being paralysed.
Ojha says the debate should be seen in the context of the “changing morality” of the times. “People in Chhapra are largely conservative. We now have a generation studying outside Bihar, working in metros and foreign countries. They are coming with a new way of life, thinking. One has to now accommodate.”
“Something like this has never happened in the history of Bihar,” adds Ojha. “In the process, it’s the students who are suffering, as is the university’s reputation.”