Nicholas B Dirks, Chancellor of University of California, Berkeley, is a historian, anthropologist and author, most of his books on India. In this interview, he discusses the elections, Narendra Modi and the Wendy Doniger controversy:
How do you view the current Indian political scene?
I notice various new people running for office. Some I know… Yogendra Yadav, he is a fellow scholar. At my previous university, Columbia, he was a regular visitor, collaborated a lot with people. I never thought he would be running for elections… he is incredibly smart, conscientious, engaged. I wasn’t completely surprised… but still scholars entering elections…I am intrigued. In the US it almost never happens… But this is a movement — kind of anti-corruption currents have been captured and mobilised — a kind of movement that needs to happen.
As a scholar of India, how do you look at the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book and India’s tolerance for scholarship?
Wendy Doniger has been a colleague with whom I have worked for a very long time. The idea that her book would be branded offensive to Hindu identity or belief seems somewhat strange since she spent her entire life in some sense in love with Hinduism and Puranic texts and stories. She comes from a particularly Freudian background and that obviously exposes her to the use of sexuality, imagery, mythology and interpretive framework. The Satanic Verses was similarly subjected to the charge that it would be offensive to certain communities. I am concerned when scholarship becomes the target of a political mobilisation. I was concerned when a book by James Laine got identified as offensive to the memory of Shivaji — the attack on the Bhandarkar library is in my view just horrible… But having said that, in addition to concerns about sedition, there were concerns about unrest, about communal conflict and so under the guise of a kind of paternalist, imperial, legal framework these kinds of understandings of how you control the circulation of things that might give offence to particular communities became coded into law.
How do you look at the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP?
There are a lot of people in the business world who clearly are very interested in having the Hindutva party in control, and lots of concerns have been raised about how efficient the recent government has been in organising infrastructure, controlling corruption. The real question for me is what is the current standing of the Hindu ideology which BJP is working on. Because I get the impression that there has been an effort to become more inclusive and also less doctrinaire in the BJP.
How would a Modi-led government impact Indo-US collaborations in education?
I came here on a regular basis when I was working with Columbia. I met Kapil Sibal and others in the Congress government who were very optimistic at some point on the passage of the Foreign Universities Bill, and he didn’t get anywhere and in fact he had to stipulate even prospective terms of condition that would have made collaborations very difficult… I have worked very closely with people like Romila Thapar and others who have spoken on the issue of textbook rewriting and almost all the top academics, scholars, sociologists, historians were very concerned about politicisation of textbooks in history… Modi, however, is a pragmatist… he may want to take a different position… he may want to completely rebrand himself and try very hard to keep any continuing concerns from Godhra from overtaking his new identity.
Would you consider setting up a UCB campus in India?
We have no plans to set up a campus… there is no law in India enabling that. It is not clear to me that it would be a great strategy for a university. We are exploring setting up a base office, an interactive centre for alumni… Berkeley is really interested in building up relationships we already have. I think it’s a good time to enhance exchange of students, and collaboration and opportunities, join research projects. We are in talks with IIT Delhi, Ashoka University, Azim Premji University.
What is your view of global academic rankings and the dismal performance of Indian institutes?
There is no single ranking system that is perfect in my opinion but through them increasingly institutions can see themselves in competition on a global kind of scale. UCB does very well on all rankings… It should also serve as a wake-up call for institutions in India to the need to invest more in these institutions. They will be well served by government and private support; a combination of both is needed.