Higher abdication

IIT Madras episode shows up an academic leadership that signed the government’s dotted line.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: June 2, 2015 8:29 am
iit madras, iit chennai, iit, iit-m student body, iit student body, iit madras student body suspended, indian institute of technology, indian institute of technology chennai, Rahul gandhi, Smriti Irani, Narendra modi, iit-m modi, iit madra modi, iit mardas student body modi, NSUI, NSUI Congress, Congress protest iitm, HRD minister, Congress protest Smriti irani, chennai news, india news, education, latest news,iit madras, iit chennai, iit, iit-m student body, iit student body, iit madras student body suspended, indian institute of technology, indian institute of technology chennai, Rahul gandhi, express column Caste, as India’s original sin, still casts a shadow on almost every debate. But post OBC reservations, the moral imprimatur of India’s reservation policy has diminished.

The controversy over the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras displays multiple pathologies of Indian higher education. Rather than addressing problems, the sector compounds every social division, governance failure, and our sheer littleness. It is almost as if this is a sector where all thinking, common sense and plain decency go to die.

Much horror has been expressed at the fact that the HRD ministry seems to have interfered in the functioning of an academic institution, forwarding an anonymous complaint, ostensibly ideologically motivated. But to think this is the root of a problem is to confuse the general pathology of the system with a specific instance. Let us be very clear. The relationship between government and academic institutions has been debased for a long time. So-called progressive education ministers have enshrined practices that make heads of academic institutions supplicants to even director- or under secretary-level officials. The forwarding of anonymous complaints, sometimes even to the CBI, so that the ministry acquired control over vice chancellors, was an art perfected by many a previous minister. This history is important. Because two wrongs don’t make a right. But the credibility of many protesting against this HRD ministry’s actions is vitiated by the fact that they were willing to put up with similar practices, even worse, when it was politically convenient. If higher education is to be rescued, it will need interlocutors with greater credibility. The sector will have to move beyond charges of hypocrisy. But for that it will have to find interlocutors less hypocritical.

Second, the real ire should be directed at the academic establishment itself. The leadership of IIT-M has once again proved the suspicion that when the history of Indian higher education is written, academic self-abdication will rank higher than political perfidy. Even if the ministry forwards a letter, there is no reason that the university leadership has to act on it. At least, it need not act on it without giving the students a fair hearing. The IIT’s claim that the Ambedkar-Periyar group violated rules seems contrived since it comes after the fact. The leadership crisis in higher education is acute. India has some fantastic academics who have braved adverse conditions. But many have either seceded from institutional matters or are willingly compliant with the powers that be. Residual collegial piety still prevents us from naming and shaming many. But if you draw up a list of top academics who have willingly signed on the dotted line presented by government, you will feel almost queasy. The occasions when academics rush to the HRD ministry for intervention in their favourite cause are too numerous to list. We invited the politicians in, and rue it only when the game does not go in our favour.

The third issue is the place of caste in higher education. Caste, as India’s original sin, still casts a shadow on almost every debate. It is still a poison that vitiates most intellectual life. The upper castes are, with justification, an object of suspicion. Their credibility on creating an inclusive education system is roughly zero. But post OBC reservations, the moral imprimatur of India’s reservation policy has also diminished. Dalits have an overwhelming claim to reservations. But instead of placing that reservation in an ethical framework centred on discrimination and the need to treat people with decency, the indiscriminate expansion of reservations turned higher education into a virtual power grab. Reservation could no longer be articulated as an ethical requirement; rather, it was seen as a manifestation of organised power. And as the nature of that electoral and organised power shifts, different groups will assert themselves, and use state power whenever they have access. Clearly, in Tamil Nadu, anti-Periyar forces think this is a moment for them. But when identity and interest so deeply colonise reason, every move will be seen, by one party or the other, as threatening war. It is important not to render the operations of caste hierarchy invisible under a cloak of anonymity. But an intellectual culture that reinforces the alignment of identity and reason will suffocate any prospect of a meaningful dialogue.

Professors like to think of universities as protected spaces that preserve the possibility of dissent. They should be such spaces, where every thought can be debated. But there are two issues about dissent. First, who draws these boundaries? India’s liberal left has been plagued by the problem that it did not see the university in terms of an open space with a free flow of ideas. It always thought of the university as being about social engineering rather than cultivation of the intellect. The second issue is a paradox. Oddly enough, there is often more freedom to debate when the consequences of the debate are relatively trivial. In Western universities, it is seemingly easy to discuss anything, partly because there are no political stakes. In India, we have the opposite challenge: almost everything, any figure, any icon, is politically charged, with immediate material consequences for society. No social science or humanities discussion here is merely academic. So people find it harder to draw the line between protest and dissent, argument and threat, dialogue and disorder, critique and hatred. In an odd way, we don’t want to debate ideas because we understand their power more. It is a crying shame that the establishment did not engage with Ambedkar and Periyar. But it was also a back-handed compliment in that it knew what the consequences of real engagement would be. In India, therefore, saying that universities are spaces of dissent is not going to be enough; it will take a more imaginative pedagogy to negotiate the hyper-politicisation of ideas.

There are other issues as well. Does a single-minded focus on technical education and exams reduce our ability to handle the larger social dialogue that is at stake in our universities? Ironically, of all the IITs, IIT Madras had taken impressive strides in fostering the social sciences. But the way it has handled this controversy does not bring it credit. It has done a deep injustice to its students, particularly those in the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle. It has sent out a grim reminder that the academic establishment is unlikely to stand up for liberal values, administrative independence and plain common sense.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. Communal Rukstales
    Jun 3, 2015 at 2:39 pm
    We have peioned Modi regime to create an Independent Nation for Untouchable/Dalit/Adivasi in India as per "Communal Award"; Google "Independent nation for 300 million";
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      AARAAM
      Jun 2, 2015 at 9:10 am
      Some of the dividing terminologies that I have with me are, 1. Dalits discrimination. 2. minority distresses. 3. rural poors. 4. farmers- and now, one more has been added in recent times- armed forces, martyrs. All are genuinely the under-cles, but since political parties and OUR EVER VIBRANT ( in all sense of the sword) TV news-media are bereft of issues- at times- anything nearest, or having resemblance of an issue, are blown up ; OUR VIBRANT TV Media has that added advantage, Print does not have - no print media can run 24 X 7 campaigns! [Then no one will purchase- all will go down bankrupt] Our adept TV Media has ability to 'sch any story' on demand, by pitting some footage from, here, some from there , LO! a b new "Talking point" for that "show" (?) emerges! We will see increasingly more of these- you know compeion has ke up TV MEDIA to become much more VIBRANT.
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        URbecozUthink
        Jun 2, 2015 at 2:23 pm
        Of all the authors in IE i expected to analyse and present facts on this case Mr. BPM was expected to go by the real facts of the case... Unfortunately he has also taken cover behind terming the incident as a caste related issue as if the freedom of expression has been trampled upon. It begets the question of why then was the author so concerned about hate speechs given by likes of the sangh parivar and owaisis.... That is also a communal question like the caste question raised by the students of APSC..stead of trying to elevate a simple threat and hate content through psychoanalysis of the deeper malaise, giving a directed opinion on the action may have been much better for the harmony of the college community... But alas... Chances for point scoring are few and far between nowadays, eh mr. PBM???
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          ak dev
          Jun 2, 2015 at 11:40 pm
          This author and self proclaimed seculars in India are the most selfish breed and a feared lot, feared from seeing the truth. They want to impose their views on every body but will not listen to any view that challenges their positions. Now a days all authors have their political agenda to forward. They just can't analyze issues without giving a divisive colour. They probably don't read readers comments and their behaviour in this regards matches with the behaviour of politicians who most of the time indulge in one way communication just like shoot and run.
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          1. Virendra Sason
            Jun 2, 2015 at 9:02 am
            Whether funding by Govt of India is erasing the autonomy of academic insutions?
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