There is great anxiety about the future of higher education in India. A combination of half-baked schemes, anti-intellectualism, institutional rot and privileging ideology over pedagogy is putting universities at risk. Now Amartya Sen has made his own experience at Nalanda into an occasion to turn the international spotlight on the growing political assault on higher education, publishing on this subject in the venerable New York Review of Books, which has always acted as if there were no intellectual life if not mediated by the eastern seaboard of the US. In India, the response to Sen’s warnings about education have been distasteful in the extreme, exemplifying the pathologies of our intellectual life. We should take his warnings seriously. But there is also a danger that Sen’s luminosity can blind us to the deeper forces that have brought us to this pass. Confining our gaze on one or two individuals, or the present moment, will lead to a misleading diagnosis.
Academics are good at deconstructing everyone’s privileges but their own. Contrary to arguments being made in India at the moment, there is nothing unprecedented in the interference of this government, even in scope and scale. Every single political transformation in India has led to more interference in universities. The first waves of linguistic politics in the 1960s licensed interference and destroyed the regional universities, making them dens of parochial politics. The big movements of the 1970s made many universities ungovernable.
The Left Front government in West Bengal probably produced the single-most systematic assault on an established system of higher education, creating an unimaginable degree of party control. The destruction of Calcutta University was a far more watershed event for higher education than the travails of Nalanda; West Bengal now has a gross enrolment ratio in higher education lower than that of UP. But our muted protests then have cast a long shadow over our credibility now. There is almost no chief minister in India who has a half-decent record on higher education; even as Nitish Kumar was building Nalanda, he was ensuring that the rest of Bihar’s universities remained basket cases.
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Even at the Centre the rot set in a long time ago. There is convenient historical amnesia about Arjun Singh appointing a clutch of vice chancellors in the middle of the night. Kapil Sibal acted as if everything from course structure to the mode of exams to the de-recognition of dozens of universities was the minister’s personal prerogative. All the institutional contrivances that are now leading to the destruction of Delhi University were perfected under the previous regime. It is always distasteful to pick on individual offices, but one needs to look only at the appointment of the chairman of the University Grants Commission, and the condition of that organisation under the UPA. When the bulk of the public higher education system was laid to waste, we hid behind the convenient garb of progressivism. The result was not public consternation at the political class, but an utter lack of faith in the intellectual class.
This history is important not to make the obvious point about hypocrisy. It is to make the analytical point that the fraught relationship between academia and politics far transcends particular governments. This is not a troubling truth that we can understand through easy recourse to one particular ideology or government. The ideological narrative of interference, rather than the larger political one, allows us to don the garb of victims fighting for a good cause much more easily, and academics love that self-image. It also prevents us from getting greater vertigo as we should if we were to really look over the abyss. But, more practically, it prevents us from asking why it is so difficult to build meaningful alliances for higher education.
One reason is that the contemporary critics of government interference are themselves seen as protectors of privilege, not as standing for general principle. There was a privileged lot in a few institutions — Delhi University, the IITs and IIMs — who condescended towards the rest of the system and thought they would remain immune from larger pathologies. Many academics created their own bypasses: The very ones opposed to even the rationalisation of reservations wanted their own institutions, like Nalanda, to remain immune from onerous social justice requirements. What Sen has faced, bad as it is, is trivial compared to the pressures and threats so many Indian academics and vice chancellors have faced over the years, in far tougher institutional and personal circumstances. But they did not speak the right language, did not have the right ideology, made the mistake of working in Indian universities: hardly the kinds who deserve solidarity. I remember the absolute condescension with which someone as distinguished and brave as Andre Beteille was treated for his warnings about the Indian university system by those who would not care to teach in an Indian university; the same lot now draw their swords in solidarity. This is not an analysis of the worthiness of the cause, but an attempt to think through some issues in the politics of higher education, and why the language and modalities with which the contemporary critique of the government is being formulated are more likely to elicit yawns rather than indignation among the larger public. Academics need to display more self-awareness if they are to build more effective coalitions for higher education.
If you want to truly understand the pathologies of Indian higher education, you will be better off consulting a novel like Gyan Chaturvedi’s Narak Yatra, a searing and humorous portrait of the politics of an Indian teaching medical hospital. Chaturvedi, who incidentally won a Padma Shri this year, dedicates the novel to Sharad Joshi, Rabindranath Tyagi, P.G. Wodehouse and George Bernard Shaw — dedications that give you a sense of its style. Set in Madhya Pradesh, it is prescient in foregrounding the conditions that make a Vyapam scam possible. More importantly, it understands that the politics of Indian education cannot be grasped in an ideological frame: It draws on reservoirs of cynicism, attempts to carve privileges and instrumentalism, and a will to power far deeper than a battle of ideas.
When the barbarians are at the gate, it is important that there be a countervailing force. But the deeper question the academic community needs to ask is why the public does not see it as such a force. Is it because it long abandoned a hapless education system to barbarism and reacts only when the last vestiges of privilege are breached?
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’.