Nalanda is a syndrome

The rot in higher education set in long ago. Its politics transcends particular governments.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:July 14, 2015 12:00 am
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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.

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’.

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    Arijit Singh
    Jul 14, 2015 at 9:18 pm
    Wonderful article.
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      Pmp
      Jul 14, 2015 at 11:11 am
      Because of the Nehruvian socialism the protagonists of Marxism occupied vantage positions in academia ,they only feathered their own nests but we're never interested in improving the quality of education.they were also pampered,like Amrtya Sen by westerners.We eulogised them by asking them to establish world cl insutions like Nalanda.But it is clear that they did not have the capabilities to lead these insutions to world level.Now that an honest essment of their performance is being made they are casting aspersions. As regards the universities,these were fiefdom of the philistine politicians,who appointed their stooges as vice chancellors,which is a. Fact. Now the academicia has become the golden goose for the same politicians.-Pmp
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        adarsh
        Jul 28, 2015 at 8:46 am
        Friends Wat does the meaning of ''ideological narrative of interference allow us to Don the garb of victims fighting for a good cause '' please reply
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          ak dev
          Jul 14, 2015 at 3:24 pm
          Mr Mehta is no different from Amartya Sen. Both of them have illusion of being intelligent guys. Both indulge in criticizing others for selfish ends. Both accuse others without with self made beliefs.
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            Anil Maheshwari
            Jul 14, 2015 at 9:08 am
            The deep-rooted malaise is not a new development. It has eaten the vitals so meticulously over the years since Independence of the country that the situation seems to be beyond redemption. About four decades ago, Ale Ahmed Suroor, a noted Urdu critic wrote in the "Young Indian" edited by Chandra Shekhar that "most of the degree college teachers get full time pay for the part time job." The situation has reached to such a nadir that the full time pay is drawn by colleges and universities dons for no work, no accountability at all. China too faced the similar situation and Comrade Mao had to launch the Cultural Revolution, which was, however, decried in our country. China closed down all the educational insutions for a period of two years and asked the students and faculty to choose between the factory and farm during this period. The result is the emergence of a New China. Such a bold experiment could be undertaken in a totalitarian state while we are a democratic one. The putrefied situation needs an urgent attention. Merely writing articles and shading crocodile tears are not enough.
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              Kris
              Jul 14, 2015 at 4:50 pm
              Amartya Sen does not deserve to be holding any post in Nalanda as he is a communist and does not believe in India's past and Nalanda represents India's past glory. We should therefore appoint someone who has respects for India's golden era in several fields, including education. Sen is appointed by Sonia hi who has selfish motives in appointing him and the reason why he is against BJP and Modi is to please the woman called Sonia Maino. A vast majority of Indians do not know who Amartya Sen is nor has any interest in him. He may have won Nobel prize, which also has many times selfish motives of the western world, but has his economic theory worked any good for the country. He seems to be great supporter of Kerala's economic model which is the worst model one should follow. Kerala is surviving drafts and money transfers sent by their semi skilled workers toiled in Arabian countries without any economic base be it in industry or In agriculture. Marxists and Congress have ruined Kerala and is the worst place for communal politics. The reason why the national media is not taking up the issues confronting Kerala is itself a big surprise and this guy Amartya Sen is a big supporter of Kerala. This itself explains how knowledgeable he is on the ground realities.
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                Anuradha Kalhan
                Jul 15, 2015 at 3:58 pm
                If the state is going to fund education it is also going to control it ( and nobody seriously bothered with education is arguing that state must not fund) . The real question is what it should control and how it should control( and again nobody is saying that state must not seek some influence over the course content), So the REAL question is who should control the state and towards what purpose.
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                  A Mukherji
                  Jul 15, 2015 at 11:07 am
                  Amartya Sen has to self-diagnose or perhaps even determine what would be his predominant affliction- selective amnesia or hypocrisy. Or may be both.I have little time for such folks. He cannot be that forgetful about the way education has been decimated by his friends in the left in West Bengal and now by Mamata Banerjee. Its a waste of time bringing up more such examples if he does not acknowledge this affliction.
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                    baba thugdev
                    Jul 14, 2015 at 2:40 pm
                    I am impressed with your knowledge. I did not know how to spell that word. Thank you for pointing it out.
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                      baba thugdev
                      Jul 14, 2015 at 2:44 pm
                      Was the article written for an academic journal? Here is a suggestion: read NY Times opinion pages and you will know what a good writing is. May be it is the case that you appreciate only thing which requires multiple reading sessions.
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                        baba thugdev
                        Jul 14, 2015 at 7:10 am
                        and your bigotry is only things that sustains and remains intact in the archaic language that you write. what is the purpose of using so dense a language that it surpes the level of comprehension so much so that it looses all its basic utility; which is communicating your idea to general reading public. Or you are just a windbag strutting to impress then it is fine. But please do read what you write.
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                          baba thugdev
                          Jul 14, 2015 at 2:48 pm
                          it is an op-ed page for a newspaper not for an academic journal. it does not need to be so dense. The reason he got the syndicate is his stance on reservation and nothing else. He is just getting rewarded by the bania moneybags for propagating bigotry in a pseudo academic form.
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                            Bharat Pandit
                            Jul 14, 2015 at 9:53 pm
                            Balanced. Seminal.
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                              Bahu
                              Jul 15, 2015 at 4:08 pm
                              Higher education has collapsed due to the quality of Vice Chancellor who are appointed. A Central University in South India has a Vice Chancellor who has produced a fake bio data and cheated the search committee. What kind of leadership can one expect. There are VCs who have paid 10 crores for their positions and are keen on getting back their "investment" and so take bribes on all the contarcts and appointments.
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                                Devendra Kodwani
                                Jul 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm
                                Thank you Bhanu Pratap Mehta. Rare voice of sanity in cacophony of debate around condition of higher education system in India. Hope the academic community reads and responds as they would be perhaps only real force of change.
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                                  Pawan
                                  Jul 15, 2015 at 3:32 am
                                  Control and greed is THE problem in Higher Education system im India. Simply decentralize the control and let insution run like MIT and Stanford, Independent, self governed, reflecting the aspirations and need of the time, taking in account of all other growth factors of society. So long as the insutions are made to depend or look toward the approval or money from these politicians, nothing is going to change. You do not have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to emulate what has worked in the world for past 100 years. Some of them have produced students who have changed the world for better for ever. It was so painful and I had to hide in the private chamber of the minister to save some embarrment when educationist and professors use to visit them in Delhi, and stoop so low in front of not so worth politicians about 40 years ago. What was I doing there, that is another story.
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                                    Pawan
                                    Jul 14, 2015 at 4:44 am
                                    Oh , He worked so hard, must be an Indian professor type, to write some thing like this . I do not want to read it several times but I guess his message might be good. Read one time but I did not get the clear and concrete messages it in the ratio of time spend. Hard words of English were like rocks entering my eyes and collecting in my brain. Sorry I am so dumb even now.
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                                      Srinivasan Gopalarao
                                      Jul 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm
                                      It takes a lot of guts to say the right thing and survive in India so the hegemonic mediocrity takes charge
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                                        Durgasharan Krishnamurthy
                                        Jul 15, 2015 at 12:46 pm
                                        Wonderful article. If education and culture of India have to be saved, the first step to be taken is to abolish MHRD and all government insutions. Good education and governmental control do not go together. Follow the example of US. Decentralize primary and school education and let teachers and good administrators run the system. Have accreditation system like that of ABET. Parents should beg more industrialists and other distinguished rich men to create insutions like Tata Science, BIT Pilani, Manipal Insute and such. Get rid of the crutches of GOI and the state governments. Then and only then we will escape from the havoc created by the likes of Jyoti Basu, CPI(M),DMK, AIDMK and such. K Durgasharan
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                                          bottleneck
                                          Jul 14, 2015 at 9:23 am
                                          I didn't find any line that 'surpes the level of comprehension'. If something is incomprehensible, the fault is not necessarily the writer's. It can also lie with the reader. "Loosing" basic utility, as opposed to losing it, can give rise to credible allegations of loose talk.
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                                            Vinu
                                            Jul 14, 2015 at 9:08 am
                                            Cant blame politicians for everything. Nalanda University V2 was messed up by Amartya Sen, not the leaders..
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