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India, don’t be shy

In 1947 we made a tryst with destiny in Pandit Nehru’s moving words. Now that India has turned sixty, the time has come to ask..

Written by Bhikhu Parekh |
August 14, 2007 10:35:06 pm

In 1947 we made a tryst with destiny in Pandit Nehru’s moving words. Now that India has turned sixty, the time has come to ask if we have lived up to that promise.

Our record is mixed. We held the country together when many thought that we might not. We came close to a second partition in the 1980s but happily managed to avoid it after much bloodshed. There is a deep sense of unity among Indians, who are otherwise divided along religious, ethnic, regional and other lines. This is a remarkable achievement for a country as diverse and conflictual as ours. A cursory look at the current state of Pakistan shows how easily we could have gone that way.

We have kept the democratic system going, a rare event in post-colonial history. It has empowered our people, and given them a sense of dignity and equality. We have also sustained a composite culture, which both unites Indians and provides enough space in which to enjoy their differences.

While we can be legitimately proud of all this, there is much to be ashamed of. After 60 years, nearly 300 million people live below the poverty line. Our political system is marred by corruption, a lack of public spirit, national will and political responsibility, and could get destabilised if put under greater strain than it has faced so far.

We have still not shaken off the old sense of colonial inferiority against which Gandhi, Tagore and others campaigned. Even after 60 years we look to the West for approval, judge ourselves by its standards, and feel proud when it gives us good marks or takes us seriously. One reliable indicator of our sense of diffidence is the dramatic swing in our national mood. Sometimes we are elated at the thought that we will be a great economic power by 2020. On other occasions, we feel nervous that we might not make it, or do so at a considerable cost in social and political instability. Indeed, it is all too common for Indians to say the former in one mood and the latter in another.

The area that worries me even more is that of higher education. At independence, we inherited some fine institutions. Although our universities did not have a research culture because the colonial rulers did not encourage it, they were good teaching institutions. This is no longer the case. Even the prime minister admitted that an overwhelming majority of our universities would not meet the basic criteria of good education. In the knowledge-based economy of the globalising world, research is vital. Sadly our universities have little to show for this, even in such subjects as philosophy, classical languages, linguistics, mathematics and economic theory where no large cost is involved. Save in a couple of areas, we do not even produce journals of international standard. Indian Institutes of Technology continue to produce first class students, but their contribution to research is limited. In several international league tables, none of our universities comes among the first fifty, and only a couple among the first hundred. A nation with great ambitions for its future cannot tolerate this.

Dr Manmohan Singh recently announced his government’s determination to set up several new central universities. While I welcome this, it only increases my anxiety. We already have heavily privileged central universities, and few of them have much to be said for them. What assurance do we have that the new ones would not go the same way as the old? I am also worried about where the academic staff for them is going to come from. Since it would largely be recruited from the existing academic staff or from the products of existing universities, they would bring with them the same lack of research culture.

If we really wish to turn the corner in the field of higher education, we should take a leaf out of China’s book, not to mention the great universities of Europe and America. We should not hesitate to recruit senior administrators from abroad to run our universities. China has recruited American academic administrators in senior positions. There is no loss of national pride in using talent wherever it is available.

Many great British and American universities also recruit their academic staff abroad, including some from India, without the slightest inhibition and often with pride. I would strongly urge that we recruit permanently, or for a period of three to five years, eminent professors from European and American universities. I was recently asked for an academic reference for an Indian economist by a Chinese university, which is planning to appoint him. There is no reason why we can’t do the same and raise the level of teaching and research.

There is also much to be said for attracting eminent Indian academics settled abroad. They may not come permanently, but they can come as visiting professors for a time-bound period or divide their year between an Indian university and their home universities abroad. We should also link up some of our universities with the great universities of Europe and America, enter into extensive research partnership, and design programmes of large-scale academic exchanges involving both graduate students and staff.

As our current rate of growth and entrepreneurial energy show, we are capable of doing wonders if the right kind of atmosphere is created. It is about time we did the same in the field of higher education.

The writer is member of the House of Lords and a political philosopher

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