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Conversations with Tavleen Singh and Pratap Mehta

The pervasive elitism of higher education institutions has to be challenged. But their further decimation must also be resisted.

amartya Sen, Tavleen Singh, Pratap bhanu Mehta, Tavleen Singh column,  amartya Sen column, indian express Tavleen Singh, bjp government, nda government, narendra modi, modi govt, amartya Sen indian express column, Pratap Mehta column, indian express column, ie column Pratap may well disagree with me that the intervention of political interference in the academic independence of public institutions is much larger and more politically systematic now, in line with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Hindutva rulers.

Since I read Tavleen Singh’s column whenever I am in India (always with enjoyment — and sometimes also with “constructive dissent”), I am delighted to receive questions from her which she wants me to answer (‘Questions for a Nobel laureate’, The Indian Express, July 12). This I will do first, but I will then go on to respond to some very important issues that Pratap Bhanu Mehta has raised about academic freedom (‘Nalanda is a syndrome’, The Indian Express, July 14).

A critic, not an advisor

Tavleen Singh expresses her frustration with me: “What I do not understand… is why Dr Sen as a virtual advisor to the last government did not get Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to change this horrible state of affairs.” But Tavleen (if I may call you that, as a virtual friend), I have never been an advisor — formal or virtual — to either of the leaders named (even though I respect them both, and Manmohan is a very good friend from our student days in Cambridge).


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As a citizen of a democracy, I have always preferred placing my criticisms and commendations in the public domain. In numerous articles and talks (including a speech to the Indian Parliament in 2008 — the first Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Lecture, “What should keep us awake at night”) I have expressed my criticism of the governance of India. My forthcoming book (The Country of First Boys) includes essays written over the last few decades, analysing some of the things that have gone wrong with Indian policymaking, including the persistent neglect of public health and education and policies for gender equity, and the choice of overactivity in things that the government cannot do well (like bureaucratic control), neglecting what it should be able to do well (such as having good public services for all).

READ: Questions for a Nobel laureate Amartya Sen

The old mistakes have been consolidated and magnified by the Narendra Modi government. The funding for public healthcare and school education, which was very meagre under the last government, has been further slashed under the present government (cutting, for example, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and mid-day meals). There were mistakes in the past (about which I have been hollering), but that should not stop us from protesting when the mistakes are enlarged.

The two genocides
Did I protest about the genocide in Delhi in 1984? Of course I did — then and later (for governmental inaction in not bringing the criminals to justice). Tavleen asks, “Did Dr Sen make a statement saying that Rajiv Gandhi had no right to be prime minister?” I did not, but nor did I say that Modi had no such right. Tavleen is confusing here the issue of the “right” to be prime minister (on which I did not express any resistance in either case) with an argument against voting for Modi (which I did present). Did that reasoning take note of Modi’s long history of being a part of the RSS as a pracharak, and was it influenced by my strong reservations about the divisive politics of the Hindutva movement? Of course it did, and it was.

Lessons from Kerala for today
Tavleen is critical of “Kerala’s model of development”. I have never seen Kerala as a “model” (since there were many weak points in its policies), but I have persistently pointed to the lessons to be learned about the rewards of early emphasis on public education and public healthcare for all. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I pointed to the benefits of education and healthcare in raising longevity and the quality of human life, and to the long-run prospect of faster economic growth that human capability development helped generate, I was told that Kerala’s policies were unaffordable because it was one of the poorest states in India. It was not unaffordable, and Kerala has had the highest life expectancy in India for many decades now (in fact, higher than the average of China). And now that the latest data show that this erstwhile poor state, Kerala, has absolutely the highest per capita income in India, can there be a little vindication there?

READ: Another argument

Nalanda and the repeated falsehoods
On Nalanda University, Tavleen is absolutely right that the official website should say more about who destroyed the old campus (rather than just describing them as “invaders”). It is refreshing that Tavleen does not restate the same false charges that some arms of the Modi government and its political allies have been firmly planting in the media, and trying to make them look true by obsessive repetition.


To take this occasion to correct a few of these planted allegations: One, the chancellor receives no salary from Nalanda; two, I have always insisted that Nalanda should be fully accountable and its books should be both internally and externally audited (by the government as well), as indeed they are; three, Nalanda has not spent Rs 2,700 crore as alleged (a BJP hotshot even alleges Rs 3,000 crore), but Rs 46 crore (less than 2 per cent of the constantly repeated misinformation in social media) over its entire period of existence up to the end of the fiscal year 2014-15, including all the preparatory work as well as construction costs so far.

Academic independence with accountability
I come now to political interference in the academic independence of public institutions designed to be autonomous. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has rightly pointed out that this has happened before. I do actually say that in my New York Review of Books essay (“The stormy revival of an international university”, August 13), to which Pratap refers (though not without a superior dig at the journal), but does not cite me as having said that. Pratap may well disagree with me that the intervention is much larger and more politically systematic now, in line with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Hindutva rulers. But whether or not we agree on this, is the presence of past folly any reason for not protesting about what is going on now?

Pratap also plays the elitism card. I sympathise with him there too, but elitism is such a pervasive feature of university education in India, where the majority of people have no good schools to go to, and some — especially girls — may have none at all (or none safe enough with their single-teacher structure). It may be good, but not good enough, to protest about the elitist character of the IITs, IIMs, Delhi University, or — for that matter — Nalanda, without having a line to spare on how terribly biased the opportunity of higher education is in our dear country, and how much talent is smashed into pulp by the biased education pyramid India has constructed. I promise to send Pratap a copy of The Country of First Boys when it is out.


Where Pratap and I may have a real difference is his tendency to think that the general “public does not see” the governmental interventions as bad, and has no sympathy for elite educational institutions. My experience is that the extent of sympathy is strong (I have even had a flood of support on Nalanda, from people unknown to me), and there is even some public pride in having elite institutions in India. The social media hounds may go on with loud denunciations and repeating concocted statistics, but if Pratap would take those organised attacks to be the voice of public opinion, they would have an unearned victory.

There is no lack of understanding of the fact that even though the pervasive elitism of the educational structure has to be challenged, that very large issue cannot be resolved by allowing public educational institutions to be further decimated on grounds that they have had interferences before. The public does understand the need for resistance.

The writer, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University

First published on: 15-07-2015 at 12:05:16 am
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