When, a year ago, Smriti Irani was first chosen as the Union minister for human resource development, I did not share in the general scepticism about her appointment. I had seen HRD ministers in UPA governments, with a string of foreign degrees themselves, display a conspicuous lack of interest in their portfolio. Irani seemed energetic and articulate; perhaps keenness and interest would trump lack of formal academic qualifications.
My optimism was misplaced. A year later, Irani is by far the most controversial cabinet minister, and with good reason. Stories of her arrogance and rudeness are legion. Her own senior officials have sought transfers to other ministries because they have found it impossible to work with her. Even more distressing has been her treatment of distinguished academicians such as the directors of the IITs. She has come across as bullying and overbearing, and as interfering in decisions that lie within their domains of expertise.
Irani’s lack of respect for intellectual excellence has also been manifest in some key appointments she has made. Early in her term, she appointed a certain Y. Sudershan Rao chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Rao’s name was unknown to the community of professional historians; not surprising since he has not published one peer-reviewed paper in his life. While his scholarly pedigree is obscure, Rao has been a longstanding fellow traveller of the RSS. Since taking office, he has assured us that the Vedas are “the best evidence” for reconstructing the past, and that the Mahabharata is the “anchor for the history of Bharat”.
The HRD minister’s anti-intellectual instincts are also manifest in another of her appointments, this to the chancellorship of the Maulana Azad Urdu University in Hyderabad. University chancellors are either those holding constitutional posts (such as governors and presidents) or senior scholars of distinction. For instance, the great sociologist André Béteille has been chancellor of the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong.
The last chancellor of the Maulana Azad University was Syeda Hameed, herself a biographer of Azad and an eminent literary scholar. After the NDA came to power, she was replaced by Zafar Sareshwala, whose contributions to scholarship are even harder to identify than Rao’s. Sareshwala is better known as a dealer in luxury cars, and as being very close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When his appointment was announced, one senior scholar told the Hindustan Times that “now it seems you just need the right political clout to head reputed institutions”.
Over the years, the quality of university education in India has been steadily undermined by political and bureaucratic interference. This has been especially marked in universities under the control of state governments. Forty years ago, Calcutta University, Bombay University, and Baroda’s M.S. University still had some excellent departments. This is no longer so. So long as the CPM was in power, all major academic appointments in West Bengal were in the hands of party bosses. The Shiv Sena played the same role in Mumbai, and the BJP in Gujarat. The universities were further damaged by parochial “sons of the soil” policies, whereby scholars from outside the state were discouraged from applying for jobs.
While state universities have visibly deteriorated, some Central universities have maintained reasonable academic standards. Delhi University has good departments of history, sociology and economics. Some of our finest film-makers are alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia’s department of mass communications. Both Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad University have top quality scientists, as well as social scientists on their faculty.
These departments and universities would be even better were it not for the dead hand of bureaucratic interference. For some years now, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has steadily encroached on the autonomy of Central universities.
A UGC chairman appointed under the UPA introduced a “points-based” promotion scheme that all universities had to adhere to. This gave more weight to organising student extracurricular activities and attending seminars than publishing papers in refereed journals.
One hoped that, when Irani took office, she would work to make our best universities more autonomous in their choice of curricula, students and faculty. For, the world over, it is only when scholars are in charge of scholarship that real intellectual progress takes place. Instead, the new HRD minister has sought to further centralise an already over-centralised system of higher education. Rather than let the best departments in the best universities design their own academic curriculum, the UGC now wants them to adopt a single uniform curriculum, this designed not by scholars but by incompetent (and occasionally malevolent) babus.
Worse may follow. A diabolical scheme is afloat to have a single, centralised cadre of university faculty, whose members can be transferred from place to place at a moment’s notice. If implemented, this will seriously damage existing research programmes, which crucially depend on the long-term involvement of the same set of faculty members.
While uniformity is congenial to bureaucrats, it is deeply antithetical to intellectual work. Scholarship and research depend on innovation and creativity from within. Most academic disciplines change rapidly. New discoveries, new methods, new theories, should all lead to changes in teaching and research. But how can this happen if every change in curriculum, every new addition to the reading list, has to be vetted by an array of babus sitting in the UGC’s gloomy office in central Delhi?
The scheme to allow the transfer of professors, on the other hand, is most likely the work of political apparatchiks. Suppose an outstanding physics professor in Delhi University (and there are some) signs, in his capacity as a citizen, a petition chastising the government for its failure to adequately protect minority rights. This may, if the current scheme is implemented, lead to him being transferred to the Central University of Mizoram (which, given how many recalcitrant governors have been sent here, appears to be the NDA’s preferred purgatory).
For some 40 years now, I have closely studied the Indian university system. I have seen some of India’s best scholars battle cuts in funding, pressure from bureaucrats, populism, parochialism and worse, while bravely continuing to teach well and produce books and papers based on original research.
University teachers in India suffer from hurdles and handicaps foreign to their counterparts in Europe and North America — and even Singapore and China. Past governments and ministers have been indifferent or interfering. But the present government and minister exceed them all in their outright contempt for scholars and scholarship.
The writer, based in Bangalore, has taught at Yale, Stanford, the London School of Economics and the Indian Institute of Science.