Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s concern about political interference in institutions of higher education and other problems (‘Nalanda is a syndrome’, The Indian Express, July 14) is a welcome reiteration of why people from universities outside Delhi show little sympathy for the elite academics of India when they get booted around by the political dispensation of the day. If anything, Mehta’s comments obfuscate the rot in academic institutions by constant reference to general principles of autonomy and the role of outside agencies. There is a complete ignorance of the details that allow the rot to continue. Such a stance also gives no value to the tremendous work being done in various universities and other research institutions under the present circumstances.
In my experience, political interference is really not as much of a problem as it is made out to be. It does provide a good excuse, however, for academics to say why they did not do their work properly, take fair decisions and find ways and means to further the interests of the academy. There are numerous instances of academic leaders, not necessarily from Delhi, having refused to agree to requests that were contrary to the norms.
The larger problem is that it is the academic leaders themselves who flout all norms of fairness and merit, to the extent of even protecting the criminal behaviour of colleagues. One of the best-known examples was the case of V.J. Gupta, once a renowned geologist, who had faked the data in his publications for several years. When the fraud was discovered, the first line of defence put forth by academic leaders was that the charges against Gupta were the result of colonial attitudes or the desire to find fault with a renowned Indian academic. When a detailed inquiry held Gupta guilty on all counts, the academic leaders bent backwards in a most visible distortion of the rules to ensure that he would get away with a mere censure. The point to note is not about Gupta’s misdoings but the efforts made by senior colleagues to save his skin, much to the discomfort of the local community.
Then there was the case of the editor of a renowned sociology journal, Sociological Bulletin. This professor, after rejecting a paper sent for publication to the journal, plagiarised major portions of it and published it under his own name. When the original author complained, an inquiry committee was duly set up. The committee found the editor guilty of flagrant misconduct and imposed a penalty: he was asked to leave the editorship of the journal, which he did. But the matter was kept a secret from the rest of the academic world. Since his guilt was not taken public note of and he was not publicly shamed, he went on to become the dean of arts of a major university, remained an editorial consultant to other academic journals and rose to head another academic institution.
Cases of this kind have been far too numerous all over India where the academic wrongdoer has been allowed to get away with not even a proper slap on the wrist. In none of these instances was there any “political interference”. Academics themselves did whatever wrong was done.
The one area where the charge of political interference comes up the most is in appointments. We should, however, not forget that on selection committees, it is the academics themselves who insist vociferously on the appointment of candidates with no proven academic records. One could point to the numerous sons, daughters and in-laws of senior academics who have been “adjusted” in permanent faculty positions by “uncles” and “aunties” in the selection committee despite not having anything to show by way of merit.
At the same time, there are enough instances of vice chancellors and professors politely telling off political recommendees that they need to have some merit too for getting a faculty appointment. Contrary to popular perception, none of those who stood up for merit were hounded out; rather, many went on to complete their terms, and win accolades for their professional competence. The point is simply this: in order to be shown respect, you have to earn it.
Indian academics today have largely themselves to blame for the poor regard in which they are held. It is for the academic community to have sufficient self-esteem to put their house in order and to set up and enforce norms of academic merit.
The writer is member, State Higher Education Council, and professor, Panjab University, Chandigarh