The controversy over the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras displays multiple pathologies of Indian higher education. Rather than addressing problems, the sector compounds every social division, governance failure, and our sheer littleness. It is almost as if this is a sector where all thinking, common sense and plain decency go to die.
Much horror has been expressed at the fact that the HRD ministry seems to have interfered in the functioning of an academic institution, forwarding an anonymous complaint, ostensibly ideologically motivated. But to think this is the root of a problem is to confuse the general pathology of the system with a specific instance. Let us be very clear. The relationship between government and academic institutions has been debased for a long time. So-called progressive education ministers have enshrined practices that make heads of academic institutions supplicants to even director- or under secretary-level officials. The forwarding of anonymous complaints, sometimes even to the CBI, so that the ministry acquired control over vice chancellors, was an art perfected by many a previous minister. This history is important. Because two wrongs don’t make a right. But the credibility of many protesting against this HRD ministry’s actions is vitiated by the fact that they were willing to put up with similar practices, even worse, when it was politically convenient. If higher education is to be rescued, it will need interlocutors with greater credibility. The sector will have to move beyond charges of hypocrisy. But for that it will have to find interlocutors less hypocritical.
Second, the real ire should be directed at the academic establishment itself. The leadership of IIT-M has once again proved the suspicion that when the history of Indian higher education is written, academic self-abdication will rank higher than political perfidy. Even if the ministry forwards a letter, there is no reason that the university leadership has to act on it. At least, it need not act on it without giving the students a fair hearing. The IIT’s claim that the Ambedkar-Periyar group violated rules seems contrived since it comes after the fact. The leadership crisis in higher education is acute. India has some fantastic academics who have braved adverse conditions. But many have either seceded from institutional matters or are willingly compliant with the powers that be. Residual collegial piety still prevents us from naming and shaming many. But if you draw up a list of top academics who have willingly signed on the dotted line presented by government, you will feel almost queasy. The occasions when academics rush to the HRD ministry for intervention in their favourite cause are too numerous to list. We invited the politicians in, and rue it only when the game does not go in our favour.
The third issue is the place of caste in higher education. Caste, as India’s original sin, still casts a shadow on almost every debate. It is still a poison that vitiates most intellectual life. The upper castes are, with justification, an object of suspicion. Their credibility on creating an inclusive education system is roughly zero. But post OBC reservations, the moral imprimatur of India’s reservation policy has also diminished. Dalits have an overwhelming claim to reservations. But instead of placing that reservation in an ethical framework centred on discrimination and the need to treat people with decency, the indiscriminate expansion of reservations turned higher education into a virtual power grab. Reservation could no longer be articulated as an ethical requirement; rather, it was seen as a manifestation of organised power. And as the nature of that electoral and organised power shifts, different groups will assert themselves, and use state power whenever they have access. Clearly, in Tamil Nadu, anti-Periyar forces think this is a moment for them. But when identity and interest so deeply colonise reason, every move will be seen, by one party or the other, as threatening war. It is important not to render the operations of caste hierarchy invisible under a cloak of anonymity. But an intellectual culture that reinforces the alignment of identity and reason will suffocate any prospect of a meaningful dialogue.
Professors like to think of universities as protected spaces that preserve the possibility of dissent. They should be such spaces, where every thought can be debated. But there are two issues about dissent. First, who draws these boundaries? India’s liberal left has been plagued by the problem that it did not see the university in terms of an open space with a free flow of ideas. It always thought of the university as being about social engineering rather than cultivation of the intellect. The second issue is a paradox. Oddly enough, there is often more freedom to debate when the consequences of the debate are relatively trivial. In Western universities, it is seemingly easy to discuss anything, partly because there are no political stakes. In India, we have the opposite challenge: almost everything, any figure, any icon, is politically charged, with immediate material consequences for society. No social science or humanities discussion here is merely academic. So people find it harder to draw the line between protest and dissent, argument and threat, dialogue and disorder, critique and hatred. In an odd way, we don’t want to debate ideas because we understand their power more. It is a crying shame that the establishment did not engage with Ambedkar and Periyar. But it was also a back-handed compliment in that it knew what the consequences of real engagement would be. In India, therefore, saying that universities are spaces of dissent is not going to be enough; it will take a more imaginative pedagogy to negotiate the hyper-politicisation of ideas.
There are other issues as well. Does a single-minded focus on technical education and exams reduce our ability to handle the larger social dialogue that is at stake in our universities? Ironically, of all the IITs, IIT Madras had taken impressive strides in fostering the social sciences. But the way it has handled this controversy does not bring it credit. It has done a deep injustice to its students, particularly those in the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle. It has sent out a grim reminder that the academic establishment is unlikely to stand up for liberal values, administrative independence and plain common sense.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’