Garib ki joru sab ki bhaujai (A poor man’s wife is fair game). If anything captures the goings-on in the HRD ministry since the reign of Kapil Sibal, it is this saucy peasant proverb from the cow belt. Irrespective of the shade of the successive Central governments, the HRD minister and functionaries display a propensity, Alice in wonderland-like, for exercising power unbridled by reason and reasonableness. This has come to the fore most recently
in the refusal of Anil Kakodkar, the respected nuclear scientist, to play ball with the minister in arbitrarily overruling an earlier consensus and interviewing no less than 36 candidates for the post of IIT director in a single day. “IITs are centres of excellence. They should be left alone,” Kakodkar has responded in defence of having left the important task of choosing heads of these premier institutions to the minister and her epigones.
Six years ago, a UPA minister unrolled a plan to create 14 world-class universities (“universities of innovation”) “unencumbered by history or culture of the past” — something that no world-class institution would dare boast. The underlying idea is to build islands of excellence by relying on “the highly skilled Indian diaspora”. Now, fast on the heels of a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s diktat making it mandatory for all research scientists in its employ to put in
12 hours of gyan-daan in educational institutions outside their research labs, comes the news that US President Barack Obama has accepted the GIAN proposal mooted by the Modi government. As with other “smart” acronyms, when unravelled it yields the cumbersome phrase: Global Initiative of Academic Network. Under this programme, top-notch scientists will teach in Indian institutions from between two weeks to 20 days. This is clearly an India-specific movement of global academic talent, following on the heels of Sibal’s still-born scheme to invite premier universities from the UK, Europe and the US to set up off-shore subsidiaries in our country.
The normal flow of international and inter-university academic talent is, however, for such outstanding academicians to hold regular joint-appointments for a semester each in two universities. Ronald Dworkin, the late professor of jurisprudence (the US and the UK) and the brilliant social historian Carlo Ginzburg (Italy and the US) are leading examples from the social sciences. We lost one of our most innovative sociologists, Veena Das, the author most recently of Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty — an ethnographic study of the urban poor, the “aam admi voter” of north Delhi — to the US, as “under the rules” Delhi University could not allow its faculty such intellectual freedom to benefit from and contribute to knowledge globally in a sustained way. The new fortnightly GIAN idea of the Modi government, by contrast, envisages a veritable “fly-by-night” rapidfire igniting of Indian students’ minds. More significantly, there has been no discussion. In fact, an earlier HRD minister was opposed to the idea of enabling India-based academics (Veena Das worked under the legendary sociologist M.N. Srinivas during the golden days of the Delhi School of Economics) to hold joint appointments in “foreign” universities. For its part, the US government allows Indian academics to teach semester- or year-length courses
in American universities under a visa regime meant to facilitate “skill development”, requiring a time-bound return to the home country for putting the skill gained to domestic use. The visiting Indian academic, one would have thought, gets paid because she contributes value to the particular US university, which invites her, so to speak, for her “skill-imparting” qualities!
The present government is equally keen on pressing the high visibility insta-cook button, while stirring the slow bubbling gruel of higher education with the ladle of ill-thought, top-heavy recipes. A one-size-fits-all uniform course content across the country is to be matched by a single Central Universities Act riding roughshod over historical specificities; students could now move effortlessly, with scant regard for compatibility, from one university to another, as teachers could be shunted out, the intrepid Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka way, wherever and how so many times the Indian state deems it fit for them to serve the educational requirements of the nation, and in whichever part of the India that is Bharat it deems fit.
It is interesting that the question of institutional autonomy catches public attention when, as in the case of the Kakodkar story, it concerns flagship institutions such as IITs. By implication, for the rest of us wallowing in the mud of public universities, there seems scant possibility of more than a few stunted lotuses blooming. Equally, due to the structure of almost magisterial authority allowed under the colonial dispensation to vice chancellors, the professoriate in these institutions fails signally in its fiduciary obligation to uphold academic and moral norms. Not for nothing were the fellows and professors of Oxford University able to out vote their VC’s attempt to award an honorary degree to a controversial politician from the subcontinent. And some paid a price for it, as when Richard Gombrich, the renowned Indologist, was denied the chair at Oxford that S. Radhakrishnan had once held, as he had successfully opposed the honouring of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by Oxford University, citing his inglorious role in triggering the 1971 war.
For their part, desi institutions such as Delhi University cannot quite effect Bertolt Brecht’s sardonic suggestion — if dissatisfied with the existing lot, “elect another people”. For the usual vishwa vidyalayas, the parameters are given: a national intake of students from unequally diverse backgrounds and a sudden doubling of enrolment and influx of first-generation students. And most crucially, a system that gives the faculty no say whatsoever in choosing its own colleagues.
No amount of quick-fixes can help our public universities meet the new challenges as long as the cavalier and top-heavy system of faculty recruitment is allowed to continue.
Amin is a retired professor of history and Shobhit Mahajan is professor of physics, Delhi University.