Even though initial seeds of education were sowed with a foresight of modern secular thinking, Indian academia has failed to truly blossom. We certainly need to explore all the reasons for the Indian failure to launch but right now the call of the hour is to protect the barely-alive academia from the ongoing onslaught of the myopic, vindictive and dictatorial UPA regime that is hell bent on destroying secular character of our advanced education system. Indian central universities are now facing a threat to their secular and modern character due to opportunistic politics and rise of religious fundamentalism. Let us take the example of the University of Delhi, one of the largest of the central government universities that once used to be projected as a pride of India. The University is structured such that power is in the hands of few people who are politically appointed, instead of entirely merit-based autonomous council that is outside the influence of politicians. The University of Delhi has a Visitor who in theory has the ultimate power. This Visitor is the President of India. Then comes the Chancellor, who is the Vice President of India. The president of India on the advice (but in reality on the dictates) of the office of the Prime minister and the ministry of Human Resource Development appoints the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice Chancellor (VC) is in effect the head of the University. The VC can act like the dictator of the University, if he or she wants to, with obviously no reporting to the constitutional namesake head of India – the President. The VC appoints his team that plays a role in deciding the allocation of resources, approval of course work, appointment of college principals, teachers and eventually all policy matters. Although certain academic bodies involved in decision-making, like the executive and academic council have some elected members, usually no member gets elected without a political affiliation and backing.
This structure is in a strong contrast to the free merit-based truly autonomous academia in the developed parts of the world. The reason this structure worked to some extent in the first few decades after independence is because educated ruling class understood that academia should be run mostly on merit if the nation has to prosper. Unfortunately the structure that was evolved depended on the wisdom of the Prime Minister but not a structure that was free from political intervention. This structure although constitutionally has some balances and checks in the form of some elected members in the administrative bodies and vibrant trade unions but to overcome this menace of democracy, Kapil Sibbal’s men have decided not to call any meetings of these bodies and rule by decrees. With Sibbal’s blessing, these men have forced academics to knock the doors of court on every matter if they do not like their dictatorial and inane decisions. Given the direct influence of the Vice chancellor in the appointment of college faculty through his appointed members in the interview panels and indirect influence through college principals, the system is designed such that rarely can a new teacher unfavorable to 10 Janpath be offered a position, whatever be their merit. If one is looking for obvious examples of this corruption, one can see a blatant hiring scam in the recruitment of several new teachers in some of the new colleges of the Delhi University. In a central university where everyone is supposed to be paid by the University Grant Commission (UGC) there are now many teacher appointments within the University of Delhi that are illegally paid from the chauffeurs of the state of Delhi. This constitutional breach of paycheck coming from state budget for a central university in its most optimistic scenario reeks of lack of any planning by the incompetent men and at its worst and more likely scenario, a tool to change demographic to less competent but more sympathetic to 10 Janpath. A simple look at the recent appointments of college Principals can show you the infestation of Indian academia by Congress honchos. For some merely accidental reasons (pun intended) an overwhelming number of recent College Principal appointments seem to be of young Punjabi female teachers who once used to teach science and are strongly affiliated with Yuvraj Rahul’s gang. I have nothing against young age, being a young scientist myself, neither against women, for whose rights, I have been fighting for all my adult life and nothing against Punjabis, which is my paternal ethnic heritage but I cannot stand having any other criteria than merit to decide the future of our country. What sense does it make to appoint a science faculty as Principal to a college with only humanities subjects, unless it is for simple political reasons? From over a decade ago, before I moved to top Indian research institution and then to top US research facilities, when I was young undergraduate student at this same university, I knew a very incompetent teacher who used to knit sweaters in our classroom, while reading textbooks verbatim. Her acts and intelligence could have made middle school teacher look Aristotle or Socrates in comparison, though she did order free tea for us in cold December months. In sympathy with other women, she frequently advised my female classmates against pursuing a postgraduate degree telling of non-academic compromises it took for her to get a Ph.D. The last I heard from her is when she became a Principal of a new college under this new administration because of proximity to Indian National Congress. Sitting in a U.S. research institution that has produced one of the most numbers of Nobel laureates in the field of Medicine, I have no problem pointing out some individuals in India but pointing few such examples would not solve much and it would be unfair for only one or two incompetent political puppets to be recalled due to my finger pointing while the epithet of corruption remaining the same.
Few years ago at the University of Delhi, a collusion of BJP and Congress’s political interests, led to a laughable act of allowing astrology (no, not astronomy but dumb stone age astrology) to be part of its curriculum. After much of controversy and worldwide ridicule acclaimed intellectuals it was eventually withdrawn. One may wonder that after such infamy the government would not redo such mistake again but alas. The trend of non-secular intervention continues unabated. Somehow magically fundamentalist administrators, be it a Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Hindu whosoever suits Congress’s electoral play continues being appointed. Some of the ethnically focused institutions, whether for segments within minorities or majorities were created to encourage enrollment of students from segments who otherwise faced the danger of being left out without such privileged institutions. The goal was to create a modern alternative to inadequate and often sectarian madarasa or ashram kind of religious education that these youngsters might be turned to in absence of secure modern alternatives. To provide such education faculty from all ethnicities were hired and promoted. Now with politicization, somehow the faculty enrollment has started paralleling the bias in student enrollment, throwing the criteria of merit of faculty in the dirty ditch of politics. Such bias denies good quality education to target segments that these institutions were in the first place set up to provide for.
While a trip around the University of Delhi would bear out many such examples of decadence of this administration, I would like to point out a single notable piece of capitulation to religious fundamentalism so you can better see how appeasement of different ethnic group works for political convenience. Recently based on orders from Congress headquaters, the Vice Chancellor forced the University to withdraw ‘Three Hundred Ramayans’, a great text by AK Ramanujan that quite clearly captures the ubiquitous nature of Ramayana tales in the whole of Indosphere, even beyond Indian subcontinent like in the islands of Indonesia or lands as distant as Cambodia. The text educates to the fact that Ramayana has many local variants and it is a truly a tale of all Indic region with amazingly deep cultural penetration that has sway in shaping even an atheist like me, leave alone some orthodox Vaishnav Hindu. After saffron politicians stroke trouble objecting to this long-standing course material the talibanized RSS goons of akhil bhartiya vidyarthi parishad (ABVP), the student wing of BJP got offended to this whiff of knowledge. Their argument (or more accurately non-argument) was that Valmiki Ramayana is the accurate one. The claim that one version of Rmayana is celebrated more is correct, especially when viewed with strictly North Indian Vaishnav lenses but the argument is ridiculous, as the material was not taught as a course on religion. This text was not an effort to say one version is right or wrong or which imaginary fried should one believe in or which organize religion is better but a historical collection of different texts that exist in the Indosphere. Five exemplary texts that captured the largest heterogeneity were chosen to capture the diversity of cultural heritage. Congress did not want to loose Hindu fundamentalist votes to BJP, so to one up the idiots of sangh, Sibbal decided to use his bully pulpit to remove the text from the course work all together. This move, where history and literatures appropriateness is decided by the sentimentality of ill educated political goons instead of facts, is no different than banning some book because of a fatwa by some crazy Mullah in streets of Lahore, Ryadh or Kabul. Such yielding to pressure from religious bigots in general public life of India is not new and not even unique to Delhi’s Congress-BJP dominated politics. Who can forget unsympathetic treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen by the stalwarts of left, the so-called secularists? What is new is the systematic attack on academic integrity by a demon of religious fundamentalism, corruption and dictatorship that is unleashed by Sibbal on the commands from 10 Janpath. This removal of highly acclaimed assay is being condemned worldwide and such acts continue to degrade the legitimacy of Indian education and validity of higher academic degrees. More than the damage to Indian image or to the validity of Indian educational credentials, the impact from such acts, if recurrent, will render an already barren Indian innovation and academic landscape to become completely sterile. A healthy academic culture, where one can discuss life stories surrounding the myth and reality of lives of Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak, Jesus Christ or Lord Rama, when in the context of history or of linguistic style, independent from the sentimentality of religion or conduct research on the impact of a particular pesticide on human health, independent of the connections of that pesticide company to the ruling party, is a necessary backbone of any country aspiring to innovate and grow. I am actually not much of a Nehru fan on most socioeconomic and defense issues but what I think was his singular undisputed legacy of sowing the seeds of higher education is now being destroyed by his own great grandson.
I also want to this article to serve as warning that if the state of affairs of Indian academia gets worse then international condemnations, signature by top academics including Nobel laureates, boycotts and derecognizing several academic degrees would have to initiated to stop this rot of academia in India. Such actions to improve India would not be entirely unprecedented for Indian expatriates. Recently, to stop the murder of the rule of law by Indian judiciary that was allowing indefinite detention of people without evidence, the international community including many notable Indian expatriates jumped into action, shaming India at the world stage. This external ridicule and pressurization is the least pleasant and most painful thing an Indian can do but when reform does not come from within then one is not left with any other option. One may be aware of the fact that many degrees from India are not recognized internationally and the list is not shrinking. If this corrupt management run by Sibbal’s cronies continues ruining the quality of graduate and post graduate education and stifles the intellectual output then whether one likes it or not, several more Indian academic honors, intellectual exchange programs will almost justifiably face an international axe. While there shall soon be action from international intellectual community if the victimization of secular teachers and Talibanization of education continues but what is truly needed in India is an internal change. No international pressure, punishment or encouragement can drag India to the modern era. Only Indians living in India can do so. The sleeping elephant has to wake up on its own, assuming the elephant is sleeping and not comatose or cold dead. It is unlikely that academic causes on their own would generate equal anger as has the corruption on street but all versions of Ramayana teach us that all sins add up. This murder of intellectual culture of central universities may provide additional fuel to the funeral pyre being readied for the political class if change does not come soon.
Sukant Khurana, Ph.D.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,
New York, USA