Abused ivory

KRISHNA KUMAR

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AS soon as the interviews began, it became clear that the committee had been rigged. Two out of the three experts were apparently handpicked by someone in the vice chancellor’s office who was acting on behalf of the riggers. The vice chancellor himself had far too much on his hands to look carefully at the names of the people who were available to serve as experts that evening. All the procedures had been properly followed; nothing could now be done to prevent the impending subversion of the system of selection.

On another occasion, the expert was qualified, but the representatives of the governing body and its chairperson were determined to isolate him. The best he could do was to seek the support of the dean and the nominee of the academic council to stall the process of selection. It meant that the college would remain without a principal for two years, and in the meanwhile an incompetent and corrupt in-charge would ruin the institution.

Once again, no rule was broken, but the institution was placed in deep trouble. Why it takes two years or more to fill up a vacancy is hard to explain, for in each case a different delay tactic is applied. In any case, delay is a national norm; the top positions in all major establishments wait for long periods of time to find an incumbent after the last holder has retired.

In a third instance, the chairman was an experienced politician. Like a master craftsman, he allowed the first three rounds of shortlisting to be completed under the able guidance of his academic colleagues, and then manoeuvred the way for the candidate no one suspected to be his man. Why politicians should chair the governing bodies of academic institutions is a bad, stale question. That’s the way it has been, and if you want to know why, read Srilal Shukla’s classic, Raag Darbari where Vaidji, the village patriarch, spares no effort to maintain his hold on three key institutions: the gram sabha, the cooperative society, and the college.

All chief ministers would agree with this wisdom of the sixties. Personalised control over colleges and universities helps maintain contact with two key types of volatile substance: youth and ideas. The power that trickles up from thoughtful nurturing of these two recalcitrant elements is both subtle and permanently refreshing. And what chief ministers do to provincial universities, the human resource development minister does to central universities and other institutions. The recent operations accomplished in the UGC, the ICSSR, the NCERT, the ICHR and so on, required no nudging of rules or circumventing around procedures.

 

 

If the appointments made in these institutions have turned out to be depressing, it is because the BJP has such a dismally small pool to choose from. The main reason is that the BJP has not been in power for long, so its academic clan is yet to materialise. An additional reason has to do with the BJP’s ideology. To be approved by the BJP/RSS leadership, a scholar must believe that India was ‘originally’ different from what it became when outsiders, especially Muslims, invaded it. Also, you must view the last few thousand years like yesterday to line up among their countables.

Normally one would caution the reader before giving so brief a summary by saying that it is simplistic. As it happens, the BJP perspective is simplistic, and that is one reason why it is so hard to find serious scholars who believe in it. An inclination to support it requires long socialisation in childhood and youth. A conservative home environment and early exposure to RSS-type institutions are among the influences that seem to have shaped the few academic men the BJP has been keen to bless with an administrative position.

It is hardly the case that high-level academic appointments made under earlier regimes always went to professionally eminent people. Even a cursory retrospect on the state’s relationship with the world of scholarship would show that the mid seventies form a watershed. The Emergency greatly intensified the tendency that already existed, to give higher weight-age to personal loyalty and trustworthiness than to professional talent or status. And this applies not only to substantive appointments, but even to minor opportunities for serving or representing the state. Individuals recognized for not having independent views, and for not voicing such views if they had any, were openly preferred in the post-emergency era by both politicians and the bureaucrats who served them.

The Emergency also greatly enhanced the powers and ambitions of the bureaucracy. Politicians expressed some or other form of regret for the excesses committed during the Emergency, but the bureaucrats who actually managed the Emergency regime never apologised. And from the late eighties onwards, when political life became fragmented and leadership got fragile, the bureaucracy assumed even greater power and multiple roles. The Rao-Singh discourse on liberalisation hardly ever targeted the bureaucracy while it came down heavily on all areas of welfare spending, seeking accountability and the means of trimming.

 

 

Global institutions also lionised the bureaucracy, aware as they were of its power to deliver in what was correctly anticipated, and to an extent designed, to be a long patch of political dissonance and social turmoil. Structural adjustment of the Indian economy to the global capitalist system required both strategies: summary labelling and condemnation of the quota-permit raj, and increased reliance on the bureaucracy which had managed that raj. After all, it was Indian democracy that had impeded privatization and deregulation, not the bureaucracy. The need of the hour was to straitjacket the politicians, and that was not difficult in the era of constant political fragmentation and uncertainty.

 

 

This background is necessary to understand why the civil services have survived the decade of structural adjustment unscathed, and the academia has not. Though seemingly marginal to mainstream politics, the academia regulated the supply of ideas and behaviour that were quite central for the maintenance of democratic norms in a highly diverse and hierarchically structured society. Poorly grounded it may have been – because education itself was conceptualised so derivatively and distributed so reluctantly – the system of higher education made a historic contribution to national cohesion by equipping an impressive number of men and women with conflict-management skills.

They applied these skills in a variety of roles, mediating interpersonal, inter-institutional and inter-group contests and skirmishes in a society undergoing transformative change. It may seem ironical to say that this role of higher education depends on what appears an excess supply of graduates in the liberal arts courses. Today, when courses in the humanities and the social sciences are under attack, it is not easy to recognize that they furnish the discourse of rationalist idealism which has been so crucial in maintaining India’s secular and democratic framework. The BJP’s discomfort with rationalism and secularism would hardly suffice to distort the dominant discourse of Indian higher education if the material state and status of the academia were not in such poor shape.

Teachers and their organizations have been driven to the wall seeking to protect the bare minimum conditions that might qualify the profession to remain a viable option for the young. It is hardly astonishing that some terrible mistakes have been made in the course of this struggle, one of them being a confusion between democratisation and bureaucratisation. Nor is it surprising that while the struggle seems to have succeeded in protecting the minimal material interests of this generation of university and college teachers, it has failed to save the identity and status of the profession.

 

 

The social sciences and the humanities are the worst hit by this loss of status, but the sciences are not far away. Production of knowledge by means of research had hardly taken root in the system when it came under assault for being wasteful and unnecessary. Severe budget cuts on libraries have pushed any kind of professional growth and opportunities for research beyond the reach of the ordinary teacher. The few who have gained eminence are being forced to seek international funding if they wish to continue any kind of research activity. This mode of functioning has its own compulsions, including the universal imperative to avoid theoretical issues and to focus on application. In the context of a ‘developing’ country, these imperatives impart a manifestly trivialising character to academic research and writing.

The good thing about saffronisation is that it has aroused a little bit of concern for the future of education. The liberal columnists who painstakingly follow the weekly fate of political groupings have kindly devoted their attention to the merits of astrology as a university-level subject. The death of libraries by financial starvation did not move them; astrology has. Similarly, it is heartening to see a few Members of Parliament deciding to rally for the cause of protecting secularism in education.

 

 

One of them told me that it is true that the Parliament does not care for education. Provincial assemblies are no different. When Rajasthan moved towards adopting a single syllabus for all universities and colleges in the state, not a murmur was heard there or in Delhi. Appointment scandals in provincial universities, and placement of IAS officers as vice chancellors and heads of academic bodies became part of routine a while ago and therefore cause no special alarm when ideological motives guide such happenings today.

Liberal critics have been aware of the fact that the BJP has had a stronger and more sustained interest in education than any other party. Long before it came to power at the centre, its sister organizations were running thousands of schools. Today, when its focus of attention is the system of higher education, it does not anticipate any major or systematic resistance. Sprinkling a few handfuls of saffron on the starved, comatose body of the Indian academia is, in fact, quite easy and requires no great planning or management.

What ought to worry us is our inability to contextualise saffronisation, and the agreement to keep the belated debate confined to appointments and astrology courses. Saffronism is a form of opposition to intellectual or contemplative work. By offering simple answers and clues to problems, it negates the necessity of scholarly pursuits. It alleviates the anxiety that the human mind is prone to feeling when faced with ambivalence and ambiguity. As a creed, saffronism wants nothing less than the transformation of academic institutions into propaganda agencies.

In this respect, saffronism is no different from any hard ideology. Trivialisation of knowledge and the irrelevance of painstaking enquiry are central to the success of saffronisation. This methodology of its spread constitutes a far graver threat to academic life than its content, which is not difficult to ridicule. Good managers of this methodology need hardly be committed ideologues. Lightweight, clerk-type scholars – the academia has never had any dearth of them – and procedure-loving civil servants do far better.

Now it takes no great leap of imagination to realise that privatisation can only be a great friend of saffronisation. Read the text of the Washington consensus, and you will find a global recipe for annihilating the autonomy and legitimacy of scholarship and its right to be financially and legally protected by the state.

 

 

Privatisation of intellectual pursuit is no limited matter concerning property rights or a way to bring greater accountability and efficiency in institutional governance. In the post-cold war context, privatisation of education is a shorthand for discrediting, discouraging and, if required, choking institutionalised arrangements for free enquiry. The James Tooleys of the brave new world want nothing less than the recognition of education as an industry, and their Indian comrades want the state everywhere to remove nasty, liberal – for them, socialist – practices and policies that impede privatisation.

It is hardly news that the new information technology is perceived by the neoliberal doctrine of educational management as a great, facilitating agency. Its propagators have renamed the information business as knowledge industry, just as in an earlier sleight of hand the ministry of education had been renamed as the ministry of human resource development. The doctrine upholds technique as the real substance of education; teaching becomes training, and application substitutes enquiry. The liberal arts are declared to be luxury items; the social sciences and languages are deemed worthy of attention strictly in accordance with market requirements. Inane loyalty, withdrawal from controversy, and a diehard positive attitude are the ingredients of the educated man or woman that the new ideology of educational management wants to see accepted everywhere, particularly in the restive, resource-rich societies of the Third World.

 

 

Opposition to saffronisation is so weak and limited because no political party wants to refer to the deeper conditions which are facilitating it. These conditions are related to the acceptance of globalisation as a slogan and liberalisation as a general policy. What the BJP-led national democratic alliance is doing to the system of education – from the primary stage upwards – is fully consistent with the drift of state policies on which there has been a political consensus since the beginning of the nineties. This consensus is responsible for the paralysis we notice in so many spheres of Indian civic life, including the academia.

Saffron inroads in the system of education are a superficial symptom of this process, but they have greatly contributed to the distancing of the debate from the nature of the danger institutionalised education is facing. While left-liberal voices temporarily gather to criticise the rewriting of history textbooks from a communal perspective and a handful of appointments, financial starvation and forced privatisation are threatening the primary function which the ivory tower has played as a venue where the society contemplates without the stress of immediate problems and the fear of practical consequences.

 

 

That India had a presentable ivory tower despite mass poverty and illiteracy was a testimony to the belief that the right to contemplate freely belonged as much to the poor as it did to the rich. Our conception of poverty was able to avoid reductionism because social justice had a central place in the structure of values upholding the idea of the state. Universal franchise and fundamental rights tell the same story. For good or bad, the India story did not follow the script of other economically more successful nations which followed a bread-first-ideas-later kind of timetable.

It is a great irony that the enemies of enquiry are these days calling themselves the advocates of freedom. They want to use the facetious logic of self-financing as a means to destroy the autonomy and status of the university system. Medical and engineering education has already been set on this route. It is customary to use showcase examples in these streams to hide the massive corruption and distortion of education that commercialisation has brought in. When teacher training was recently opened up for privatisation in Delhi, corruption made a mockery of the accredition process in no time. The idea that the opportunity for higher education can be purchased is already common; that it should be distributed only by sale is catching on. If the struggle against saffronisation, confined and self-conscious as it is, remains indifferent to this larger context, it will surely fail.

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