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Autonomy of Learning

Arunabha Bagchi |

Professor Amartya Sen is in the news again. According to newspaper reports, in an article to be published in the August issue of the  New York Review of Books, Professor Sen has asserted that the underhand manoeuvre for his ouster from the post of Chancellor of the nascent Nalanda University is not an isolated incident, but is part of a wilful attempt by the Narendra Modi government to take direct control over academic institutions in India. Most Indians share his concern.

Recently, there were a series of incidents relating to directors of “institutes of national importance” that raised alarm bells among a large part of the academia. The latest was the unceremonious de-facto sacking of the director of the Indian Statistical Institute, Professor Bimal Roy, on some vague unsubstantiated charges in May, two months before the expiry of his term in office. There were reports of a virtual gag order on the ISI faculty against talking to anyone about their possible misgivings. Also in May the renowned nuclear scientist Anil Kadodkar resigned from his position as chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Bombay just before the crucial search-cum-selection committee meeting to interview candidates for directors of three newly established IITs.  The rumour is that a group of 12 candidates have been shortlisted from 37 applicants. There were differences of opinion about the choice of director of only one of the IITs. Apparently our HRD Minister Smriti Irani overruled the committee and arranged for interviewing all 37 applicants under her chairmanship. At the end of last year Professor R. K. Shevgaonkar resigned as director of IIT Delhi, two years before his term in office was due to expire. The key issue apparently was setting up an IIT Delhi campus in Mauritius without official permission from the HRD Ministry.

The pattern is not different in other disciplines as well. Students of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) went on an indefinite strike from 12 June  to protest against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of the Institute. BJP activist Chauhan is a lightweight who played the role of Yudhishthira in the  Mahabharata TV series, apart from appearing in numerous television soaps and several ‘B’ grade Bollywood movies. Furthermore, four of the eight members of the reconstituted FTII panel are RSS propagandists. This is part of the pattern of a long list of controversial appointments of directors or chairpersons of prime central research institutes after the present dispensation took over power in Delhi.

At the National Book Trust (NBT), A Sethumadhavan, the veteran Malayalam writer whose term in office was supposed to expire this September was eased out early March and replaced by Baldev Sharma former editor of the RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya. The appointment of 87-year old Lokesh Chandra in October last year as the head of India’s cultural diplomacy organisation – Indian Council for Cultural Relations – raised eyebrows. In a newspaper interview, he declared that Mr Modi “from a practical point of view supersedes the Mahatma” and hailed him as the “incarnation of God.” Continuing with his profound wisdom, Dr Chandra said, “Modi has made more meaningful impact to the lives of these poor (than Karl Marx).” According to him Mr Modi’s arrival (on earth?) was to “restore the Indian state’s cultural reach to what it enjoyed under Emperor Ashoka.”

But nothing can beat the appointment of Yellapragada Sudarshan Rao as the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in July last year. History is one area of social sciences where Indians have excelled. We have a large number of historians of national and international fame. None seemed to be familiar with anything written by Mr Rao, a professor in an obscure university in Telangana. He is believed to have no publication in any peer reviewed journal. On his appointment last year he outlined two main missions. One was to fund research to prove the historicity of our epics,  Ramayana and  Mahabharata,   and establish the dates of their main events. The other was his objection to the Marxist tool of research prevalent at the ICHR. On the first point, scholars from India and abroad, using all possible tools from archaeology, anthropology, philology, linguistics and astronomy, have failed in the last two centuries to establish the historicity of these events. Mr Rao must have some new secret information that motivated him to make fresh enquiry into this area. The other point is also puzzling, given that non-Marxist historians headed ICHR for most part of its existence. The problem is that any research not in tune with the Hindutva ideology is dubbed “Marxist interpretation of history” by the “true believers”. According to Amartya Sen, the ICHR chief has just written an article on how the caste system in India actually was a good thing, and not a bad one as is often claimed.

The latest controversy relates to the bill to be introduced in Parliament to give IIMs the status of “institutes of national importance.” This is welcome news, as the status would enable IIMs to give MBA degrees and have more resources to conduct Ph.D. research. Many IIM alumni and faculty members are upset with some of the clauses of the bill that could potentially reduce the role of the IIM board of directors to rubber-stamping decisions made at the HRD Ministry. Specific instances often cited are statements like, “regulations made by the board with the approval of the Central government”, or the chairperson of the board will be appointed “in such manner as may be prescribed.” The intention of the central government to fix tuition fees of all IIMs has also come under severe criticism.

Autonomy of universities and academic institutions are common good. But what is common good in these instances is now debated all over the world. There are broadly four kinds of autonomy one needs to consider in this context. These are: organisational autonomy, financial autonomy, staffing autonomy and academic autonomy. All criticisms regarding the ‘IIM bill’ concern organisational autonomy and, to some extent, financial autonomy. This is a difficult debate because the government as the main financier and stakeholder cannot abdicate its responsibility in a democratic structure. Whether there is infringement of autonomy in staffing and academic programmes is also crucial and is  getting less attention in the debate than it deserves. The key for me is how far this bill deviates from the current practices at the IITs. As an outsider with no experience in the administration of academic institutions in India, I would leave it to the experts to concentrate on this really fundamental issue without getting emotional about the great achievements of the IIM alumni on the world stage. They would do just as well even if IIMs were not there in India. The only thing that IIMs do is to make the pre-selection of the best candidates on behalf of the local and foreign multinationals. This is not any different from the role of top business schools in the US.

I am more concerned with reported mistreatment of directors of our national institutes and arbitrary decisions about top-level appointments there. Professor Sen is absolutely right on those points. Still I am uncomfortable with his decision to make his feelings public on primarily Indian matters through an article in the  New York Review of Books, and not publishing his article in an Indian magazine, like the Economic and Political Weekly. No Western scholar would do that. Secondly, he should have avoided discussions about Nalanda as that involved him personally. Thirdly, he is complaining about the Central government taking over “direct control” of academic institutions, instead of “having effective power”.

But this is equally true of academic institutions under the jurisdiction of state governments, especially those of West Bengal, on which point he is very circumspect. His ambivalent reaction to the decision of the Chairman of Presidency University’s Mentor Group to run for Parliament on the ruling party’s ticket does not strengthen his criticism of the Modi government regarding institutional autonomy. A large majority of Indians respect and admire him, and do not want him to be a target of the Modi maniacs. It pains us all.