How did Indian Universities get alienated from the societies they exist in?

By Mohammad Sajjad for

At any given moment, stock-taking of institutions is a necessary exercise. In recent times, universities have started facing more difficult challenges than ever before. At least in certain cases, both the state and some segments of our society have appeared to articulate discomfitures particularly against the best of our universities. We should not and cannot be dismissive about such discomfitures, alienations, hostilities, and grievances. It would be too simplistic and fraught with implications if we push it aside merely by saying that these are all because of misinformed and motivated propagandas.

Support TwoCircles

As a student of history, I somehow feel that in our part of the world, comprehensive studies on social histories of the academies of higher learning are woefully inadequate. It is therefore important to deal with the predicaments facing our universities. Have they really remained alive to the social and economic challenges facing Indian societies? With what objectives were they set up? Have they really remained true to those objectives? What kind of research and pedagogy did they churn out? Did they remain confined as a preserve of a minuscule minority of the select middle classes? Did the campuses explore and address the problems of the immediate surroundings of the physical location of the campuses?

Do we really have enough instances when the teachers’ movements went beyond their own pay, perks, and working conditions, and agitated for larger social, economic and political questions? How many times have the academics been self-critical about their own accountabilities?

With best of my efforts, I could come across very few of such accounts.

The news periodicals of the 1980s and 1990s describe how various provincial universities became fiefdoms of certain upper-caste elites. Each of these universities was identified with a specific caste, and the respective vice chancellors could essentially from those castes only. Having ruined our better quality provincial universities and having eroded their autonomy by the vile politicians in connivance with the pro-establishment, retrogressive, casteist academics, we started looking upon some of the central universities as a haven for our children and youth.

While all these were going on, instead of responding to these, the academics and the policy-makers, rather than arresting those decay, and restoring academic rigours in these existing Universities, thought of establishing more elite institutions funded by the Union government. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) came into being at this juncture. The rural elites deserted better quality government schools for district towns, and the social monitoring of these schools vanished, ruining these institutions. [So did happen with the government health care systems in rural areas]. Then the district town elites migrated to provincial capital cities for better education to their children. When these deteriorated, the elites migrated to New Delhi. When higher education and doctoral degrees from the universities of India’s mega cities started becoming “less worthy”, the corresponding elites migrated to the Western world. In this “linear progression” of migrations for better quality education, we ended up looking away from keeping our institutions intact. The rapid decline, even destruction, of the wonderful government schooling system in Bihar—Zila Schools—could probably be an interesting subject of study. No private schools of today can really match the rigour and quality of such government schools and colleges of yesteryears.

Expansion in the number of universities have happened more in order to become socially inclusive, simultaneously it has also asserted the needs of the heterogeneities of the purposes behind setting them up, some having region-specific concerns of research, enrolments and recruitments, besides undertaking the documentations of the ethnographic details (customs, traditions, socio-economic and educational status, dialects, languages, etc.) of the local communities. To ensure all these, the universities enjoy autonomy. Nevertheless, when few historic universities came to be identified with certain grossly under-represented social groups/identities, they started facing a lot of troubles and oppositions from various ideological groups. They questioned the raison d’être of such universities. They are facing existential threats and are under tremendous pressure to shed their specificities. Heterogeneities of the academic and social purposes of such universities, despite very few in numbers, are sought to be subsumed and assimilated by proposing to legislate a homogenous single Act for all such centrally funded universities. Such onslaught of homogeneity has not come only from the Right wing forces but also from the Left, liberal, and progressive forces in India. This obsession for hegemonic homogeneity needs to be resisted at this point of time more fiercely than ever before in the journey of our republic. As put more candidly by Satish Deshpande (Indian Express, February 1, 2017), “Public university is more important now than ever before. It is the critical site where the future of the social justice agenda will be decided, and the fate of this agenda, in turn, will decide whether we have any future at all as a democratic republic”.

In the 1970s, when the Emergency was imposed, and now under the present dispensation, the premier universities have begun to face a lot of adversities and persecutions. In the name of “patriotism”, the students and academics are subjected to a witch-hunt. Many provocative falsehoods are attributed to the free thinking minds. With these falsehoods, society is misleadingly persuaded to stand in violent hostilities against the students and academics. There is an onslaught of muzzling the dissent, an atmosphere of fear and intimidation is killing the creativities of the writers, of the academics, and even of the young minds.

The question is: how did we reach such a grim situation? How did the society get alienated against our respectable institutions and the regressive political and cultural forces have begun to prevail over the society? How did these politicians succeed in persuading the society rather than the knowledge producers and disseminators? This calls us all the more for much deeper introspection.

To my little understanding, part of the reason is: with the expanding social base of the campuses, the pre-existing upper caste elites got threatened about their pre-eminence in the sphere of knowledge. Our practices of knowledge-production and dissemination have remained woefully inadequate on challenging the status quo.

Just one instance, and that from Bihar!

Bihar has always been identified as more regressive about upper caste hegemony. Yet, the premier and the oldest college of north Bihar, founded in 1899 by a caste association, “Bhumihar-Brahman Sabha” in collaboration with the Bihar Scientific Society of Muzaffarpur (established in 1868), and later named after Langat Singh (1850-1912), does not offer a course in Sociology and Anthropology, as yet. It was only in the 1980s, that a lesser known college of Muzaffarpur came up to offer an undergraduate course in Sociology. Did the universities of Bihar promote studies and researches on flood control, on rural distress, on agrarian improvements, on limits and failures of the municipal systems and urban planning, on development studies with a perspective of sensitising the people on regional imbalances, on caste-based oppressions and violence? On the inter-regional and intra-regional imbalances, when Bihar was characterised as “Ïnternal Colony” of independent India, a study (1973) came out of a non-academic socialist thinker, Sachidanand Sinha, rather than from the teachers on the payroll of a university. How many of the regional universities undertake researches on letting off the ones who were directly as well as indirectly involved in the communal violence of colonial and post-independence eras? How many of these universities, till the 1980s, really had centres for studies about Dalits, Tribes, gender, and religious-linguistic minorities? We have studies on the Dalit community of Musahars, but these are not from the universities of Bihar. Such studies come out more from certain kind of NGOs engaged in research and documentation. Most of the researches funded by the UGC fail the rigours of top-tier journals. In Uttar Pradesh, there are 66 communities of Dalits, but out of these, dozens of the Dalit communities have not been studied by the social anthropologists of the government universities of Uttar Pradesh. In fact, socio-anthropological studies about Indian castes took place more in the USA. Even the micro-areas of political studies such as the subjects like election studies and psephology, and social complexities involved in electioneering processes and outcomes thereof, have originated more in the USA and elsewhere, than in the Indian universities.

The Rajendra Agricultural University of Pusa in Bihar could never show any significant output on researches on bananas of Hajipur, on lichis of Muzaffarpur; flood resistant varieties of rice crops could not be developed; since long a particular virus is killing the sheeshum trees of commercial timber values, but the agricultural universities of these regions are unable to come out with a solution.

Similarly, did the IITs devise and invent vehicles of low fuel consumption? Did they come out with kitchen utensils, such as bread-baker, microwave oven, pressure cookers, or any such devices which could consume less energy and could save the time of the cook? Thus, the IITs came to be seen as a means of upward mobility of select individuals, who rose up the career ladder by getting employed abroad, rather than ones who could help improve the economic status of the common people. In common perception, the academics of these elite institutions are/were perceived to be least relevant socially.

An instance of socially relevant research and teaching is pertinently relevant here. Prof. Shakeelur Rahman (1931-2016), former Vice Chancellor in two universities of Bihar, and former Union Health Minister, in his Urdu memoir Aashram (1992: 193-212) recalls that when he was doing undergraduate from the Munshi Singh College, Motihari, he had offered Economics as a subsidiary. For this course, it was mandatory to have a month long field-trip in a village of Champaran. With this, he had to write a dissertation on the economy of the village. This is how documentation of rural distress used to be prepared. We need to ponder, from that kind of rigour, where have we now slipped down.

Nonetheless, “there are still a few university institutions in which standards of teaching and research are maintained at a fairly high level, but none of the older universities is any longer in the forefront. In an increasing number of them, hardly any research worth the name is done ”, said Andre Beteille .

Moreover, whatever relevant researches the writers, journalists, activists, and academicians the academies produced are, and were, mostly in the English language, hence a limited reach. These outputs should have been brought out in vernaculars. These vernacular spaces came to be filled in mostly by the reactionary forces. Zoya Hasan (1998) has demonstrated how the Uttar Pradesh polity and society were communalise through some of the major Hindi dailies since the 1980s. Even elsewhere, for instance in Turkey, as articulated by Jenny White (2002), the Islamist take-over took place predominantly because of a long term sustained Islamization of the vernacular spaces.

After independence, not a single high schools and college was set-up by the state government in Bihar. The landlord politicians opened it up, recruited their specific caste-men from top to bottom, and got these colleges taken over by the government. Thus, these recruitments had almost cent percent reservation for the specific upper castes. About Uttar Pradesh, a government report by J. P. Naik in 1961 declared that the government may have theoretically abolished zamindari in land, but in its place, a zamindari in education has been created (Rudolph & Rudolph, 1978). Yet, these very castes-classes were so very vehement in opposing the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in 1991. They were now invoking the arguments of meritocracy. These landed upper caste elites obtained degrees in medicine and technology through the means of “capitation” fee, at the cost of genuine meritocracy. But conveniently forgetting these aspects, they protested that doctors and engineers produced through caste-based quotas will be a menace to the nation. Such duplicities have had their implications.

Because of these, we failed to educate the Indians about the idea of India. The partisan and outrageous manners of recruitments, promotions, publications, enrolments, all contributed towards ever growing discredit of the academics and academies.

Let us confess rather candidly, that our universities failed to sensitise (about all these) our youth adequately. We did not warn our hedonist middle classes about their lack of ideological moorings, their passionate consumerist ambitions. These inequalities and lack of concern, for the disadvantaged, started becoming even starker within the campuses. In fact, the problem went even further. There developed a fear, and hatred against the upward mobility of hitherto dispossessed—be it the Dalits, Tribes, OBCs or religious minorities.

In reaction against all these issues of social composition and resultant conflicts about the structures of academic governance, when the votaries of social justice came to power in the 1990s, they took recourse to changing the social composition of these institutions in such a cynical and brazen manner that they wittingly or unwittingly ended up destroying them, for all practical purposes. Thus, the society, in essential terms, got alienated from the institutions. A significant section of the common citizens got disillusioned and this gave way to a thought that the academies and the academicians are a liability rather than assets.

This is where the regressive and reactionary political forces, with the advantage of state power, started playing their nasty games, pushing our universities into the “death throes”.

By saying so, it certainly does not mean that our universities and academics did not do anything worthwhile. They did produce leaders, writers, journalists, academics-scientists, policy-planners, scientists, technocrats, managers, activists, administrators, and everything else. Only thing is, they did not produce enough. In proportion to our huge population, we don’t have many public intellectuals to challenge the status quo and to guide the society in a desirable direction.

As compared to the core academics of research which have been relatively much less responsive to the socio-economic needs of the immediate surroundings, the student politics has sometimes been responsive to the wider social issues.

From the 1960s onwards, students and educated unemployed youth did emerge as “demand groups” in the Indian politics, as put by Rudolph and Rudolph (1987). This was an era when rural students from historically disadvantaged social groups were entering into the campuses.  Incidentally, this was also an era of student upsurge in the rest of the world.

Thus, at some moments, the students did rise to the occasion. The students of the St Stephen’s College (Delhi) and the Presidency College (Calcutta) joined in the extra-parliamentary violent struggles for the landless labourers. For instance, “in Tamil Nadu in 1965 and in Gujarat in 1974 students launched and led massive anti-Hindi and anti price rise agitations that challenged policies and toppled governments. In the 1980s, students led or collaborated with regional movements in Assam and Punjab. Nationally, students provided cadres for the Jayaprakash Narayan led movement in 1974-75 … for decentralisation, honest government, and a more just society…”. During 1965-75, parts of India witnessed strong student movements, e.g. Nav Nirman Andolan of Gujarat and Sampurna Kranti (Total Revolution) of Bihar. This was against rampant corruption in the government and in the universities.

However, this is also a truth that “the Indian students have provided the personnel and political resources for partisan and factional politics. The easy access to political career and the benefits of power have led students to participate in rather than challenge the established political system”.  While the movement of the 1970s did not take care of the fact that in the name of fight against corruption, they were also aligning with the reactionary forces, in the 1980s, Sanjay Gandhi’s mobilization of educated and ambitious but frustrated youth in the Youth Congress contributed towards degeneration of student politics which became more interested in rising to power through unprincipled means rather than agitating for a better and just society.

Overall, “students have rarely challenged the centrist consensus, even when they have challenged particular centrist regimes”. We need to prepare self-confident students and youth who can dream, who can challenge the status quo, who can question the regressive traditions and reactionary ideologies.

Thus, let it be repeated ad nauseum, we the academics need to look within ourselves self-critically and diagnose our problems most honestly. Where did we, the community of academics, go wrong? This stock-taking is more urgently needed now than ever before. Let us strive to re-establish a much meaningful connect between the academies and the society. This should be an integral and concurrent act of ours while struggling to reclaim our public institutions to build the secular democratic republic of India of our dreams, the uncompromising spirit of which is cast in the stone, called Constitution.

The author is Professor of History at the Aligarh Muslim University.

[feature image for representational purpose only]