Freedom Issue 2018: Essay

The Idea Deficit

Shonaleeka Kaul is associate professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
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The walled world of academia

IF ASKED WHAT it is that Indian academics needs to get ahead in the world today, most well-meaning people will tell you ‘funds’. I say ‘freedom’.

Of course, this includes freedom from want, and so funds certainly play their role. And no, freedom of expression is not what I am speaking of, since Indians enjoy a good deal of it already and perhaps that is why many don’t realise or value it. As Søren Kierkegaard put it, people demand freedom of speech as compensation for the freedom of thought they seldom use!

As a historian of early South Asia, teaching and supervising research at two of India’s premier public universities for the past 17 years, I think the freedoms that higher education in India needs to aspire to are the following (in no particular order):

Freedom From Bureaucratic Strangleholds

As anybody who is familiar with the rules that seek to quantify teaching-learning and regulate (deny?) promotions in Indian universities since the Sixth Pay Commission was introduced in 2006 will tell you, it would appear that there is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality in higher education today. So while the earlier system of promoting teachers just by virtue of their having lived out a certain number of years in the system allowed many individuals to slip into a complacent disregard for research and continued learning, the tyranny of the Academic Point Index (API) system now in currency, in the hands of recalcitrant universities, may have injustice built into it.

Teachers must now garner a certain minimum number of points every year in a variety of academic and ‘extra-curricular’ activities and compile enormous folios of ‘proof’ of all this to submit to the powers that be, which then adjudicate on what is indeed admissible and what is not—a deficit of trust that becomes inevitable when quality and achievements are assessed mechanically. Yet, despite putting in the long years now demanded (perhaps the longest anywhere in the world) and despite meeting—even exceeding—the API required, there is no guarantee of getting your promotion, given the arbitrary interpretation of the confused rules by different institutions and their largely unsympathetic or helpless bureaucracies. Ironically, the whole system is ranged against the genuine scholar-teacher who may take five years to research and write a great book but will be awarded a mere 20 points for all that even as a colleague, publishing an article of dubious substance in one of hundreds of spurious journals which have mushroomed overnight to cater to the API industry, laps up 25 points per article in a timely fashion. Similarly, a host of administrative duties, membership of committees and financial grants are essential if you have to meet the required points, whether or not they do anything to make you a better teacher, scholar or human being.

It is also proposed that now the teacher must sit in office from 9 to 5, so to speak: the number of hours you teach is important, it seems, not what you teach or how. Nor is it important that research is something that many conscientious teachers have to do on their own time as a result—after they return from the workplace, during weekends and holidays and ever-shrinking vacations—as if it were their personal affair and a side- issue to their teaching. Any wonder why our course curricula are stagnating and many students regard admission to Master’s and research degrees as convenient ‘time pass’, or stepping stones to institutions abroad, rather than rigorous and creative opportunities to excel in their own country?

If the new private universities are to remain privileged islands in the sea of Indian humanity thirsting for and deserving of quality education, they can hardly do justice to their own cause

While we seek to ape the West in many other respects, there are few takers among education policymakers in India for the emphasis on bare naked merit in job selection that you will find in the best Western academic institutions (notwithstanding their own bureaucracies and other limitations). Instead, here all kinds of considerations other than academic calibre may apply. From which big scholar’s student (follower?) you are to which community you or your relatives influentially belong, to whether you are old enough for the job—yes, literally old and greying seem to be the qualifying criteria to be considered for a full professor’s position, not necessarily your curriculum vitae.

Freedom From Commercial Monopolies

At the other end of the spectrum are private-run educational institutions, heavily charging students who can pay and sourcing teachers from public institutions, just as private hospitals lure away doctors who have gained incomparable experience in government hospitals but who gladly flee to private pastures for fat pay-cheques and different degrees of glamour. Such professionals, in the process, leave to their fate hundreds of thousands of students and patients who have no alternative but to go to government universities or medical institutes in this country.

This is not to say that some of the new private universities that have come up in India in the last ten or 20 years are not propelled by noble impulses or do not have a worthy vision of ameliorating the ills of higher learning; it would seem some do. But if they are to remain privileged islands in the sea of Indian humanity thirsting for and deserving of quality education, they can hardly do justice to their own cause.

Also subject to commercial controls of access today is scholarly knowledge in general, what with the steep price of academic books and journals, and prohibitive copyright fees, the bulk of which by far goes to the publisher, not the author who may have little say in the matter. What is needed in academia today is more equitable structures of knowledge production, dissemination and access. The internet and social media have certainly opened up new avenues, but they also bring with them a great deal of fake news, unsubstantiated narratives and disinformation. It is mainstream education and academics itself that must reform if authentic versions of truth and knowledge are to be widely available, as they should be.

Freedom From Colonial Epistemic Hierarchies

However, what defines an authentic version of knowledge or history? Indeed who defines what history is in the first place? And who can be regarded as an authority on it? Even as it is essential to reform Indian universities and infuse in them greater rigour and quality, it must also be recognised that a great deal of the teaching done and knowledge dispensed at these formal centres of higher learning, especially in our metropolises, tends to rely on imported theories and concepts and methods and ideologies, only a few of which may illumine Indian history and historical sources, while the rest may indeed inflict varieties of epistemic violence on endogenous ways of knowing. Can you name any Indian thinker, past or present, ancient or modern, who is taught and applied in history classrooms today in mainstream Central universities which otherwise resound with Foucault, Heidegger and the like?

In championing Western notions of history today that are becoming dated in the West itself, we are perpetuating an imperialism that is of our own making

The very discipline of history continues to creak under the burden of 19th century European Enlightenment notions of scientism, objectivism and materialism, as if history were a physical science rather than a humanistic field. This has led to the delegitimising and rejection of vast swathes of traditional Indian literature and thought for their emphasis on human values and ethics or liberation as the substance and ends of history. Sterile facts versus meaning and values are two different civilisational world views. In championing Western notions of history today that are becoming dated in the West itself, we are perpetuating an imperialism that is of our own making.

Mind you, let me underline that this is not a call for nativism or some brand of indigenist reaction. Far from it. This is a call for radically rethinking anachronistic and etic approaches to India, and letting rich and profound Indian traditions—in every one of the thousands of languages and dialects we have—speak for themselves. This will enrich and refresh international academic discourse as well, just as all other thought from the Global South is doing, and the world will thank us for it—for being what India always was in the past, a true intellectual giant.

Freedom for the Vernaculars

This is the way forward for Indian academics, in my opinion. There has to be a dialogue between Anglophone academics and vernacular scholarship, and on equal terms. And here in the vernaculars I include the whole range from classical pan-Indic languages like Sanskrit to regional languages and dialects, and from texts and literary cultures to oral traditions and folk narratives.

All too many students come to large universities in the metropolises from the small towns and villages of India diffident and on the backfoot—because they don’t know English or don’t know it well enough. While multilingualism is the need of the hour in the globalised world we inhabit today and we encourage students to learn English, there is nothing intrinsically superior in one language over others. Our students need the confidence to know that language is a skill, not a liability, and must be the medium for trans-cultural conversations, mediating faithfully between their own vernacular systems and world views and those of the world. If this conversation has to be in English for now, so be it; what is more important than decolonising the tongue is decolonising the mind.

Freedom From Labels

The Colonial ‘Other’ is not the only colonising force when it comes to Indian intellect. Academic circles in the country are also in the thrall of a different kind of regime: the warring twin camps of Left and Right politics. One hesitates to call them ideologies since there seems to be next to no genuine intellectual engagement between the two in India today. There is instead mutual disdain, name-calling and power lust. Worst of all, there is little space for independent scholarship that does not toe either line, and which is unhesitatingly labelled if it is unpalatable to respective political causes.

I have no doubt that there are a large number of independent scholars in this country, doing wonderful new and creative work on their own terms, who are tired of being asked to see and show things through the prism of politics; people muted and invisibilised by labels and camps. Many of them represent our vibrant vernacular traditions of thought. Here is a conspiracy of silence within the very bastion of freedom that academics like to believe they represent. To those who speak for education’s powers of resistance and calling out oppression, here is the challenge within. Will we overcome it? One can only hope so. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” (Nelson Mandela).

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