Satish Deshpande - Death of the public university // Aatish Taseer - The Right-Wing Attack on India’s Universities

Even as Indian higher education faces its toughest challenge — the inclusion of hitherto excluded groups — the public university is becoming insecure, narrow-minded and conservative

Why has Rohith Vemula’s comet-like passing moved so many, breaching all the usual barriers? Perhaps the answer lies in the deep dread of comets we have inherited from our ancestors, of the dhoomketu as an ancient omen of impending disaster. We think we weep for the single soul who scorched our skies, but in truth, our anguish is for the bigger catastrophe that is being foretold. The larger calamity here is that the institution in which Rohith committed suicide — the Indian public university — is also trying to do the same.

Before explaining how and why this is happening, it may be useful to ask if it matters. After all, if no one really misses HMT watches, telegrams or Modern bread today, what difference would the passing of the public-sector university make? Unfortunately for us, the 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.

If this seems exaggerated, consider the following: Inequalities have grown sharply in neoliberal India, with the wealthiest 1 per cent owning more than half the nation’s wealth, while the poorest 50 per cent own less than 5 per cent. There is a strong caste dimension to this inequality — not one of the 55 dollar-billionaires that India boasts of are from the “lower” castes, but these same castes form a disproportionately high share of the poor by any definition. Now that the “trickle down” thesis has been disowned by its own devotees, how is this growing, continually reproduced inequality going to be redressed? Given our failure to redistribute land and our inability to even tax wealth adequately, higher education is the only significant resource for social mobility that we can hope to offer the have-nots.

The good news is that formal access to higher education has expanded exponentially. Between 1991 and 2013-14, total enrolment in higher education has increased 6.5 times (from 49 to 323 lakh); the number of universities has nearly quadrupled (184 to 723); and the gross enrolment ratio for the 18-23 age group has almost tripled (from 8.1 per cent to 23.9 per cent). 

The bad news is that the bulk of the expansion has been in private colleges, which now account for 65 per cent of the enrolment and 75 per cent of the institutions at this level. Rampant corruption is the bane of this segment, with extortionist fees and fake institutions, like the one in Tamil Nadu that goaded three young women to commit suicide last week. 

Such rackets flourish because of political protection — every aspiring neta owns a college or three, and “educationist” is now the most common occupation listed by our parliamentarians. In the absence of genuine philanthropy, privatised education deepens inequalities because, effectively, it only offers a choice between the fraudulent and the prohibitively expensive.

But the really bad news is that the burden of our hopes must perforce rest on an institution that seems to be rapidly self-destructing — the public university. Its crisis is precipitated by three main factors: First, the secession of the vocal elite who can afford first-world fees, and who no longer care about Indian institutions. Second, the manoeuvring of global and local private players entering the lucrative Indian market for higher education, who may be indirectly or directly undermining state institutions.

Third, the cumulative erosion of governance structures for which politicians and academics must share blame, which has resulted in ad hocism, incoherence and sheer lack of care in policymaking. Autonomy has become a shield for the arbitrary authoritarianism of pliant academic administrators eager to implement every whim of the regime in power. The overall impact is that the public university is shrinking in stature; instead of the confident, open and liberal institution that it once was, it is becoming insecure, narrow-minded and conservative.

In the midst of the broader crisis, Indian higher education faces the toughest challenge in its 155-year history, namely the inclusion of hitherto excluded groups. The combined effect of reservations and economic and demographic change has radically diversified a student body that used to be relatively homogeneous, being mostly from the “upper” and “dominant” castes. Caste and class inequalities expectedly translate into grossly unequal endowments of social and academic capital, but unlike in privatised education, these inequalities do not produce a hierarchy of segregated institutions. Political interventions like the 93rd constitutional amendment have ensured that even the elite segment of public higher education — which used to operate under a kind of tacit caste apartheid — is now integrated. 

Tensions are highest in elite public institutions where the already entrenched castes (who enjoy the luxury of believing they are casteless) bitterly resent the breaching of their erstwhile monopoly. It is also here that the intangible yet yawning gap between formal access and substantive inclusion is most clearly felt and most zealously guarded. The rhetorical question asked by the guardians of this gap — “After getting admission, fellowships and facilities, what more do ‘they’ want?” — points to the truth that access can be unilaterally enforced but inclusion cannot, because it requires the recognition of the other.

The elusive nature of this recognition and the myriad subtle ways in which it can be intentionally withheld are very hard to describe, but Rohith evokes them eloquently in his fragmentary writing. Eliciting and nurturing such recognition is — or should be — the main mission of the public university today. Institutions that refuse to even try are effectively killing themselves as centres of learning. The body lives on in buildings, campuses, salaries, fellowships or degrees, but the soul — the whole that aspires to be more than the sum of its parts — is gone.

We can truly share something only when we acknowledge others as full owners, when we concede that howsoever different they may be from us, their claims to ownership are no different from ours. If we cannot share our universities, we will soon be unable to share our nation.

Varanasi, India — I met Sandeep Pandey days after he was sacked from his position as a visiting professor at a prestigious technical institute at Banaras Hindu University. We sat in a dreary guesthouse on the university campus. Mr. Pandey had just finished a long train ride. With his wrinkled kurta pajama and rubber slippers, he was every bit the picture of an old-fashioned Indian leftist.

That was why he’d been fired. “Ideologically, I am at the opposite extreme to the people who are at present in power,” he said. “These people not only cannot tolerate any dissent; they don’t even tolerate disagreement. They want everybody who disagrees with them out of this campus.” Mr. Pandey was referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and — more to the point — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the B.J.P.’s cultural fountainhead.

The R.S.S., a Hindu nationalist organization, was founded in 1925 as a muscular alternative to Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement. Its founder admired Adolf Hitler, and in 1948 the organization was blamed for indirectly inspiring Gandhi’s assassination. The B.J.P. has not always had an easy relationship with the R.S.S. With its fanciful ideas of Hindu purity and its sweeping range of prejudices, the organization is dangerously out of step with the realities of India’s political landscape. When the B.J.P. wants to win an election, it usually distances itself from the R.S.S.’s cultural agenda.

Mr. Modi’s 2014 election had very little to do with the R.S.S. and everything to do with his personality and promises of development. But the R.S.S. doesn’t see it that way. Like a fairy-tale dwarf, the group has sought to extract its due from the man it helped into power. As payment for the debt, the R.S.S. wants control of education. Specifically, it wants to install its men at the helm of universities where they will wreak vengeance on the traditionally left-wing intellectual establishment that has always held them in contempt.

At a prestigious film institute, students are protesting the appointment of a president whose only qualification, they feel, is a willingness to advance the R.S.S.’s agenda. The group’s members have met with the education minister in the hope of shaping education policy; in states that the B.J.P. controls, the R.S.S. has been putting forward the names of underqualified ideologues for advisory positions on the content of textbooks and curriculums. It has also sought to put those who share its ideology at the head of important cultural institutions, such as the Indian Council of Historical Research.

This is the background to Mr. Pandey’s dismissal. His new boss, Girish Chandra Tripathi, the vice chancellor, is an R.S.S. man. The Ministry of Education helped push through his appointment after Mr. Modi’s election. One B.H.U. professor, who wished not to be named, described Mr. Tripathi as “an academic thug with no qualifications.” (He was previously a professor of economics.)

The new vice chancellor soon turned on Mr. Pandey. “It was all engineered,” Mr. Pandey said to me. First, the professor said, he was denounced by a student. Then a local news website printed a bogus story accusing him of being part of an armed guerrilla movement. (Mr. Pandey, a Gandhian, opposes all violence.) Soon after, the technical institute’s board of governors decided, on Mr. Tripathi’s recommendation, that he be fired. He is an alumnus of the university and a mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He has won awards for his social work. None of this made a difference. He was given a month to clear out.

I thought I should speak to the vice chancellor. He was out of town, but came on the telephone. The mention of “Sandeep Pandey” was like a trigger. He told me that Mr. Pandey had questioned whether Kashmir was an integral part of India and he had tried to screen the banned documentary “India’s Daughter,” which deals with the infamous gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a physiotherapy student in New Delhi in 2012.

I must not have seemed sufficiently appalled. Mr. Tripathi tried a different tack. He said, on hearing of my connection to an American publication, “Tell me, can you, being a professor in America, criticize the American government?” Yes, I answered. He tried again. “Can you,” he thundered down the line, “being a professor in America, teach what is against America’s interests?” I remembered a professor at Amherst College, my alma mater, who had once compared George W. Bush to Osama bin Laden. “Probably,” I said. “Well, maybe you can in America,” he said with disgust. “But you can’t do it in India.”

I had one last question. I had seen the vice chancellor recently at a religious event celebrating the university’s centenary, where the presiding pundit had claimed that ancient India possessed the science of gestational surrogacy. “We had these technologies, too,” the pundit said, “but over the course of a thousand years of slavery we forgot them. Or, rather, we were made to forget them.” Mr. Pandey, a man of science, had told me that Mr. Tripathi and his ilk were of the same mind as the pundit and even believed ancient India had possessed aircraft and ballistic missiles.

I had to ask. Did the vice chancellor really believe this? “I still say it,” he said defensively. I asked him to explain further. He said this was not a conversation to be had on the telephone. He would show me all the evidence later. The line went dead.

The problem with the vice chancellor is not just that he is right-wing. It is that he is unqualified for his position. This was never more apparent than in his total inability to grasp the value of dissent at an institution of learning.

Mr. Pandey has spent a lifetime working among some of India’s most voiceless people. It was sinister in the extreme that he should be dismissed for being “anti-national.” And that term is being bandied about far too much by the R.S.S. and its allies these days. The R.S.S.’s student wing at the University of Hyderabad recently smeared a 26-year-old doctoral student from a low-caste background as “anti-national” for his activism. The university decided to ban him from all public spaces. Earlier this month he committed suicide.

The R.S.S. has always been more of a liability for Mr. Modi than an asset. The organization has been waiting to introduce its radical agenda on the cultural and academic landscape in place of the Modi government’s promise of development. If Mr. Modi gives them an opening, they will bury him. They will reduce his broad mandate to the hysteria of a few. And, in the bargain, they will do immeasurable harm to the capacious idea of what it means to be Indian

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