by Jyotirmaya Sharma
THE REMOVAL of A. K. Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana by the Delhi University’s Academic Council is disgraceful. So is the way in which the Vice- Chancellor presided over this Goebbelsian purge through propaganda. But the episode hides the callousness with which we treat ideas, especially ideas that do not seem to fit our cherished myths. Ideas question our sense of comfort, challenge our self- deception and assail the banality of our selfimage.
No amount of signing petitions and writing to the HRD minister would redress the damage this shameful episode has done to intellectual freedom in Indian universities.
The academic community will have to find new ways of dissent. For instance, the emails of the VC and all those who voted in favour of removal of the essay ought to be clogged with copies of the essay, and I mean hundreds of them. This must happen every single day, every hour, for weeks and months, for as long as the people responsible do not express contrition.
It is likely that some of them will eventually read the essay and realise their folly as well as admit their ignorance. Students and teachers must gather outside the VC’s office and outside the offices of those who favoured the removal and read aloud the essay. The din caused by Ramanujan’s wisdom must paralyse the day to day functioning of people who revel in parading their insolent might.
Waking and sleeping, these men, who are enemies of ideas and excellence, must be made to encounter Ramanujan’s prose.
Teachers must begin to teach and discuss the essay in class, whether it is on the syllabus or not. The assault on the written word must be countered by the greater power of the akshara , that which does not perish.
There is no doubt that these episodes will continue to happen and haunt us till we do not address questions that plague university education in India, and especially higher education. No sensible individual can question the goal of providing access to education for all those who want to avail of the opportunity for higher education. But access and excellence must go hand in hand.
Higher education must be about excellence. But excellence does not mean phoney elitism or social snobbery. Neither does it have anything to do with the technocratic- managerial argument of meritocracy. It has much to do with raising the bar of the kind of questions that are asked, the manner in which these are posed and the solidity of research that emerges out of it.
For that to happen, the school system and the regime of undergraduate education have to be qualitatively lifted and enhanced.
Further, the academic departments have to be granted genuine autonomy and not be hostage to the game of numbers that is often played out in bodies like the academic councils in the name of democratic functioning. For departments to be autonomous, they must be made accountable and funding ought to be tied to their performance across rational parameters. Too much today depends on the grace and favour of bodies like the UGC and university administrations.
But thinking about higher education seems to be going in the opposite direction. There are moves to standardise higher education at the national level, an attempt that hides behind the rhetoric of greater mobility of students but has at its core the idea of watering down standards.
Higher education cannot deliver till such time it is controlled by a bureaucracy at the top, aided by mediocre academics whose business it becomes to help water- down standards for the sake of their own survival.
Neither can the market become the sole arbiter of excellence.
A substantial part of the blame lies with teachers: they have pandered to furthering mindless representation of ideologies, fashions, notions of political correctness and populism.
In other words, they have simulated what politicians and demagogues do best.
In times of crisis they have resorted to taking help of politicians and political parties rather than sorting contentious issues within the confines of their institutions.
Moreover, higher education has survived too long on the empty rhetoric of ‘ nation building’, an abstraction open to multiple interpretations and political interventions. This is so especially when what constitutes the nation and its interests are susceptible to ideological and political interpretations.
The way teachers treat students, especially in the realm of higher education, is part of the problem. A misplaced paternalism exists where, instead, there ought to be friendship and partnership.
Teachers and policymakers continue to treat students reaching postgraduate studies as children who need to be led, guided, and protected from what they consider as dangerous trends. Instead of showing the way to intellectual freedom, students are told to be careful of things that might harm their intellects and, in turn, harm the nation.
Our collective insecurity as a nation and our valorisation of smug mediocrity in the name of the nation’s interests turns students from free individuals to slaves. Denying access to a certain kind of literature is, in fact, the modern manifestation of caste elitism, where some texts are denied access because of a higher reason prevailing, which denies that access. If literature of all sorts is available, the students would be able to make their minds up about what to them would be the most tenable and convincing argument.
But academic bureaucracies have little respect for ideas, and even less respect for the endusers of the system in whose name they seem to exist and seem to flourish.
The lesson from the Delhi University episode is also that banal Hindutva has no ideology or political affiliation. It cuts across party politics. If this move had been initiated by Murli Manohar Joshi, people would automatically impute ideological motives to it. But this shameful act of removing an essay has happened when a Congress- led government is in place and in a place where a Congress ruled government rules Delhi. Banal Hindutva thrives on mediocrity, amorality, conformity, smugness and misplaced certainty.
The solution to this lies within the university. Those who supported this move have to be shamed and their shallowness exposed. But the community of teachers and scholars must rise in order to assert their academic independence and their administrative autonomy. Otherwise, their fates would continue to be sealed by twenty five men and women, within which number are several beholden to the arbitrary power of the Vice- Chancellor, many of them quiet and indifferent, and a handful allowed to commit crimes against intellectual excellence and flourishing.
Delhi University must show the country that they are ready to take their destiny back into their hands, not by running to ministers and politicians, but by fabricating a new vocabulary of dissent.
The writer teaches politics at the University of Hyderabad
From: Mail Today, 15 November 2011