Letter: Attack on secular higher education in India

Given that we cannot create a secular island in an ocean of bigotry, I believe we should stand up for secular causes everywhere. Here is my take on changing face of higher education in India, with a case study of The University of Delhi.

While opinions vary on the performance of the first Indian governments in different sectors, higher education is a sector where India’s first steps usually evoke a positive response across the board. One can clearly see the success of secular advanced education that has paid dividends in India in a strong contrast to the other countries of the Indian subcontinent where either higher education was not given enough emphasis or was not secular in its character. Do not get me wrong, higher education in India has clearly not been an all-sunshine story, as India is far from its true potential but what I am trying to emphasize is that it is not a complete failure as yet. You will get to see that ‘as yet’ is the operational word, as we are soon heading down the lane of Pakistan and Afghanistan, courtesy of the dirty politics of New Delhi.

Even though initial seeds of education were sowed with a foresight of modern secular thinking, Indian academia has failed to truly blossom. We certainly need to explore all the reasons for the Indian failure to launch but right now the call of the hour is to protect the barely-alive academia from the ongoing onslaught of the myopic, vindictive and dictatorial current regime that is hell bent on destroying secular character of our advanced education system. Indian central universities are now facing a threat to their secular and modern character due to opportunistic politics and rise of religious fundamentalism.

Let us take the example of the University of Delhi, one of the largest of the central government universities that once used to be projected as a pride of India. The University is structured such that power is in the hands of few people who are politically appointed, instead of entirely merit-based autonomous council that is outside the influence of politicians. The University of Delhi has a Visitor who in theory has the ultimate power. This Visitor is the President of India. Then comes the Chancellor, who is the Vice President of India. The president of India on the advice (but in reality on the dictates) of the office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Human Resource Development appoints the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice Chancellor (VC) is in effect the head of the University. The VC can act like the dictator of the University, if he or she wants to, with obviously no reporting to the constitutional namesake head of India – the President. The VC appoints his team that plays a role in deciding the allocation of resources, approval of course work, appointment of college principals, teachers and eventually all policy matters. Although certain academic bodies involved in decision-making, like the executive and academic council, have some elected members, usually no member gets elected without a political affiliation and backing.

This structure is in a strong contrast to the free merit-based truly autonomous academia in the developed parts of the world. The reason this structure worked to some extent in the first few decades after independence is because the educated ruling class understood that academia should be run mostly on merit if the nation is to prosper. Unfortunately the structure that was evolved depended on the wisdom of the Prime Minister but not a structure that was free from political intervention. Although this structure constitutionally has some balances and checks in the form of some elected members in the administrative bodies and vibrant trade unions, the Vice Chancellor has decided not to call any meetings of these bodies and rule by decrees in order to overcome this menace of democracy.

Few years ago at the University of Delhi, a collusion of BJP and Congress’s political interests led to a laughable act of allowing astrology (no, not astronomy but dumb stone age astrology) to be part of its curriculum. After much controversy and worldwide ridicule from acclaimed intellectuals it was eventually withdrawn. One may wonder that after such infamy the government would not redo such mistake again but alas. The trend of non-secular intervention continues unabated.

Somehow, magically fundamentalist administrators, be it a Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Hindu, whosoever suits Congress’s electoral play, continue being appointed. Some of the ethnically focused institutions, whether for segments within minorities or majorities, were created to encourage enrollment of students from segments who otherwise faced the danger of being left out without such privileged institutions. The goal was to create a modern alternative to inadequate and often sectarian madrassa or ashram kind of religious education that these youngsters might be turned to in absence of secure modern alternatives. To provide such education, faculty from all ethnicities were hired and promoted. Now with politicization, somehow the faculty enrollment has started paralleling the bias in student enrollment, throwing the criteria of merit of faculty in the dirty ditch of politics. Such bias denies good quality education to target segments that these institutions were in the first place set up to provide for.

While a trip around the University of Delhi would bear out many such examples of decadence of this administration, I would like to point out a single notable piece of capitulation to religious fundamentalism so you can better see how appeasement of different ethnic group works for political convenience.

Recently, based on orders from Congress headquarters, the Vice Chancellor forced the University to withdraw ‘Three Hundred Ramayans’, a great text by AK Ramanujan that quite clearly captures the ubiquitous nature of Ramayana tales in the whole of Indosphere, even beyond the Indian subcontinent, like in the islands of Indonesia or lands as distant as Cambodia. The text educates to the fact that Ramayana has many local variants and it is a truly a tale of all Indic region with amazingly deep cultural penetration that has sway in shaping even an atheist like me, leave alone some orthodox Vaishnav Hindu. After saffron politicians stoked trouble objecting to this long-standing course material, the Talibanized RSS goons of akhil bhartiya vidyarthi parishad (ABVP), the student wing of BJP, got offended to this whiff of knowledge. Their argument (or more accurately non-argument) was that Valmiki Ramayana is the accurate one. The claim that one version of Ramayana is celebrated more is correct, especially when viewed with strictly North Indian Vaishnav lenses, but the argument is ridiculous, as the material was not taught as a course on religion. This text was not an effort to say one version is right or wrong, or which imaginary friend should one believe in, or which organized religion is better, but a historical collection of different texts that exist in the Indosphere.

Five exemplary texts that captured the largest heterogeneity were chosen to capture the diversity of cultural heritage. Congress did not want to lose Hindu fundamentalist votes to BJP, so to one up the idiots of sangh, Sibbal decided to use his bully pulpit to remove the text from the course work all together. This move, where history and literature’s appropriateness is decided by the sentimentality of ill-educated political goons instead of facts, is no different than banning some book because of a fatwa by some crazy Mullah in streets of Lahore, Ryadh or Kabul. Such yielding to pressure from religious bigots in general public life of India is not new and not even unique to Delhi’s Congress-BJP dominated politics. Who can forget unsympathetic treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen by the stalwarts of the left, the so-called secularists?

What is new is the systematic attack on academic integrity by a demon of religious fundamentalism, corruption and dictatorship that is unleashed by Sibbal on the commands from 10 Janpath. This removal of highly acclaimed assay is being condemned worldwide and such acts continue to degrade the legitimacy of Indian education and validity of higher academic degrees.

More than the damage to Indian image or to the validity of Indian educational credentials, the impact from such acts, if recurrent, will render an already barren Indian innovation and academic landscape completely sterile. A healthy academic culture, where one can discuss life stories surrounding the myth and reality of lives of Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak, Jesus Christ or Lord Rama, when in the context of history or of linguistic style, independent from the sentimentality of religion, or conduct research on the impact of a particular pesticide on human health, independent of the connections of that pesticide company to the ruling party, is a necessary backbone of any country aspiring to innovate and grow.

I am actually not much of a Nehru fan on most socioeconomic and defense issues but what I think was his singular undisputed legacy of sowing the seeds of higher education is now being destroyed by his own great grandson.

Sukant Khurana, Ph.D.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory,
New York, USA

2 Responses to Letter: Attack on secular higher education in India

  1. I think this kind of honest journalism is required to make a difference. Tell the truth and run, Sores style. No punches held back, naming names and pointing fingers kind of journalism. I think people need to stand up to politicization of education in India before it becomes too late.

  2. A good defense of modern secular ethos. A fight worth fighting! We often ignore the religious fundamentalism in India, because of its equation with the Western hemisphere and just focus on Islamic fundamentalism. It is a brilliant article criticizing fundamentalism of Islamic and Hindu elements in India. Quite perceptive and timely!

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