The university in India is morphing under external pressure. How it will end up should be a matter of concern for all Indians and not just its denizens. This is so as universities are a source of new ideas for human advancement, hold a mirror to society, and act as a bulwark against authoritarianism. At least that is the idea behind setting them up at public expense.
For almost a decade now they have been subject to unaccountable governance by India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission. However used they may have become to the meddling, nothing could have prepared them for the most recent diktat. This one requires employees of publicly-funded universities to be subjected to the Central Civil Service (conduct) rules governing Central government employees. Now, Central government employees are prohibited from writing critically about the government and making joint representations. So the latest regulatory measure would be a blow to India’s national prestige today and its health in the future. The silencing of academics is taken to be both a sign of backwardness and incompatible with democracy. But it is more than just how the world sees it, for stifling freedom reinforces the backwardness of a society.
The argument that universities need adhere to a code of conduct is incontestable. All associations need codes of conduct to prevent chaos. Further, taking democracy seriously would make it incumbent upon them to adopt codes in keeping with its norms. Thus universities need to follow codes maintaining respect for the autonomy of its members, ensuring fairness in the evaluation of performance of students and teachers, efficiency in the conduct of everyday business, and accountability in the wielding of power by the administrative authority.
However, there is no place in the university for a code that bars criticism of the government. When interpreted broadly in its application, such a regulation will prevent the achievement of the very goals imagined for the university. The idea that teachers exceed their brief when exercising their freedom of expression is dictatorial in its essence. Hitler and Stalin epitomised this mindset. Some German professors valorised Hitler’s racial ‘theories’. It led to the departure to the U.S. of some of Europe’s best minds, including Albert Einstein. Stalin’s politically-motivated views on genetics were championed by his ‘scientist’ Trofim Lysenko, setting Soviet science back. Russia’s dissidents did not have the luxury of leaving for America, having to head eastward to Siberia, involuntarily of course. Germany has recovered from the efforts of Hitler while the territories of the former Soviet Union have been less fortunate, showing us some of the dangers from muzzling universities.
As India is a democracy, it would be of interest to see how the leading universities in other democracies regulate the intellectual life of their faculty — that is, if they do so at all. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is ranked first in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) ranking of the world’s universities for 2019. The term ‘public intellectual’ may have been coined to describe its former professor Noam Chomsky. A world authority in the field of linguistics, Prof. Chomsky has been a trenchant critic of the U.S. establishment for over 50 years. His early work in this genre was At War with Asia, which attacked American intervention in Southeast Asia at a time when the Vietnam war was raging and not yet widely unpopular. In a less provocative way, the Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, had incisively pointed out how the core of the American economy was constituted by ‘the military-industrial complex’ uncovering also its political power. Galbraith had gone on to have a happy career.
The university ranked first in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking of universities in 2018 is Oxford. The very reference to it as the ‘home of lost causes’ reflects its character as a bastion of free thinking. An instance of it that would be of some interest to us in India is that when Gandhi was in England for the Round Table Conferences held during 1930-32 he was, on more than one occasion, the house guest of Alexander Lindsay, Master of Balliol College. At the time Gandhi was virtually at war with the British Empire, having been tried for sedition. A quarter of a century later, at the height of the infamous Cold War, the same college elected as its head a historian who was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (it seems not even the communists can forego grand titles).
But perhaps Oxford’s most defiant moment was to come, when its members, by a popular vote, turned down the recommendation of an honorary doctorate for Margaret Thatcher, while she was yet Prime Minister, on grounds of her hostility to higher education. This honour had till then been conferred on every Oxford-educated Prime Minister of Britain since the degree had come into being at the University. As a sign of its having acted on principle and not on pique, it may be noted that the only other instance of a similar recommendation being turned down was the one of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was denied the honour for his role in the massacre that accompanied the formation of Bangladesh. It may be too much to expect India’s university teachers to display a similar confidence but these examples remind us of the meaning of a university. We invest in universities hoping that they would speak truth to power. If we take this freedom away by invoking irrelevant conduct rules, we deny ourselves a vital safeguard against despotism.
Lest we lapse into the defeatist telling that our own universities have always failed us, we may want to reflect on the discourse on India’s economic policy some 50 years ago. Then, as Indira Gandhi lurched leftward, and much of the economics profession had not protested much, two economists at Delhi University had chosen to go against the grain. Jagdish N. Bhagwati and Padma Desai wrote a stinging critique of planning in India. It is not as if their peers supported them strongly in their effort but it is unlikely that they had faced much hostility either, leave alone a menacing government. It was a time of intense debate about economic policy in India and these relatively young economists were able to express an anti-establishment view. It took two decades for it to find a place in India’s economic policy. The launching of the economic reforms of 1991 was a ‘Bhagwati-Desai moment’ in that their central prescription, liberalisation, was adopted.
I find the authors’ approach to the economy incomplete, and have argued in a national conference at the Central Sikkim University earlier this month that the subsequent quarter century in India does not validate their thesis, despite its salience in certain spaces. But the point is not whether the freedom these two young Indian economists had in the 1960s has yielded commensurate fruit. The point is that they had had the freedom to challenge the then dominant position on Indian economic policy, and that this did have an impact.
No government at the Centre since 1991 has questioned the rationale of the reforms advocated by them. And, incidentally, Jagdish Bhagwati is now an enthusiast of the economic policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi! Only time will tell us of the effect on the production of knowledge of the new conduct rules being contemplated for our public universities, but surely they are not in the national interest.