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Updated: November 2, 2009 14:46 IST

Off course?

Vidya Venkat
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HISTORICISING AN ICON: Experts feel studying the political thoughts of leaders will be of academic value only at the research level. Photo S. Thanthoni
The Hindu
HISTORICISING AN ICON: Experts feel studying the political thoughts of leaders will be of academic value only at the research level. Photo S. Thanthoni

This PG programme envisaged by the vice-chancellor of University of Madras has sparked off debate.

On October 14, addressing his first press conference as the vice-chancellor of University of Madras, G. Thiruvasagam announced that master’s degree courses would be launched in Periyar Thought, Anna Thought and Kalaignar Thought. The announcement has set off a debate on studying the political thoughts of prominent leaders in an academic context.

Historian Ramachandra Guha said it was all right to study the thoughts of leaders such as E.V.R.Periyar and C.N. Annadurai in an academic context, but the same could not be said of a living political leader. As author of a book of contemporary history India after Gandhi: The history of the world’s largest democracy, Mr. Guha said it was necessary to have a gap of at least forty years before one could arrive at an objective assessment of the legacy of any political leader.

Sociologist P. Radhakrishnan, professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, called the move ill-conceived and lacking in academic integrity. “It sets a wrong precedent of converting universities into political spaces where students would serve as guinea pigs,” he said. “Even Indira Gandhi National Open University does not have a course dedicated to Indira Gandhi, though it is 25 years since she died,” he said.

Though he was on the Board of Studies for Arts at the University of Madras, no meeting was convened to discuss the merit of introducing these courses, he said.

J. Balasubramaniam, a research scholar in Dalit Studies, said studying the lives of political leaders as a course would not offer much academic value. “It would be better to study the Dravidian movement as a whole as it would help place the relevance of the leaders in a historical context,” he said.

He said that while emerging disciplines such as gender studies or Dalit studies assumed significance in the context of social movements such as feminism and the emergence of caste politics, the same could not be said of these courses proposed by the University of Madras. “The question is what would a student do after getting a degree in Kalaignar Thought? Will he qualify for a job, will it help him pursue further research? These must be answered first,” he said.

R. Thandavan, who heads the Anna Centre for Public Affairs in University of Madras, suggested it would be a better idea to launch an endowment series or fellowship in the name of Kalaignar instead of a course on him.

Also, most academicians who spoke to Education Plus felt that promoting scholarship on the thoughts of political leaders would make for a good Ph.D thesis, but not a degree course. P. Nedunchezhiyen, who heads the Centre for Periyar Studies in Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi, said a one-year part-time diploma course on Periyarism launched at the Centre this year had nine research scholars enrolled in it. Launched in 1999, the Centre, however, had trouble finding dedicated full-time professors to teach the course, he said.

S.V. Rajadurai, who co-authored the book Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium from Iyothee Thass to Periyar with V.Geetha, said before launching courses like this institutions must arrange for proper resources required to run them. Besides dedicated academic staff, it would require collected volumes of the work of these leaders, he said.

Mr. Rajadurai said not all the speeches of Periyar were available in a chronologically collected format. “While copies of the newspaper Kudiyarasu, started by Periyar are available, the articles of the English journal Revolt he published have not been documented at all,” he said. He added that due to absence of resources and lack of any takers, a diploma in Periyar studies launched in the University of Madras had been wound up 10 years ago.

But the course could very well serve as a step towards creating the resources that would be necessary for understanding the political thought of leaders of the Dravidian movement, said G. Sundar, director, Roja Muthiah Research Library. He said Indian universities were lagging behind in documenting the contemporary political thoughts of its leaders and this could start off the process. He added that the value of these courses would, however, depend on how much room for objective criticism on these leaders was available.