Recently, the Union Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry issued a diktat asking vice-chancellors of central universities to “discourage research in irrelevant areas” and stating that PhD candidates should be allowed to choose only topics of “national priorities”. Showing its loyalty to the HRD ministry, the Central University of Kerala sent a directive asking the faculty involved in doctoral research activities to comply with the HRD diktat and prepare a list of topics of national priorities. Expressing her protest to the directive, Professor Meena T. Pillai, a senior professor of the University of Kerala, resigned from her post as an external member of the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature. The fact that the issue didn’t lead to any constructive discussion and debate in academia makes me raise the question whether the teaching community has become passive and insensitive.
We need to find answers to these critical questions: Why did the HRD ministry issue the diktat and does it have a hidden agenda? What does the term “topics of national priorities” imply? Should doctoral candidates be allowed to choose only “topics of national priorities”? Is it a move to curtail academic freedom? Have the researchers been stripped off their rights? Can Professor Pillai’s resignation be justified?
It is not clear what the HRD ministry means by the terms “topics of national priorities” and “research in irrelevant areas”. They are highly debatable. What the ministry and certain sections of academics consider “topics of national priorities” need not be really important topics and what they consider irrelevant may be highly relevant.
In the light of the crackdown on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2016, many critics think that the government is against scholars doing research in areas such as human rights, Ambedkarism, Periyarism, rights of dalits, LGBTQ and marginalised communities.
The move is seen by some scholars as a crackdown on dissent. In the modern world, where there is so much emphasis on the ideals of equality, fraternity and liberty, research in the areas mentioned above gains significance and any government interested in the welfare of its people should encourage research in such areas.
Reacting to the resignation of Professor Pillai, the university issued a circular in which it stated that her decision to resign was political. If Pillai’s decision was political, the intent of the ministry could also be treated political.
As there is a strong suspicion among certain sections of people in academia that the government is trying to “saffronise” education, the circular by the HRD ministry is viewed by them as a deliberate move to curtail academic freedom.
If the HRD ministry had spelt out its intent clearly, there would not have been any kind of misconceptions.
The teaching and academic research community should enjoy academic freedom in order to achieve academic success. David Barnard, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Manitoba, states that “Academic freedom allows scholars to pursue the truth where it takes them, whether in support of — or as a corrective to — current orthodoxies, and to proclaim that truth. It is a critical underpinning of university research and teaching.”
If there is unreasonable interference from governments and if there are threats to academic freedom from regulatory bodies, academics and researchers won’t be able to blossom.
Doctoral candidates should be allowed to choose their own topics of interest. It is their vital right. It is unwise to expect anyone to pursue research in an area in which they are not comfortable or not interested. Research candidates should be guaranteed the freedom they need in order to carry out their research effectively. Researchers’ rights come with certain responsibilities too. The research they carry out should be purposeful and useful to the society.
By questioning the directive and resigning from her position as an external member of the Board of Studies, Professor Pillai had demonstrated intellectual courage. I do admire her for possessing this rare quality which, unfortunately, most academics in India lack. Had she not questioned the move, many would not have come to know about the diktat and I would not have written on this issue.
Educationists should not allow their academic freedom to be curtailed and researchers should not allow their rights to be stripped. Demonstrating intellectual courage is the key to enjoying academic freedom and education reform.
Reform research activities
Instead of curtailing academic freedom and preventing doctoral candidates from choosing their own topics, the HRD ministry, universities and regulatory bodies should focus on improving the quality of research in the country.
The author is an academic, columnist and freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @albertprayan