Chronicles in unlearning

A culture of obedience has dented the intellectual agendas of premier universities and institutions

September 12, 2016 12:14 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

When organisations of the Sangh Parivar periodically rail against “Macaulay’s children” and propose a review of the hold of western knowledge systems over Indian education, it should be widely welcomed. After all, indigenous knowledge, as preliterate communities in India, for instance, have begun to point out, and as those who know our rich literary traditions have shown, have been monstrously ignored in the education system we have inherited. Why then does this announcement produce disquiet?

This is because the overall context of such pronouncements is one that is markedly anti-intellectual. Before this is decried as a baseless charge, let me provide some examples. Earlier this year, several “academics” > denounced the overall editorship of the Murty Classical Library series under Professor Sheldon Pollock because he was not sufficiently “imbued with a sense of respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation.” Neither Prof. Pollock’s formidable knowledge of Sanskrit and other Indian languages nor his acknowledged stature as an academic could pass the litmus test of a worshipful loyalty to “Indian civilisation” as the foundational ground of all pursuits of knowledge. Were the signatories of the petition alarmed that Buddhist women poets have been allowed to be heard in that series? That Sufi singers have found new audiences? That Akbar’s life and times are being read by more than medieval historians?

A ‘cultural revolution’ Of late, many distinguished intellectuals have been replaced by dubious dabblers as chiefs in premier institutions of higher education and research across the country.

It would be a lazy error to read this as a mere change of guard, of places once ruled by some version of the luxuriantly varied Indian Left falling under the rule of the monotonous Right. No doubt, English-speaking intellectuals owing allegiance to one or another stripe of the Left/Congress enjoyed disproportionate power for decades, particularly in Delhi institutions, but normally no one doubted their intellectual abilities. The same cannot be said of the new appointees, who are taking major Indian institutions in directions that are not necessarily dedicated to the production and promotion of knowledge.

The home-grown “cultural revolution” that is under way is increasingly encouraging only obedience. The distinction between former leaders and the new heads lies not only in formal academic credentials; they must be placed within the larger framework of “national intellectual warming” that too loudly expresses doubt and distrust about intellectual life as we know it.

A senior Minister has openly called for an isolation of those he identifies as “intellectual terrorists”, internal enemies of the state who may critique the actions of governments and their armies. A good sign of the new hostility was the breathtaking declaration, in a pamphlet issued by the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad unit to welcome new students, that departments of social sciences and humanities, whether in the Indian Institutes of Technology or in other universities, are the source of all agitators and should therefore be closely surveilled.

Now, for the first time in the last two centuries, we are witnessing a virulent form of anti-intellectualism which will leave a lasting impact on the future of a wide range of activities from filmmaking and art to other forms of knowledge-production. The visions that have been spelled out for programmes of research and for educational institutions put a low premium on open-ended, rigorous, creative intellectual activity of any kind.

Some recent examples will suffice, but they can be multiplied. The newsletters of the Indian Council of Historical Research are generously peppered with photographs of the current Chairperson and his pious homilies on a wide range of subjects. Here is a sampling of what appears more like a moralising discourse in a temple courtyard: “Our ancient literature vouchsafes that Indian social institutions enjoy solid cultural base reinforced by Dharma unlike modern intellectual propositions. As argued today, social institutions like marriage, family, community, tribe, society and state should not be understood as contractual… the Vedic marriage system is qualitatively different from the marriages of other religious belief systems or modern social marriages or live-in relationships where both enter into a conditional agreement unless they bind themselves for life.”

Generally, what does the Chairman see as the purpose of historical knowledge? “To shape the character of the people and in turn the nation.” Here we have a rather frank admission of what higher educational and research must be made to foster: nationalism of the kind dictated by the ruling party. No wonder, as > Prof. Kumkum Roy has shown in her analysis of Rajasthan textbooks, Gandhi doesn’t get killed at all; he merely disappears from the book.

Obedience was on full display in some universities during the celebration of India’s Independence. Enjoined by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to record their “compliance”, the heads of premier educational institutions showed zeal at rangoli as well as national song renditions, as if to atone for the possibility of the university otherwise living up to its duty of encouraging critical thinking.

In other more predictable quarters, the attack on intellectuals has been reduced to unadorned abuse, as in the Organiser ’s recent “review” of the book co-authored by Professor Romila Thapar on nationalism. When the “review” denounces the book’s “stinky logic of provincialising the otherwise wide-ranging cultural nationalism or Hindutva”, we realise that even intelligibility has become a dispensable virtue in such excoriating attacks.

Some robust memories This is very bleak scenario. Still, we are left with some robust memories of how institutions could think under inspired leaders. In the 1990s, early years yet of the National Law School University in Bengaluru, Professor Madhava Menon invited human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar and feminist legal scholars Flavia Agnes and Ratna Kapoor to teach and conduct research. He recognised, in short, the intellectual importance of engaging with those whose views he may have cordially disliked, even opposed.

A more recent instance was that of the former Vice Chancellor of JNU, Prof. Sudhir Sopory, a celebrated biologist who respectfully followed not just the rules, but the norms that govern the university. He showed the greatest respect for disciplines, methods, and perspectives he knew not much about. In a farewell that endeared him to the teaching community, he declared his desire to return as a student of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, a relatively new and flourishing department. No greater compliment could be paid to the intellectual culture of the institution.

The current insistence on obedience, and the impoverished ideas of nationalism which university spaces are beginning to propagate, have already dented the intellectual agendas of such spaces. By turning universities and institutions of learning into places of unquestioning worship, we run the risk of being brought to our knees, in more ways than one.

Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.

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