Mistaking a scholar for a bureaucrat

The recent resignation of Professor Mahesh Rangarajan from the directorship of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) draws upon several disturbing fault lines. Clearly, post-independent India is yet to find ways to nurture a productive dialogue between academia and democratic politics. This continued inability to meaningfully align knowledge, power and capacity is now acquiring fatal proportions. At stake is the frittering away of a potential demographic dividend into the sorry depths of a demographic debacle.

The acceptance of Prof. Rangarajan’s resignation by the government throws into sharp relief three worrying questions. First, it is apparent that the somewhat bellicose Minister of State for Culture and Tourism was unable to entirely grasp the situation. He appears to have assumed that it was simply about reading the riot act to an Indian academic-bureaucrat. His belief presumably was that with a pompous call for an enquiry, the erstwhile director would openly swallow public humiliation, followed by a display of grovelling. Prof. Rangarajan, however, is not a mere academic; he is one of the finest scholars of his generation, internationally recognised and unequivocally acknowledged. As a Rhodes scholar, Prof. Rangarajan gained early notice in 1996 following the publication of his monograph Fencing the Forest , considered a substantial contribution to modern Indian history writing. Over the years, through publications and talks, Prof. Rangarajan has been unique in conceptually welding together ideas on wildlife management, conservation science, and environmental history. It is with this rare, brilliant and confident scholarship that the NMML was transformed by him into one of Asia’s most respected places of learning. For many of us who teach in universities abroad, he was one of the most important intellects to touch base with during visits to India.

The second question is why the Minister mistook Prof. Rangarajan for an academic-bureaucrat rather than a scholar. Ignorance is only one element. As practice goes, the appointment of academics for various posts and to bodies such as the University Grants Commissions has involved, in many cases, unsavoury calculations about political patronage and clientalist reciprocities. As a method of running educational institutions, these practices have implicated all parties across the ideological spectrum: the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left Front. In part, this corrosive strategy has not only encouraged spent academic forces or persons with poor credibility to rise to the top, but has also bred a layer of ‘government-compliant’ specialists.

The failure goes deeper. Higher education institutions are impossibly stacked as top-down affairs, with very little democratic space for the academic community to check the functioning and diktat of a government-appointed head. A vice-chancellor, for example, could run his/her university literally as a Mughal jagir: through appointments, promotions, granting of leave and the setting up of personal privileges. Challenging this immense concentration of power, ironically, has not inspired the government of the day to move democracy downwards into the teaching and research community. Governments, instead, have mostly sought to make the heads of these institutions even more vulnerable to political and bureaucratic forces. Till date, there has been no meaningful effort to develop any credible metric, for example, by which the performance of a vice-chancellor or institutional head could be evaluated. In other words, educational institutional heads are beyond accountability and scrutiny, other than being required to keep their political and bureaucratic superiors in good humour.

Unfortunately, even the demand for institutional autonomy has tended to be more often than not reduced to a feeble argument for limiting government interference rather than a call for deepening democratic functioning. If the recent explosive agitations against vice-chancellors in Pondicherry, Jadavpur, Presidency, and Delhi universities are any indication, the old habit of running higher education on the egregious model of enforcing dictatorship is clearly failing.

Evaluating strengths

The third question concerns the troubling consequences that can follow when institutions of higher learning are intellectually gutted. Given the context of globalisation, measuring and determining the quality of an institution’s actual research and teaching capacity has become critical. Interestingly enough, India continues to lack credible metrics for evaluating its real academic contributions and strengths. The loss of good scholars or even tracking a possible ‘brain drain’ remains as yet conveniently undocumented. What nonetheless can be taken as indicative of the decline in educational standards are certain obvious patterns. In a recent ASSOCHAM study titled “Skilling India: Empowering Indian Youth through World Class Education” (2015), it was noted that India is currently witness to a large annual outflow of students seeking higher education possibilities in a range of countries. While more than 2,90,000 went abroad in 2013, 6,80,000 students followed in 2014. Critically as well, the study pointed out, this education-inspired version of a ‘quit India movement’ was only partially driven by growing competition for limited academic seats in India. For most, ‘choosing to study abroad’ was brought on by ‘the lack of good institutions in India’.

In a Harvard-Yenching Institute working paper (2015), Devesh Kapur and Elizabeth Perry, in an insightful comparison of the education trajectories in India and China, suggest that while the picture is a complicated one, certain clear directions are discernible. For one, China has more political appetite for raising the academic quality of its public universities, even if it means the pursuit of ‘prestige credentialing’ through improved global rankings. India, on the other hand, despite the advantage of the English language, continues to allow a slide in its public university system while expecting the unprepared private education sector to lead the charge. In all, there appears to be a fatal misunderstanding at the very top that Indian education is about getting a quantitative boost rather than taking the more difficult road of simultaneously deepening its research and teaching capacities.

The answers to these linked questions explain why Prof. Rangarajan was treated as an academic-bureaucrat rather than a scholar. And why the Minister of Culture and Tourism was caught completely off guard by a resignation that was proper, prompt and dignified. On the other hand, I guess, if even the Prime Minister hasn’t as yet seen the irony in advocating start-ups for a country that profoundly lacks a university or research eco-system to incubate such expectations, then why blame only his Minister?

(Rohan D’Souza is Associate Professor, Graduate School of Asian and African Studies, Kyoto University.)

Indian higher education institutions are impossibly stacked as top-down affairs, with very little democratic space for the academic community