Cutting offfunding to social science research is a short-sighted step.
The latest strike against public universities in general and social science education in particular has come in the form of the recent cutbacks in funding from the University Grants Commission (UGC). Various social science centres of research and teaching, set up by the UGC under the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007–12), are struggling for survival following the discontinuation of five year plans. The UGC’s ambivalent stance on funding these centres has threatened the futures of many teachers, researchers and students, as well as the emerging disciplines and discourses.
Spread across major public universities in India, these social science research centres have varying levels of dependence on plan funds. In some cases, they have been turned into departments at universities. In other places, they have received funding from state governments and other sources. However, in universities where such centres are entirely dependent on plan funds, they face the risk of closure or reduction of capacity.
An immediate fallout of the cutback was evident last month when the administration of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences issued relieving letters to a number of teachers and researchers belonging to the Advanced Centre of Women’s Studies, the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, and the Nodal Centre of Excellence for Human Rights Education at the institute. Partly as a consequence of media attention and public criticism, the UGC granted a one-year extension, until 31 March 2018, to all schemes under the plan head and, as a result, TISS subsequently retained most of the affected members of the faculty. This piecemeal measure has diffused protests for the moment, but has left the larger question of the long-term future of these centres unresolved.
Although women’s studies centres were established in some universities in the early 1970s, they received UGC support only in the mid-1980s. However, the Eleventh Five Year Plan made a strong case for inclusiveness and substantial allocations for the creation and expansion of centres of specialised education to be developed as full-fledged disciplines with teaching, research and extension activities. Women’s studies, social exclusion, and human rights studies were included in this expansion. The mandate for the women’s studies centres, for instance, was to develop an “interdisciplinary framework,” “perspective to transform other disciplines,” inform “formulation of policy,” and “make more visible in research and policy” women from the most marginalised communities, including “Dalits, tribals, labouring and religious communities.” Such centres championed a new and critical research agenda, powered by new faculty and students, of intersectional approaches to caste, class and gender.
In an article in this journal, sociologist Gopal Guru had asked, “How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences?” (15 December 2002). He decried the cultural hierarchies that characterised academic and institutional structures and argued for the need to “expand the social base of (the) conceptual landscape” of social sciences. It is precisely in this academic environment that the centres were established and began operations. They posed an epistemological challenge to traditional social science disciplines and scholarship, revisiting traditional binaries of theory vs practice, structure vs agency, and left vs right politics. Centres like Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, Pune, for instance, organised alternative pedagogical methods and resources necessary to include scholars from marginalised communities who were hitherto the subject of study.
The introduction of these interdisciplinary centres coincided with the institution of backward caste reservations in central educational institutions in 2007 and the increase in overall student intake under the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006. The reservations further diversified student demography in higher education. The newly-formed centres provided the ideological impetus to question caste, patriarchy, mainstream discourses, and state repression. This partly explains the proliferation of student groups such as Justice for Rohith Vemula (against institutional discrimination faced by students from oppressed castes), Pinjra Tod (against gender-specific surveillance of women students in hostels and campuses), Hok Kolorob (against the molestation of a woman student in Jadavpur University), and derecognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. These movements have foregrounded issues of gender and caste in student discourses and politics, have questioned the organising principles and the leadership of existing student outfits, and have created an autonomous space and solidarity with students from other central and state universities.
The one-year extension to the social science centres is a temporary solution to the stalemate between students and faculty on the one hand, and with the UGC on the other. At stake is the erosion of a critical research agenda seeking to transform existing discourses and educational institutions in favour of greater equality and representation. This research agenda must be safeguarded through continued state funding even if the plan period is over. Indian universities would be intellectually richer for the presence and expansion of such centres, as they engender knowledge creation of and from the most marginalised. In doing so, they challenge traditional forms of learning and open the minds of students to more critical ways of seeing and knowing, which is the mandate of universities and education at large.
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