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The Provocations of the Public University

Janaki Nair ( teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

What are the pasts and futures of the public university in India? This question has come to the fore over the last year, when a series of events at some of India’s leading public universities and institutions brought a new focus on the achievements and problems associated with these spaces of higher education. This article argues that any insightful assessment of the public university in India today must take account of its histories, its achievements, and its possible futures. That alone will go a long way towards asserting its continued and vital relevance in a society such as ours.

The characteristic gift of the university is the gift of an interval.

—Micheal Oakeshott

It is entirely appropriate that we are commemorating the splendid achievements of someone like K R Narayanan. Not only as a diplomat but as an academic and as an administrator, as a beneficiary of all that is best in the public university system, he would have been exhilirated by what has been made thinkable, but also pained by the new futures that are being imagined for higher education.

For some time now, intellectuals in different parts of the globe have sounded the death knell of the university, and the public university in particular, as we have known it (Eagleton 2015; Vernon nd; Chaudhuri 2016). The threat today is posed not just by market forces, and managerial approaches to higher education, but by the dramatically transformed demands of the “knowledge economy,” and the vastly altered ways in which both teaching and research are conducted (Chaudhuri 2011). It has also compromised, if not undermined, the precious autonomy that is vital to its existence (Kumar 2016). Today, above all, we need to ask: what is the university? What has its place been in our part of the world (Arunima 2016)? And who is it for?

We have come a long way from the medieval description of the university as “wisdom’s workshop.”1 In its Western incarnation, the university had moved from being a space that served the church, to becoming a secular institution, one that came to serve the developmental goals of the nation state, old and new. The university, right from the late 19th century, was seen as a public good, a space for creating and upholding democracy, and—as at least one scholar, David Theo Goldberg, has recently pointed out—a space that enabled social mobility, or “middle classness.”2 But here too, especially in the20th century, the gnawing pressures of aligning knowledge production and teaching practice to the needs of the market have been difficult to resist.

What—or Who—Is the University For?

In a country like India, the modern university traced a different historical trajectory. The Indian university is a radically modern creation, bearing no trace of any earlier forms of knowledge production or teaching practice, names like Nalanda notwithstanding. It was the creation of a colonial power in the19th century. For long serving the purposes of a colonial regime’s need for a modern bureaucratic elite, the Indian university in its national–modern phase continued to produce an intellectual aristocracy. Yet, from its historical arrival as a space of exclusion and elite formation, it has come a very long way in the past few decades to represent a vital institutional space for ensuring social mobility, especially for those for whom education is the only form of capital when access to other material resources, such as property, are non-existent or limited.

In India today, we are also faced with the often paralysing problem of governmental control, a hyper-politicisation of governance mechanisms that undermine institutional autonomy. At the same time, primarily as a result of reservation policies and support for higher education through fellowships (especially, but not only, the non-NET fellowships),3 the student body has been democratised in fundamental and important ways. The public university as a space that is created and supported by the state is, therefore, a highly politicised and fractious realm, both for faculty and student bodies. As the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU), Kanhaiya Kumar asked at the start of the tumultous events that engulfed JNU in February 2016, “What is a university for? A university is there to critically analyse society’s “common conscience.” To promote critical thinking. If universities fail in this job, there can be no nation, there will be no people’s participation” (Kumar 2016).

Disentangling the enabling role of the state from more pernicious modes of interference is therefore the inaugural task, before we ask: with what resources might we argue for the continued relevance of the university as a public good? And, what kind of defence of its autonomy can be made? Despite the stressful changes that are taking place, the Indian university is a place that is simultaneously withdrawn and engaged; it is simultaneously serving and criticising society and state, and therefore is a vital place of self-reflection; it is a place for simultaneously achieving goals of openness and equality while reaffirming some hierarchies and styles of distinction. Let us remember that JNU, for instance, not only produces a hyper-visible, if small, number of political activists of all stripes, and nurtures vigorous discussions of political ideologies of all hues; it also produces a much larger number of those who uphold and promote the system, as bureaucrats, economists, educators, members of the judiciary, participants in the media, and not least, mainstream politicians. It is this duplex function that characterises the public university today.

Also, we should remember that the public Indian university has been a politicised space from its very founding. At first, it both produced and challenged the “rule of racial difference” that was the hallmark of colonial rule (Seth 2015; Lelyveld 2003; Reynold 2005; Datla 2013). In the early 20th century, it began to be recognised as a space for the redressal of caste inequalities, such as measures that were pioneered, for example, by the Mysore state in 1918. Finally, from the 1920s at least, it became an important site of nationalist and revolutionary agitation (Altbach 1970a, 1970b; Carreau 1969; Singh 1991). Today, it is the site of state-mandated equality of a kind, while simultaneously highlighting, producing and foregrounding new inequalities.

The student movements of the pre-independence period were linked, and not opposed, to larger nationalist or communist parties, and were not necessarily engaged in intergenerational conflicts. Today, there is greater engagement with university-related issues: hostels, fellowships, deprivation points, grading systems; even, though far more rarely, course structures. Less often are they anti-government (hence both the Hyderabad Central University and JNU events are different from the struggles at the Film and Television Institute of India, the latter being openly critical of the Indian state and its policies). Today, we are seeing something like a war, with questions of caste, ethnicity, or university norms being deployed or exploited by both state and private interests, as happened in Hyderabad.

Certainly, many social and moral goals of equality have been achieved in the university as an institution since independence. The “intellectual” effects of this democratic churning are increasingly being felt only now, and has presented some intractable problems. This contradictory promise of equality is making the university a provocation, as pressures from within and without are bringing the very idea of the university to a crisis.

I am not, here, going to recount any details of recent student protests/struggles directly (which are no doubt critical events), so much as look at the setting within which a range of political positions are articulated (Deshpande 2016; Chatterjee 2016; Bhushan 2016). Therefore, I will take even the quotidian as the political; namely, what a space like the university—and the residential university in particular—has enabled. Such an evaluation of the Indian university must recount both its academic and non-academic achievements: the university both as a site of academic excellence and as a site of equity, freedom and reshaped socialities.

Let me begin with a few statistics: India has 46 central universities, 350 state universities, 245 private universities, 122 deemed universities, making it a total of 763 universities, with 38,000-plus affiliating colleges (UGC nd). The gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education in India is over 23%, which is calculated for 18–23 years of age group. GER for male population is 24% and for females it is 21% (UGC nd; MHRD 2013). The total number of those in higher education, in short, is 33 million, a number greater than the population of Iraq or Canada. Women constitute 44% of all in higher education: the continued male-gendered tone of the New Education Policy chaired by T S R Subramanian cannot but be a sign of surprising blindness to this achievement (MHRD 2016).

The Public University and the ‘Politics of Presence’

Let us start, therefore, by acknowledging the achievements of the higher education system. Why is it necessary to begin by pointing to the Indian public university’s achievements beyond the purely academic? Because the public university may be the most inclusive of all institutions in contemporary India, in terms of representing female, Dalit, Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Class (OBC), and now third gender populations, with many Dalit/OBCs also getting into general seats. Most other institutions do not reflect this kind of representation. Take, for instance, the legislatures and the Parliament, where there is a shameful representation of women or minorities; take the judiciary, or the bureaucracy, where Muslims are largely absent; or the world of basic science, from which lower castes and women are largely excluded (Subramanian 2007).

Nevertheless, we have come a long way from how Vivek Dhareshwar characterised the reaction to the Mandal proposals in 1990–91: where the “secular” meritorious Indian was made possible only by disavowing caste (Dhareshwar 1993). After 2006, when OBC reservations to higher education were implemented, a new national common sense has emerged—often, though not always—with very positive, unexpected outcomes.4 In the decades between the Mandal agitation (which was led by upper caste students against the policies of reservation) and the present, a great deal has been achieved. I teach at an university that has long had a remarkable policy of weightages (acknowledged even by JNU’s most grudging admirers), allowing people from various underprivieged backgrounds and locations to find a hope of higher education (JNU nd).5 At another public university, the Kannada University, Hampi, where I recently was, I met legions of students from relatively poor and underprivileged backgrounds, including a large proportion of first generation learners.

The representativeness of the Indian university is far less impressive when it comes to faculty recruitment. A huge backlog of unfilled positions, including several hundred reserved posts, especially in more specialised institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), continues to persist (Forward Press 2016). We should ask ourselves the sobering question of why we are witness to possibly more than one lost generation of students who are yet to take their place as teachers, between the implementation of reservations in the 1950s and today. Why have we failed to create a sizeable class of intellectuals who can take up mentoring, teaching, and research from among the newly empowered groups and classes?

In other words, the greatest achievement of contemporary India has been in ensuring the entry of Dalits, OBCs, women, and ethnic and sexual minorities, to universities: a “politics of presence.” The greatest failure has been in ensuring that such an entry is enhanced by systems that will make up for centuries of discrimination. There are too many who are being failed right out of the system due to their inadequate language skills, unfamiliarity with tools and methods, or simply the tremendous hostility to their very presence.

Clearly, new and unresolved problems are being produced by that very politics of presence. This is why the passionate plea of the New Education Policy document for disallowing politics and political groups based on caste/region/ethnicity is grotesquely out of sync with conditions in the Indian university today.6 To ask the students who enter the portals of an institution of higher learning to set aside the marks of disprivilege is to pretend that the university is a non-social zone, unmarked by difference and hierarchy. The politics of presence alone, ensured by various deprivation policies, would have been manageable; what has made the university an ungovernable space today is that these policies are yielding unanticipated results; and, in the absence of institutional measures for redressing continuing inequalities, are failing the very groups they are supposed to enable. To speak, then, of educational goals in isolation, or even of the question of educational excellence, is to grievously misjudge the basic heterogeneities that constitute the public university today.

Mastering the Masters’ Language

Let us take two of the most well-known instances of the opportunities and predicaments that are faced by the non-elite student of the Indian university today. It is a parable for our times that Rohith Vemula’s brilliant mastery of English, the language of all meaningful higher education in India today, was only allowed to be expressed in his tragic suicide note. The subject position of the student today may no longer be defined by an entry into an alienating English-speaking world, but by a mastery of it. But, as the Rohith Vemula case has demonstrated, it is the most profound and eloquent example of the limitations of such mastery in the absence of other supportive structures.

Fortunately, this is not the whole story. At one and the same time, thankfully, the higher education system in India has allowed for a direct rebuttal of the hegemonic stance of English; we have all witnessed the astounding oratorial skills of Kanhaiya Kumar in Hindi, which has succeeded in redrafting the very language of politics.

It is this potent mixture of attainments and possibilities, yearnings and dissatisfactions, which has made the public university, in its very inclusivity, appear as a place that is meeting all kinds of other (read non-intellectual) desires and goals than it was intended for. Let us stay with the example of language. English has posed a debilitating block to non-English speakers since it is as yet the only meaningful language of higher education in India. As many have pointed out, English in India is not just a language. It is, at one and the same time, a judicial/legal apparatus, a political system, a semiotics of modernity, all of these, and more. It is a substance that even defies and exceeds the use of terms like “cultural capital” (Dhareshwar 1993; Pandey 2016).7 Too little has been done by university administrators and teachers to either generate a body of material that will make systematic thinking in Indian languages possible, or equip those who are severely disadvantaged with the skills to use English creatively. A rare but important example was the work of Sharmila Rege in the University of Pune in encouraging true bilinguality in the classroom and in generating texts for mostly first generation English speakers. But this is regrettably too exceptional in our university campuses.

The Rhetoric of Academic Excellence

It will not do, as one member of the audience where I presented an early version of this article in Bengaluru pointed out, to remain silent on the question of academic excellence and whether it is compatible with the idea of accesibility of higher education to wider communities of Indians. How can it be configured in the democratising space of the public university? If the university is to strike a fine balance between scholarship (the accumulation of knowledge) and education (teaching students), do we need to create standards for the evaluation of knowledge production/teaching that hold teachers as well as administrators accountable to the wider university public? Regrettably, not enough discussion about accountability has occurred in Indian scholarship on research and teaching. Instead of exploiting the creative tensions between the two, the teaching community has capitulated to the game of numericals, which in the name of transparency, has probably done more damage to the assessment of teacher abilities and training.8

Joining the chorus for an audit culture that measures outcomes and processes of research and learning—and extends what is probably workable for the natural or physical sciences to the humanities and social sciences—are those clamouring for ranking, both nationally and internationally. What prospects does this hold out for an assessment of academic excellence? Craig Calhoun has observed:

The rhetoric of excellence underwent a transformation which evacuated much specific meaning (and especially Aristotelian heritage) from the notion of “excellence,” treating it as a term of commensuration, like price, rather than the quality of doing well in very different and largely incommensurable dimensions of life. But the theme that came to the fore was not altogether new: it was the pursuit of recognition and especially the positional good of being seen to be better than others. (2006: 9)

The new obsession with institutional rankings cannot recognise the particularities of the Indian university system, which is the second largest in the world and also extremely diverse.9 Most of our universities—like Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University or JNU for example—were set up to address different objectives and have, over the years, developed their own unique and innovative ways. Focusing only on a common set of indicators will not do justice to the exercise of evaluating the performance of Indian universities.

Furthermore, teaching and learning processes in the social sciences, humanities, and languages are gradual and incremental; so ranking systems which focus on citation indexes, or laboratory–industry interfaces, cannot be applied to social sciences and hard sciences alike.

Goading universities to compete with each other could even be counterproductive. Diversities exist among the different disciplines in terms of opportunities of funding and publication, differences in perspectives. Ranking, as indeed, academic performance indicators, would lead to institutional homogenisation and distortion in disciplinary balance, as institutions (and individuals) strategise to achieve what is being measured. Finally, since ranking places greater emphasis on research, teaching—which is so crucial in the context of massification of Indian higher education—is likely to get sidelined.

However, much is happening within universities that is exhilarating even if we accept the serious limits that are imposed by a mere politics of presence. In the Indian setting, the considerable ways in which universities transform lives is not necessarily measurable by internationally derived ranking/evaluation systems.

The Transforming Power of the University

The public university today is a space that is transforming, not conserving, social relations, perhaps in ways that may be reaching the point of ungovernability. Let us take the case of gender relations, and the university as the site of the most massive contemporary transformation of relationships between the sexes that are coded in strictly endogamous, caste and kin rule-respecting terms. Universities have become among the most important sites for resetting “the practical and passionate relationships” between the sexes and for exploring counter-heteronormative sexualities.Much of the violence against women to which we are increasingly witness is the result of ways in which such breaches of social protocol, often occasioned by access to higher education, are being managed, though usually unsuccessfully. (The college and the university are the spaces where many find long-term partners, and most go on to lead relatively undisturbed lives.)

Thus, there is both learning and unlearning in the university, since it is encountered as a new institutional space.10 It represents that all-important interval, often allowing escape from the ties that bind, those suffocating categories to which one is socially consigned. This happens through a process of simultaneous avowal and disavowal. There is on the one hand, a critical embrace of what lies beneath such categories (for example, in the choice of questions for research, in terms of archives that are created, in terms of methods that are refashioned, namely intellectual work as such). In the Kannada University, Hampi, I talked to students who are burning with a desire to know their pasts, or rather their communities’ pasts: an Iruliga student, writing the history of his community in and around Ramanagara; a student from an agricultural background, researching the history of early modern agrarian relations in Chitradurga; someone is studying the roots of underdevelopment in the Hyderabad–Karnataka region; another studies the history of Bal Basappa performing cult and its message of equality. No wonder Mahadev Shankanapura, the historian from Chamarajanagara, Karnataka, has said that he read the histories of India and found them wanting: they did not explain to him why he got where he was. That was a task for which he had to fashion new methodologies (Satyanarayana and Tharu 2013: 252).

But there is active disavowal of social origins as well, not just in the choice of subjects of study and research, but in the everyday life of the university and what it enables in this practical sense. Dearly held and received social habits are challenged in shared spaces, forums for debate, and in the process of coping with the tensions of proximity or adjacency. The university, and the residential university in particular, is a site of transformative encounters, with radically different forms of living, food cultures, religious and sexual practices. More than the classroom, perhaps, it is the hostel that amplifies these possibilities and predicaments.

Hostel Life as Instruction

Can the university continue to be a “gift of an interval” as it was once put by Michael Oakeshott, though perhaps not in the strictly academic sense he intended it? The importance of young adult socialisation and the hostel as the site of such socialisation has for too long been ignored, despite the acknowledgement of its transformative capacities. In Karnataka, there has long been a link between caste associations and their early recognition of the vital necessity of hostels for first generation learners in particular. U R Ananthamurthy in his last work, Hindutva athava Hind Swaraj, among many others, has pointed to the very important link between the Dasoha tradition of the Lingayats, and the estabishment of caste-specific hostels to meet the needs of those attending colleges and schools, enabling even poor students to study in cities and towns of Mysore/Karnataka. The landmark Miller Committee Report of 1919 in Mysore, which recommended reservations in educational institutions and in government jobs, had this to say:

We see that out of 522 students accommodated in the government hostels, 435 are Brahmins and only 87 of other classes. We recommend that preference be given to the backward class pupils for admission into such institutions … We deem it essential that hostels should be constructed in all taluk headquarters to encourage parents to send their children from the village elementary schools to the secondary schools. It is also necessary that in all hostels there should be at least three separate kitchens, two for vegetarians and one for non-vegetarians with a view to meet the convenience of all communities … In the government hostels, a certain proportion of seats should be reserved for the backward class students, and we would fix it at not less than 50% unless the students forthcoming are less than that number. Private and communal hostels should receive the same grants as the government hostels do. (Report of the Committee to Consider Steps for Adequate Representation 1919: 10)

In post-independence India, the hostel has shed some of its sectarian characteristics, particularly in the public university, and enabled all manner of new opportunities. Student demands have frequently focused on access to hostel space and, indeed, the continued use of hostel facilities for other kinds of access, especially to the city and its opportunities: Bangalore University, for instance, serves as the node for urbanising students from four districts of Bengaluru Rural, Tumkur, Mandya and Hassan (recognising that continued access to hostel facilities is what was leading many to serially pursue multiple degrees, Osmania University has recently refused hostel facilities to those seeking a second degree, which led to an instant drop in applications).

That is why the residential public university is an important entity to understand. Historically, the hostel has been a space for engaging with the “Indian social” in interesting, potentially democratising but also segmenting, ways. It can be the centre of new forms of mobilisation: the writer Siddalingaiah notes in his autobiography, Ooru keri how students were largely mobilised from hostels during the boosa agitation of 1973 (2014: 67, 71, 100). It is the site of new forms of tolerance, but also forms of intolerance. There is a curious mix of rights-based discourses and cultural entitlements. To take the example of Kannada University, Hampi again, state funding for hostels in Karnataka has led to an interesting, perhaps unwitting, redrafting of caste identities. There are only two kinds of hostels at Hampi: the Scheduled Castes (SC)/ST students’ hostel, and the OBC hostel, reflecting the role played by state institutions in redesignating “General Students” by invisibilising them. The hostel is functioning in a number of interesting ways to pose a challenge to ascribed realities while simultaneously enabling the consolidation, and reassertion, of beleagured community identities.

The multiple histories and uses of the hostel, the needs of first generation learners, and of new urbanisers, have rarely generated creative responses; instead, they have most often led to the call for a return to some imagined neutral space, where agendas other than education may not be pursued. At the root of this call to return to the pursuit of intellectual goals alone is the growing hostility towards what Arvind Malagatti has described as the Government Brahmana (2014: 52). The Government Brahmana is taunted for being patronised by the state, and receiving undeserved handouts. Of course, anyone who reads that autobiography carefully, and indeed any of the Dalit autobiographies in Kannada, will realise that the humiliations of the Dalit do not end upon her entry into the space of the university; they continue in subtle and not so subtle ways. Yet the new righteousness of the “taxpayer” has been twinned with the big push towards privatisation today.11 There is a good chance that the public university, which legions of elites had accessed in both the pre- and post-independence periods before its accountability to the taxpayer was demanded, will go the way of the public health and schooling systems by being turned into a ghetto for those who can exercise no choices.

Privatisation as Panacea

The demand that the state withdraw from university education has been heard for a while now (Chattopadhyay 2010: 15–17). This is not simply because it is a space of extraordinary commercial opportunities—remember that the first recognition of “education as business” was in the capitation fee colleges and universities that mushroomed in the South, and in Western India, especially Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra from the 1970s. In 2000, the report of the Mukesh Ambani and Kumaramangalam Birla Committee called for full-fledged withdrawal of the state from encashable disciplines, such as science and technology, medical and business-related professions, leaving it to support only such unencashable disciplines as humanities, languages and social sciences (Birla and Ambani 2000).

The Mandal agitation by the upper castes of North India was a convenient forgetting of the inroads that had already been made into the category of “merit” by capitation fee colleges. This was necessary for the return of the “repressed,” in the form of a renewed call to promote merit. Since then, the growing success of reservation programmes in bringing wider sections of Indian society into the university has led to public discourse being dominated by a different kind of objection to the achievements of higher education. The public university is increasingly seen as an undeserved privilege; some knowledges are not just irrelevant but positively dangerous (as the arts, humanities, and social sciences); they are over-politicised and critical, therefore not engaged in real knowledge production. There is a new idealisation of the university as a space of training, as “skill factories” rather than as laboratories for sustained and critical thought. The university is reduced, thus, to producing bits of human capital, of service to corporations and industry, fitting into society rather than questioning it.

As the idea of the university itself is under challenge, we are being asked to turn it from a robust, complicated, sometimes unpredictable “institution” into a more efficient “mechanism. The difference between institution and mechanism is not exaggerated here, and is at the source of the vast system of credentialling on an industrial scale that has already reached its epitome in the Vyapam scam. A vibrant market economy logic has seized hold of entrance exam aspirants: those who are calling for greater market interventions should first deal with the unruly ways in which the market has already intervened and reconstructed institutions of higher learning. There is, in short, a contradictory invocation of the market logic: even the New Education Policy (NEP) of 2016 wants entrepreneurial skills to be harnessed in higher education, and yet bemoans the commercialisation of every aspect of education, including the surrogates who take entrance examinations. Mere hand-wringing does little to address the ironies of the current higher education scenario.

Some of the justifications offered for the sweeping changes which began to be announced by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) since 2014 are enhanced employability, skill development and seamless nationwide mobility for students. Great hopes are pinned on expanding higher education through deploying new technologies of disembodied teaching, in particular via Massive Online Open Courses, despite the disputable pedagogical outcomes of such technologies in teaching. We may admire, therefore, in this information-rich age, the prescience of T S Eliot for asking, as early as 1934, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”12 The pursuit of learning cannot be the acquisition of information. This was recognised even at the modern university’s founding. Speaking of the threat to institutions of learning posed by books and print culture, John Henry Newman (1909: 7, 9) had asked: “Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge comes down to us?” Newman, while acknowledging the democratising potential of the printed word, nevertheless spoke of the insufficiency of print culture in substituting for knowledge; that can only be obtained, according to him, from the “teachers of wisdom” and from the “fullness [that] is in one place alone,” namely the university.

But, as if the effect of educational “robber barons” on the life of the mind (and on unencashable disciplines) is not emaciating enough, intellectual life in India, both within and outside university spaces, is also facing a new onslaught from neo-nationalist anti-intellectualism.

The Rise of a New Anti-intellectualism

What do the political, commercial, and administrative assaults on the public university, which have intensified in the past year, amount to? We are seeing the signs of a new wave of anti-intellectualism which will have a lasting impact on the way institutions of higher education will be run and managed. No doubt, India is participating in a global turn away from the older commitment of the university to a free pursuit of knowledge, and towards an increasing financialisation of the university. Within this broad international trend, however, there is a concerted home-grown impulse towards an instrumentalisation of knowledge not only to subserve economic ends, but national–cultural ones. Contrast the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had emphasised the ideals of autonomy, experimentation, and freedom in the university:

A university stands for humanism. For tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth ... if the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well for the nation and for the people.

How far we have travelled from these hopeful words! This futuristic vision of the university, propelled by misplaced optimism, may be compared with the inaugural statement of the NEP 2016, which articulates another vision:

For two-thirds of mankind’s history, India as one of the oldest and most glorious living civilisations in the world dominated the world scene in every respect—in philosophy, economics, trade, and culture as well as in education. If India does the things now required to be done, in 15 to 20 years Indian Education can be transformed. The rest of the 21st century could then belong to India. (MHRD 2016: Para 1.4.3)

The rhetoric of excellence, here buttressed by hyper-nationalism, looks outwards to international recognition: an imagined past becomes more and more urgent as visionary futures wane. This bears no resemblance to the pasts, the historical wounds, that faculty and students at the Kannada University, Hampi may be researching. The university must serve the state in more direct, celebratory, or useful ways as illustrated by the recently compiled list of 82 research topics for PhDs in Gujarat University.

Apart from the vigour with which we are seeing the construction of the “neo-nation,” as much as we are contending with an unprecedented wave of anti-intellectualism, we are also inhabiting a post-truth society, and must be alert to its implications. We may, therefore, be at the same stage as Germany was in the 1930s, when, as Jurgen Habermas pointed out in his critique of Heidegger, “intelligence” was devalued in favour of “spirit,” and “analysis” was degraded to “authentic thought.” I would therefore go futher than Ramachandra Guha, who has asked why the Indian right (or the Indian conservatives) has not generated a new intellectual culture (Guha 2015).The current predicament is not merely that the right is striving, and failing, to replace erstwhile liberal/left scholars, good scholars, less-well known, or insignificant ones; what is happening now is an energetic closing of the Indian mind, and a call to replace real learning and thinking with a grab bag of pieties.

How to recover and preserve the space of hard-won freedoms, and even more hard-won equalities? The university as a space of engaged learning is increasingly being pushed towards policing and disciplining the mind. There is today a toxic mix of state, military, and neo-nationalist cultural power that wishes to confine, if not eradicate, freer forms of thought and expression. Soon after the 9 February 2016 incident in JNU, retired army generals made a proposal to bring guns and a tank onto the campus to instil a spirit of nationalism. The then HRD Minister Smriti Irani proposed the installation of 207 feet flag poles in all central universities.13 These suggestions and proposals, in their deadly sincerity, cannot be dismissed as symbolic or trivial pursuits of the party in power. The debate on the “revival” of Nalanda was suffused by terms which recalled “Indian” educational ideals, and vidya as possessing greater moral weight (Pinkney 2014: 135).

If in the period of the national movement a variety of ways of thinking, and not just about nationalism, was celebrated, intellectualism today is being opposed. A different kind of right has been emphasised that pits the army against intellectuals, and amounts to a militarisation of the cultural social ethic. It is a sad day indeed, when we become incapable of appreciating idiomatic or imaginative speech, become averse to the idea that conflictual pasts are a part of our heritage, or strongly oppose the necessity of emplacing the soldier as a protector of borders and boundaries, yes, but not bestowing on him the responsibility of guarding constitutional freedoms.

The public university is moving from being a public good—as it was envisaged in the late 19th century—into becoming a private investment and a vast credentialling mechanism. The changes began in the 1980s, under the aegis of global economic transformations, when universities became “public” only in name, as, say, in the United Kingdom and the United States. The effort was to replace them with other undertakings or ventures, introduce fees, and turn them into financialised institutions. Privatisation in a financialised era is driven by rankings and ratings: not just basic science is devalued in the process, but also the social sciences and the humanities.

Judith Butler had recently talked, in the context of the university today, of the necessity and difficulty of destruction (Centre for Humanities Research 2016). I would agree that in a society like ours there is much to destroy, but it requires much forethought and planning for it to be “creative destruction,” to use those old words of Joseph Schumpeter. What we are witnessing today is a mindless destruction of all that existed, without a clear agenda for what might meaningfully take its place. And we have insufficient appreciation of what has already been achieved: Ananthamurthy in his last work, Hindutva athava Hind Swaraj (2014) has rightly reminded us that a person of OBC background becoming Prime Minister is as old as caste itself in India; if a large number of such people of similar backgrounds are today climbing the steps of Parliament, it is not an achievement of the ruling party, but a precious fruit of the legacies of Ambedkar, Nehru, and V P Singh, and I would add, our public university system.

Let us have the courage to say that at a time of consensus and orthodoxy, the university is obliged to resist, rethink, and challenge these orthodoxies. Let us take from the best of our long, very contradictory and conflictual pasts, rather than clichés such as Nalanda. The kutuhala-shalas of early India, for instance, were halls and places on the edge of the city where people gathered to discuss things and literally exercise curiosity, as the very word kutuhala suggests.14

We come from a long tradition of argumentation, of which we have many exemplary exchanges, as between Yajnavalkya and Gargi from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

At this point Yajnavalkya told her: “Don’t ask too many questions, Gargi, or your head will shatter apart! You are asking too many questions about a deity about whom one should not ask too many questions. So, Gargi, don’t ask too many questions!” (Olivelle 1998: 85)

The word “university” has had many meanings for those who live in the subcontinent: for the first-generation public sector employees of Bharat Electronics Limited, the factory was the university which introduced them to people and ideas from all parts of India for the first time. K Ramaiah speaks of the Dalit Sangarsh Samiti as a “big school, also a university, a real university. The question we need to ask today is what made it a place of real education” (Satyanarayana and Tharu 2013: 13). In both these definitions, the university is the place that offers the gift of an interval to those who never dreamed of this luxury, allowing the glimpse of a new and unimagined future. It allows questions to be asked, and churns up the known, the comfortable, the commonsensical. The university should prepare us for the unknown, rather than fitting us into an existing world.

We should end here by asking why, just at a time when the poet Sikhamani tells us “Look, the Steel Nibs Are Sprouting,” we are responding to the provocations of the public university by calling for its dramatic transformation, even dismantling? What has already been dismantled—with contradictory and unexpected outcomes—for those who, for so long, wielded power? We can do no better than to hear Sikhamani:

For an untaught lesson
You demanded our thumbs—
There sprout nibs of steel
To write history afresh—
Then, The people who poured
Hot metal in our ears
Would need ladders to climb To pluck hairs from our ears!


1 This is the title of a recent full-length history of Princeton University (Axtell 2016). These words are attributed to Pope Gregory IX c 1170–1241.

2 This was pointed out in a panel discussion at the Centre for Humanities Research., accessed on 10 October 2016.

3 Non-NET fellowships support MPhil and PhD students who do not receive Junior Research Fellowships from the University Grants Commission. NET stands for National Eligibility Test.

4 I am only too aware that private discourse, and even practice, may not reflect, or may even contradict, the public positions that are espoused.

5 Points are given for regional deprivation, to women students, and specified categories of students from defence families.

6 See Section 5.4 entitled “Need to Restrict Political and Other Distractions in University and College Campuses” (MHRD 2016).

7 Madhava Prasad (2011) even describes English as the “peacekeeping force” in a postcolonial, multilingual society like India.

8 V Sujata (2015) has suggested an alternative to the Academic Performance Index, which has now led to an industrial scale production of numericals to meet the demand of university administrators for the purpose of appointments and promotions. See also Academics for Creative Reform (2015).

9 The following paragraphs are adapted from the position paper of Academics for Creative Reforms (2015).

10 Therefore, as I am always at pains to explain to my students, the university as an institution is not and should not be the mirror image of the family.

11 As Udaya Kumar (2016) has pointed out, the very idea of the “public” has been distorted by the new emphasis on the self righteous “taxpayer,” particularly in the time since Rohith–Kanhaiya.

12 Balavant, alias Bal Apte, intervening in the discussion on the Nalanda University Bill, 2010, echoed Eliot when he said, “Information is relevant if it is knowledge, and knowledge is relevant if it is blessed with wisdom, and all these put together is one word in this country, which is called vidya. Vidya is knowledge with wisdom, and we say sa vidya ya vimukthaya (that which liberates is knowledge)” (Pinkney 2014: 135).

13 This article was written before the request was made for a tank on the campus by the JNU vice chancellor in July 2017.

14 The reference is from Buddhist texts such as the Digha Nikaya, I.ix. Potthapada Sutta, 178–79. They are mentioned in other Buddhist texts as well. It is assumed that kutuhala-shalas were known in the time of the Buddha around the mid-first millennium BC. But since the Buddhist texts were written later, probably in the post-Mauryan period, these places and their functions  were still remembered, or existed in some form. The cities are likely to have been those of the middle Ganges plain—Vaishali, Shravasti, Rajagriha, etc. Personal communication from Romila Thapar.


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Updated On : 21st Sep, 2017


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