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Life and Death of Public Universities

The government is abdicating its constitutional responsibilities by attacking public universities.

Medieval chronicler Minhaj-i-Siraj records how Bakhtiyar Khilji, who had conquered parts of eastern India at the fag end of the 12th century, attacked a fortress in Bihar. Having captured the fort, the story goes, he found that it was inhabited by a large number of Brahmins and contained a great number of books. It was then that the conqueror realised that what he had captured was not a mere fort, but a university.

Right-wing ideologues love to misread this passage from Tabaqat-i-Nasiri as an authoritative account of the destruction of the ancient university of Nalanda by Muslim invaders. The story, however, captures the predicament of our current government and its supporters, who see universities not as centres of knowledge production but as enemy forts—as “bastions” of sedition and “anti-nationalism.” For example, during the Kargil War “celebrations” last year at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), retired army officer G D Bakshi had thundered that having captured JNU, the government must proceed to destroy the “fortresses” of Hyderabad Central University and Jadavpur University. Last week, the government has proved its intentions once again by its actions, brutally attacking students, teachers, and journalists protesting against destructive government interventions and shameless sheltering of alleged sexual harassers. While the Indian university system has not been immune to government interference, never in the past has it encountered the kind of relentless attack it is facing today.

Public universities have two primary, interconnected functions. The first is to push the boundaries of existing knowledge. This implies a sceptical approach to all received knowledge and towards all the structures of power that uphold such knowledge. The second mandate, intimately related to the first, is to produce responsible and thinking citizens. This implies training students to question received orthodoxies and critically interrogate all forms of dominant institutions. Thus, the primary interlocutor of a public university is the public itself, and not the government. To the extent that the government and the institutions it controls are expressions of dominant ideologies, it is the mandate of a public university to critically evaluate all government actions. It is, therefore, a cornerstone of a functioning democracy, which keeps those in positions of power under constant scrutiny. Thus, what this government is labelling as “anti-nationalism” is, in fact, a responsibility of all public universities. If questioning government action is “anti-nationalism,” universities must wear this as a badge of honour, a mark of excellence more honourable than high scores accorded by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.

In a democracy, universities and the government have a reciprocal relationship. Public universities are supposed to produce knowledge that would enable a government to direct its policies towards the well-being of citizens, expanding their rights and freedoms, and promoting greater social justice. A public university’s role, perhaps, is also to train future public servants, including legislators, judges, ministers and even technocrats. It is ironic that an overwhelming proportion of public servants today, from clerks to heads of governments, are products of the university system that the present government is hell-bent on destroying, either by making excuses of lack of funds or by defaming them as “enemy bastions.”

The reciprocal duty of the government is to protect and promote conditions under which public universities can function without inhibition or fear. No government does any favour by “granting” universities autonomy. It is a government’s obligation, part of its responsibility of protecting democracy itself. Promoting autonomy could mean state supervision, but not in the form of imposing syllabuses and research agendas, and definitely not by appointing stooges of ruling parties in important positions and disciplining university life through the law-enforcing machinery. The government’s proper role is to see to it that qualified professionals and academics, respected by their peers in their respective fields, are given greater roles in running these institutions. It should also ensure adequate public funding for resources and infrastructure to support researchers, teachers, and students, and protect them from becoming slaves to market forces. In addition, the government’s role is also to ensure social justice by making sure that all sections of citizens are adequately represented within the university community at all levels, so that universities do not become mere instruments of dominant interests and classes, and the government is able to fulfil its constitutional duty of providing equality of opportunity to all.

What is today being parroted as granting “autonomy” is the very reverse of what the government’s role ought to be in its relation to public universities. It is, in fact, an abdication of all responsibilities towards citizens. The recent announcement of the human resource development minister of implementing “graded autonomy” is a mere euphemism for withdrawing public funding from the higher education sector. This means that to be financially viable, university departments will have to submit themselves to the mercy of market demands. This not only amounts to an attack on public universities, but is also a violation of the social contract from which a democratically elected government draws its legitimacy.

Legend has it that the library of the university at Nalanda alone took three long months to be completely burned down. Public universities in today’s India will not be destroyed in a day. Students and teachers are relentlessly fighting back, but there is no doubt anymore of the government’s intentions. Even if the government thinks it can get away by fooling the electorate, it will never escape the scorn of history.

Updated On : 31st Mar, 2018

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