Merit is the key to academic freedom

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who withdrew his candidature as Chancellor of Nalanda University some time back, has said that the Narendra Modi-led government wants to “seize direct control” over the country’s academic institutes. In an interview, he has hit out at the Modi establishment’s “extraordinarily large” interference in academia. Coming as they are from internationally acclaimed economist Amartya Sen, these observations cannot be dismissed offhand.

The left-oriented intellectual may, understandably, have his known politico-ideological tilts against the saffron brigade. However, facts and functional patterns of the BJP functionaries within the government speak louder than official denials to the contrary.

Sen has a list of those institutes where the government, he opines, has “converted” its formal role into a “substantial” one. He cites the case of Chairman of National Book Trust Sethumadhavan who was abruptly replaced by an RSS ideologue. He also refers to the installation of Yellapragade Sudershan Rao as chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), though he does not have a credible record in historical research.

The Nobel Laureate also refers to a few upsetting moves at IITs and IIMs. For example, Delhi IIT Director Raghunath Shevgaonkar resigned, apparently in disgust against the prevailing state of affairs. IIT Bombay Board chairman Anil Kakodkar has made it known that he would not help the government’s in anything in the future. As for the IIMs, a bill is proposed which would give power to the authorities to directly appoint the director, instead of having indirect power of withholding signature.

The latest example of favouritism relates to the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India at Pune where little-known actor Gajendra Chauhan has been given the job because of his known BJP links. Our point is simple: Nothing wrong having saffron connections. High-profile positions in academic institutes should be decided on merit, especially when there is no dearth of talent in the glittering world of films.

The government’s questionable conduct in the country’s highly sensitive zone of academia cannot be dismissed as mere Leftists’ tirade. These and several other cases is a sad pointer to the Modi establishment’s misplaced zeal on “our own loyalists” in preference to merit. This does no credit to PM Modi and “fair and liberal” image he wishes to project for himself.

Looking beyond, the question of academic freedom and responsibility has to be viewed on a larger canvas of educating students and advancing their knowledge. The idea here is to create congenial atmosphere which should enable faculty members to conduct their research activity freely and guide and equip students with the skills in learning so that they are able to contribute to society.

What is important in this teacher-student interaction is the inquiring spirit on the part of students and their ability to raise meaningful questions which might require further discussions. This inquiring spirit is very much part of the ancient Indian tradition, even for pursuing one’s own path in search of Truth. This is what makes India stand out. The academic glory of Nalanda as a seat of learning was known the world. It speaks a lot for ancient India’s value-based liberalism and academic freedom.

This vibrant liberal tradition was seen even during the freedom struggle. No wonder, Indian leaders on the morrow of Independence generally respected fearlessness and exemplified the courage of their conviction by voicing dissent from the views of the establishment.

In Independent India, the battle against social and economic ills, the false, conservative, obscurantist, irrational, misleading choices and wrong acts have to be challenged, whichever party happens to be in power at a given time. This is necessary to correct the “imbalances” in critical academic, social and governance arenas so that the people “take their rightly place in an egalitarian, scientifically progressive and genuinely cultured society”.

Philosopher-President of the Indian Republic, S. Radhakrishnan used to say: “We must liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the dark past from oppression of the spectre and ghosts from falsehood and deceit”.

Of course, the contradictions and conflicting trends in Indian society have to be viewed in a large perspective of change and changing compulsion of the times. As long as they are exposed to a free play of ideas in a liberal atmosphere, there should be no cause for concern. Indian intellectuals, whether of the Left or Right, should be worried if these contradictions and conflicts are allowed to be “institutionalised”. This is where they have a role to play, not as a passive onlooker, but as active catalytic agents to bring about desired changes in the right direction, in the right doses and at the right time.

We are raising Amartya Sen’s and other related larger issues in the light of Narendra Modi’s Change India idea he has put up before the people. Many of the ills of the old order have to be changed for sure. Prime Minister Modi must not allow his establishment to play with the academic freedom in our research and educational institutes. Besides, he must not sacrifice the criterion of merit by foisting “unqualified loyalists” in key areas of public life. We have reasons to be worried as we see incompetent and unqualified   persons occupying key positions in the academia and other areas of public life!

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