Intellectual thought & imagination in Indian universities

There are some clear advantages of having a foot in the academic world, while one goes about doing other things in life. For one, it is a great way to keep in touch with the intellectual production and thinking (if any) happening in the society. Spending the past three years in two universities and more years ahead, at graduate level, I have had several moments of hope and even more moments of despair working, listening and engaging with Indian professors. The university system as well as academicians together appeared offended when a few months back Narayana Murthy went acidic on their performance, output and culture during the convocation at IISc. More specifically, Murthy was making a point on innovation and then on IISc’s contribution to Indian society. Of course, it wouldn’t have been taken lightly. Soon enough was a CNR Rao from Prof C N R Rao. Prof Rao’s problem? That he doesn’t seem to have left his advanced labs and his cabin to have seen the general apathy  Indian research labs (research scholars ghost writing for lab heads, Professors cannibalizing promising careers, plagiarism etc) are infested with. Prof Rao launches into what-has-industry-done kind of charge, without bothering to acknowledge the problems that Murthy was drawing attention to. Sure enough, the vision is cloudy from the Himalayan heights of Indian science.

Meanwhile, in social sciences and allied disciplines the camps are clearly divided. I wouldn’t be surprised to see university positions being filled on the political leanings of the individuals. This in my opinion is the most unfortunate phenomenon which is seriously gripping the universities. It doesn’t stop here. There is quite a discomfort with dissenting voices as well. It would only be a mistake to understand this as an isolated problem. Even the supposedly best universities have become clubs of a certain kind of people who’d prefer to hang out together professionally.

The law school here seems to have a thriving club of left leaning thinkers academicians. I think I get their game now… keep reasoning and discussion on political systems and role of the ‘state’ hovering a touch above the human rights, civil liberties and similar such categories. And then keep skirting the discussion on relevance and reason of their proposed political actions like unionizing and picking-up-the-gun as one of the political-economy Professor here often likes to mention. Unionizing, by the way is to be read as the single-most important method of collective action, as another life-long labour union activist and law professor would insist.

The problem with these narratives is that they are like the scratchy VHS cassettes in the era of high-definition videos – in their quality and in their relevance. The only place that these VHS records are playing is the university. Outside of it, the world looks different and works differently.

In their quality, they are primitive and hardly appeal the students born in the post-1991 India. Trust me, they seriously are poor quality arguments. Here is an example – “what is your answer… what will you say to the poor man who doesn’t have anything to eat and picks up the gun?”. Add some romanticized, isolated experiences of walking the jungles of Indian states with Maoists and narrating the students how they live, work and survive to this, as an invitation to ‘think’ about Indian society and its inequalities. That kind of stuff doesn’t make one’s reasoning stronger or even help the students gain any granular insight into the struggle between the Indian state and the Maoists.

The other problem is that almost all of these discussions happen on an irrelevant plane. That India is a multi-modal and multi-class society is a banal point which becomes the heart of the matter in every single analysis of the Indian social context, contests and dynamics within. How does that even help drive a critical understanding, I have failed to understand in the last two months. It is elementary and I teach that stuff in high school as a part of A level sociology. So, my problem is this – that Indian university professors (a sweeping remark) are amazingly outdated and lack a self-critical process of reflection. Their lectures would be the same century after century if their life spans supported them! Fortunate for the next generation that some of these guys wouldn’t be around to harp the multi-modal, multi-class society spiel.

This said, it is hard not to be attracted to socialist and left leaning ideas on politics in our times when market led economies are faltering and corporations are taking on dangerously dominating roles in our daily lives. But the discourse on it needs to change as well as those who are in the profession of teaching this. When a professor in class was tendered statistics on education sector which goes against his argument, he should have the humility to consider it and accept (if necessary) that his argument may have lacked evidence. Whereas, as it happened, in a lecture on political economy, the professor was visibly upset and would go on to berate the students as products of capitalist system. That is the bankruptcy of the at least a section of professors in perhaps a substantial number of universities where counterviews find no acknowledgement, leave alone a place of its own. It doesn’t leave one with much hope of the quality of intellectual thought and imagination that is likely to come out of Indian universities in the next decade. No wonder many of the bright minds produce their best in universities outside India and then settle in an Indian university after spending prime research and thinking years abroad. When they resume their lives here and join the pool of Indian academicians, their colour soon becomes the same as the rest. Hard to distinguish and harder to figure what changed him!