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The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar

Vinay Lal

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There has been much outrage expressed, and quite rightly so, over the action taken some days ago by the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to ask Professor Emerita Romila Thapar for her CV to determine if she was still fit to hold that distinguished title which was conferred on her more than 25 years ago.  JNU has, since its inception, easily been one the country’s leading universities; and Professor Thapar, one can say with even greater certitude, has added more lustre to JNU than nearly anyone else in the humanities and social sciences, and that took over the course of half a century, including the 21 years that she was on its faculty from 1970-91.  Professor Thapar is recognized the world over for her scholarship on ancient Indian history, having earned accolades that most academics can only dream of, but in India she has also had an outsized presence as a prolific public intellectual.

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As a Professor Emerita, Thapar receives no salary from the university:  though she may gain something from this affiliation, it is the university that stands to profit from a continuing association with one of India’s most widely recognized scholars.  Emeritus Professors are not typically “evaluated” once they have been accorded that honor, though the JNU administration claims, quite falsely, that leading American universities subject Emeritus Professors to such reviews.  It is transparent to everyone that Thapar is being subjected to such an ignominious demand to punish her for her principled and fearless critiques of the Hindu nationalists who have run the country since the last five years and whose minions have been installed in many of the country’s leading educational and research institutions.  The JNU administration, in its defense, has pointed out that other Emeritus Professors have likewise been asked to submit their CVs for review by a committee appointed by the Academic Council, but these new “regulations” were put into place just weeks ago.  It is, of course, wholly disingenuous of the administration to camouflage its intense dislike of Thapar with the pretense that she was not being singled out for retribution.

It should be wholly unnecessary to come to the defense of Professor Thapar.  One might have some intellectual differences with her, as the present writer does, but nothing can even remotely justify the utterly shameless and wretched conduct of the university administration. It would be a considerable understatement to say that JNU has seen better days.  Its decline in recent years, more precisely since the administration was packed with people who are virtually illiterates, insofar as they are wholly clueless about what constitutes a university and what makes for something called “the life of the mind”, has been precipitous.  It speaks volumes for the senility of those charged with the administration of the university that its Vice Chancellor two years ago suggested that a battle tank be placed on the campus to instill “love for the army” among its students.  Faculty are increasingly being treated as children, subjected to roll-calls and being marked for “attendance”. Those among the faculty who are known to be critical of the university administration, or who have expressed misgivings about the ominous directions into which the country is being taken, are having their petitions for leave to attend conferences or deliver lectures denied.

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While it would be idle to pretend that public institutions such as JNU were ever free of politics, or that patronage systems did not flourish under previous administrations, leading public universities today face threats unlike any witnessed in the past.  The culture of vindictiveness, openly on display in the insult to Professor Thapar, is deplorable just as it is alarming.  But far more is at stake than a petty meanness on the part of the administration, and it is instructive to understand what makes the university a different kind of battlefield in the attempt of the Indian government to stifle all intellectual dissent.  If the assaults on the freedom of speech and expression are being experienced in other domains—in the literary world, in the attempts to induce conformity and patriotism in the film industry, in the vicious trolling of those few journalists who have dared to adopt a critical stance—then one might what ask what makes the assaults on public universities even more objectionable?

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“When I hear the word culture,” the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels is reported to have said, “I reach for my gun.”  (It is immaterial, I may add, whether the story is apocryphal; that Goebbels and his ilk were philistines is well-established.)  The contempt for intellectuals in the present Indian government runs very high, and those in public universities are especially vulnerable. What may be described as an unprecedented assault on universities such as JNU, which are all too easily seen (and accordingly punished) as bastions of “anti-national” activity, stems from something more than a virulent Hindu nationalism and the intolerance for dissent.  It is no surprise, for example, that the country’s educational administrators are people of intensely bureaucratic disposition and most often engineers and scientists by training, utterly lacking in humanistic education.  They reflect the values, too, of India’s burgeoning middle class, which generally sees education merely as an avenue to job procurement and as an investment that is likely to yield social and financial dividends, rather than as a social process leading to ethical thinking, self-reflexivity, intellectual growth, and an appetite for inquiry into the human condition.  It is not only the staff at Indian universities who do not understand what is meant by a “university”:  many of the administrators who run our universities, and who are willing to do the bidding of their political patrons, are singularly lacking in any understanding of the nature of intellectual work.  Thinking is alien to them.

What remains to be said at this juncture is that, whatever the sins of previous governments, and there are many, the present BJP-led government is driven by the ambition to gut the public university in India.  The two finest public universities in India, Delhi University and JNU, are being strangulated. The government is not unaware that public universities the world over have often been the sites of dissent, and l’affaire Romila Thapar, it is useful to recall, follows the strident and calumnious attacks three years ago on Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya for alleged anti-national activities. Though the administrators who run JNU will not say so openly, they evidently think that Professor Romila Thapar, who has brought more distinction to the study of Indian history than nearly any other historian, is also anti-national.  What could be more pathetic?  The decimation of public universities furnishes, as well, an opening to even greater privatization of higher education.  And what could be more desirable for a government that, notwithstanding all the noise about “swadeshi”, is openly in cahoots with the most self-aggrandizing capitalists that India has ever seen?  But that is another story.

(This is a very slightly modified version of what was published under the same title at ABP on 9 September 2019).

[Vinay Lal is Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UCLA. He writes widely on the history and culture of colonial and modern India, popular and public culture in India, historiography, the politics of world history, the Indian diaspora, global politics, contemporary American politics, the life and thought of Mohandas Gandhi, Hinduism, and the politics of knowledge systems.]

Courtesy: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2019/09/09/the-assault-on-public-universities-and-laffaire-romila-thapar/

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Sep 13, 2019


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