Let a hundred flowers bloom

A UNIVERSITY in modern times is ideally conceived as a space for free exploration of many dimensions of knowledge and points of view. It undertakes pure research in the natural and social sciences, the humanities as well as education in their more practical dimensions.

Let a hundred flowers bloom

Aparna Basu & Madhuri Santanam Sondhi

A UNIVERSITY in modern times is ideally conceived as a space for free exploration of many dimensions of knowledge and points of view. It undertakes pure research in the natural and social sciences, the humanities as well as education in their more practical dimensions. Goals evolve over time: the curriculum of ancient Indian universities from Takshashila to Nalanda covered the known sciences of the time such as astronomy and mathematics, along with logic and metaphysics and their application as then understood. Their curricula did not include training for government services. 

After their destruction, the university system as such was not revived till its reintroduction by the British. Apart from English medium schools and colleges which groomed students to man their political, legal and economic systems, they established the first three universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, modelled on London University, through the Act of Incorporation in 1857.

With the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and increasing criticism of British policies by the 1890s, the government became aware of the hazards this type of education posed to British rule. As the government moved out of the field of higher education, Indians had moved in, according to Curzon, with dangerous political consequences. He declared the first and foremost cause of political unrest in India was ‘the education we have given to the people of this country’. His education reforms were ostensibly to improve the undeniably low standards, but the hidden agenda was to bring the whole system under stricter official control.  Curzon’s University Bill was vociferously opposed by the nationalists ‘as a political manifesto in academic guise’. Gopal Krishna Gokhale said the proposed reforms would make the university a department of the state.

Thus were laid the foundations of the tussle between government controls and the demand for university autonomy.

These aspects of the colonial legacy have remained with us for 67 years. Right from the start, no government has seriously tried to rethink the aims and objectives of education in a free India. Not only have successive governments continued, to a greater or lesser extent, in ensuring the compatibility of university products with the governments of the day, but education itself has become an item of political competition — primarily in terms of allocating universities and institutes to different states for political mileage regardless of academic standards or performance. Successive governments, Congress, Jan Sangh/BJP, CPM have all unabashedly tried to control and manipulate the system when in power at the Centre or in the states by appointing their own party loyalists to academic posts or governing bodies — based on merit if possible, but otherwise, without.

Government control increased markedly after the 1967 elections when the Congress, as a minority government, was infiltrated by and became dependent on the CPI for support. In the 1970s, Leftist domination of universities increased with Education Minister  Nurul Hasan at the helm and many card-carrying individuals and fellow-travellers ensconced in influential positions in the government. Their impact was particularly noticeable in the history departments where scholars, many of them of high calibre, came to terms with the ruling dispensation hoping to use the instruments of the state to promote their models of teaching and research. Most of these scholars were Marxists and many were appointed to university history departments. Non-Marxist scholars, despite impeccable academic credentials, teaching and research experience and books to their credit from prestigious publishing houses, were, if by some happenchance, members of such departments (normally they would be excluded at the appointment stage), ignored or marginalised.  

During these years, Marxism became a serious intellectual challenge to liberalism. The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) set up by Prof Nurul Hasan at this time, was again staffed by Left-wing academics. The Indian History Congress was dominated by Left-wing historians. Textbooks brought out by NCERT displayed a distinct ideological bias. According to an insider, during the 35 years of CPM rule in West Bengal, all academic appointments had to be approved by the party office.

The post-Emergency Janata government and the BJP which had been highly critical of such ideological favouritism promptly, once in power, went ahead to do exactly the same. (The extreme Left and extreme Right parties are in a sense, mirror images of one another, and we use Left and Right in this sense here.) Whenever and wherever possible, they removed Left-wing scholars and custodians of educational institutions to replace them with the followers of their own school of thought, regardless of their academic suitability. 

While the Leftists are quick to point to lack of tolerance and dissent under fascism and Nazism, they prefer not to mention the controls and punishment of dissent in the Soviet Union and its client states in Eastern Europe, or in China, Cuba or South East Asia. Under Stalin’s Russia, dissenting authors, poets, scientists, even musicians, were harassed, imprisoned and exiled. Chinese students demanding democratic changes at Tiananmen Square were ruthlessly gunned down by tanks. As Arendt and others have pointed out, fascism and other totalitarianisms have certain structural similarities. Adherents of such opposed viewpoints believe themselves possessed of the ‘truth’, and function as righteous persecutors of ‘untruth’.

Academic freedom is a non-issue in such regimes. Only democracy which is underpinned by pluralism and scepticism with regard to absolute truth can encourage and tolerate a free expression of ideas. As for the contest of ideas on a university campus, there is an old saying that if one is not a radical when one is 20, there is something the matter, and if one hasn’t grown out of it by 30, it is a case of arrested development. Mao’s call for the blooming of a hundred flowers was welcomed as a promise of plurality and freedom of thought: unfortunately, it turned out to be a ploy for smoking out and crushing those critical of his shibboleths and preconceptions. But his idea of a garden of many hues is an apt metaphor for the ideal condition of a university campus.

— Aparna Basu is a former professor of history, University of Delhi, and Madhuri S Sondhi is an independent research scholar and Chair of Prof ML Sondhi Trust.

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