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The War on India’s Academic Institutions

Arjun Singh imposed quotas. Ramadoss threw out Venugopal. What’s the difference?

After nearly an year of struggle, the union health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss has finally managed to dislodge the director of the All India Institute of Medical Science, Dr P Venugopal from his post. There is little Ramadoss hasn’t tried in the last one years: media war, arbitrary decisions by the health ministry controlled governing board of the A.I.I.M.S and repeated interference in the functioning of the premier medical school. Finally, in an act of sheer desperation, he bulldozed through a bill in the parliament which retrospectively fixed the retirement age of A.I.I.M.S director at 65. Since, Dr Venugopal had already crossed the age of 65, it is clear that this provision was specifically directed at him.

Who is the real sufferer in this sordid drama? Venugopal’s term would have ended in July 2008; for him it was little more than an ego war with the minister. Ramadoss, having established his authority, can go back to his pet role of playing the patronizing father to India’s youth. It is A.I.I.M.S whose functioning has come to a virtual standstill in the last one year; whose reputation as a center of excellence lies in tatters; and whose institutional autonomy has been compromised irrevocably which has suffered the most damage.

It would be facile to look at this episode as an isolated incident. It is consistent with a larger pattern in which the U.P.A government has repeatedly assaulted some of India’s finest institutions for narrow political goals. Arjun Singh imposed O.B.C quotas with an executive fiat. Worse, the government looking for quick political damage control, unilaterally increased the number of seats by 50% without even bothering to consult those who actually run academic institutions. All concerns about lack of faculty, infrastructural needs e.t.c were simply brushed aside.

Or take the I.I.M admission fiasco. Expecting the Supreme Court to vacate its stay on the O.B.C quota, Arjun Singh’s ministry made the Indian Institute of Management (IIM’s) wait a full month before allowing them to declare their results. It wasn’t only the fate of lakhs of students which was hanging in balance-how can IIM’s ever hope to be truly world class institution when even as basic a function as admission is controlled by its political masters? Arjun Singh is currently a piloting a bill which would take away I.I.M’s financial autonomy making them perpetually dependent on government handouts.

The imposition of quotas implied a larger shift: Academic institutions did not matter. Their existence could be held hostage to political considerations. If they were harmed in the process; if their excellence was compromised–then so be it. Publicly funded need not mean government owned. There is a huge difference between A.I.I.M.S and the ministry of Human Resource Development. This important distinction is increasingly getting blurred.

What is particularly surprising is the almost complete lack of resistance shown by the academic institutions. Instead of guarding their independence, they have meekly acquiesced. The principle that academic institutions should be allow to govern themselves independently without executive interference has been well-accepted the world over. This freedom is zealously guarded -indeed, it is regarded as an essential pre-requisite for their proper functioning. Why have India’s leading academicians failed to protest in the same manner in which they resisted the B.J..P’s government attempts to reduce the fees of I.I.M’s?

It is not merely a lack of sprit. Over the last 60 years, a cabal of academic-politicians has lorded over India’s institutions. Blinkered by ideological considerations, and fattened by government largesse, they have virtually turned into stooges of a particular political ideology repeatedly compromising their institutions for narrow personal gains. Therefore, while they will stoutly resist B.J.P’s government’s attempts to turn N.C.E.R.T into a virtual sangh publication but will never condemn the doings of their own political masters. It is hard, if not impossible, to ever expect the Irfan Habibs, Romila Thapars and the motley group of J.N.U intellectuals to stand up to their political masters.

Modern India does not have a proud record of producing great public institutions. Only few have escaped government clutches and have managed to build a reputation for them selves among the elite of the world. (1)U.P.A government is hell-bent upon reducing them to the status of failed institutions which litter India’s academic graveyard. It is incumbent upon those who have devoted their lives to these institutions to stand up and show some spine. They must be backed by the civil society. It is distressing to note that even academic bloggers have offered no comments on the A.I.I.M.S bill. They surely realize that silence tantamount to endorsement in this case.

One final thought: There is little one expects from India’s academic prime minister. Still, even by Dr Singh’s standards, it is painful to watch how the educationist prime minister has allowed small-time ministers to destroy elite institutions without even a slap on their wrists? Can Dr Manmohan Singh show, for once, that he is genuinely concerned about India’s future?

1. That many of us, including this blogger, believe that higher education shouldn’t be funded by public money is immaterial to the case. As long they are funded by tax-payer’s money, all of us a have a vital interest in ensuring their continued welfare.

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