PUCL Bulletin,

February 1982

The Shackles within
-- By Satish Saberwal

Very few of us academics in India have attained the intellectual stature that would allow us to speak the authentic voice of reason in the public domain, the voice of reason which-by exposing the enormities of unreason around us-might have provoked the centres of authority into attacking our academic freedom seriously. It does happen - as with the history textbooks - but far more often our troubles begin with our own colleagues in the universities and in other academic institutions.

A very large proportion of our complaints regarding infringement of academic freedom refers not to the overweening authority of the State and the like but to academics who happen to hold authority or who mobilise power for the moment. Consider the following random instances from a virtually infinite array: following a selection committee meeting in which a junior colleague disagreed with his senior's preference, the latter made the former virtually persona non grata in the department he controlled; a faculty member is known to have had his nephew incite his classmates against a colleague who was seen as a strong rival; a faculty member whose advances were rebuffed by a student began to harass her and malign her in low gossip; a university teacher secured a fellowship for an undeserving cousin by manipulating grades…. A large majority of academics do perhaps stay well clear of such misdemeanours; yet situations of the kind are common and well known, and we are often not able to check such gross lapses from propriety. Otherwise responsible academics may even suggest that such acts are immune to external scrutiny on grounds of academic autonomy! Such has been our failure to establish norms in these matters, and to enforce them in relation to ourselves-even in the most eminent of institutions-that when hitherto quiescent group of students or younger colleagues bestirs itself, its pugnacity is often felt in wanton abandon.

No observer of the Indian academic scene can miss the enormous energies we invest in jockeying for small gains in terms of material advantage and social domination in academia or -given the attritions of this process- in settling scores with colleagues and others. The other side of this coin is what this note opened with: that few of us ever manage to attain to any substantial intellectual stature. Intellectual stagnation and extra academic bickering-these two elements go together. Tentatively I would suggest that these express in academia s much more pervasive syndrome of difficulties in contemporary Indian society. To this syndrome I now turn.

The issue is large; here I can barely indicate its dimensions. Put simply, I think we in India today have extraordinary difficulties first in coping with the conflict and second in evolving and maintaining anything like an impersonal normative order. These elements are inherent in vast ranges of acts and situations. An impersonal normative order is at stake, for example, in maintaining the sequence in a queue, in exercising one's judgement for admissions to the university objectively, or in enforcing the code for the height of buildings in an area, regardless of the wealth or power of the M.P. who presses for a hotel that would be taller. With such impersonal codes we seem to have enormous difficulties, and I return to this matter below.

Soliloquy of the Deaf
It is unnecessary to illustrate the variety of possible levels of, and contexts for, conflict in the daily round. What is not always understood (even among academics) is that disagreement and, therefore, arguments and a measure of conflicts-these are an essential part of any reasonably active academic field. Where these debates do not conform to the historically defined and generally accepted ground rules, however, argument can sink into personal bickering; and where, for fear of such personal bickering, academics refrain from publicly evaluating-commenting on, responding to- each other's work, the academic process is reduced to being soliloquies of the deaf. Debate, and associated conflict of ideas, of alternative interpretation often of sparse and ambiguous evidence-these are the heart of the matter: but we have difficulty in engaging in serious debate on any sustained basis. Why?

Our difficulties with conflict are general, not limited to academics alone, and so its explanation too has to be in terms wider than just the academic situation. I suggest that these are rooted in our inheritance by way of styles for handling disagreements and conflicts. In dogmatic brevity, I see these styles in (1) the ideology of hierarchy, which legitimised acts of aggression (explicit or implicit) from top down, a d strongly disapproved of counter-aggression upwards; (2) the consigning of the vast bulk of conflicts to the relatively private realms of kindred, caste, and village-with their panchayats and ad hoc procedures; (3) the intervention of the raja or his man in terms of his personal judgement, not of a generally applicable public code; and, when all else failed, (4) recourse to the force of arms. It will be seen that none of these styles is appropriate to academic contention, and the first three have been disintegrating even in their original realms in recent decades. Our own heritage brings us little else.

There is however another tradition of handling conflict which has a bearing upon our problem. It grew and took shape in Europe over two millennia; the curious will find some of its facets considered in the uncompleted masterwork of the German sociologist Max Weber, Economy and Society (tr. 1968), especially the last chapter in it. The reference is to the possibility of formulating impersonal "rational" codes, in the light of individual and wider experiences, codes applicable evenly for everyone concerned. This cultural device applicable in everyday life, developed slowly in a particular social and historical context; and if we have serious difficulties in working in its logic, the reasons seems to lie in the very different logic which comes to us from the caste system.

Irrational Traditions
The issues here need a discussion vastly more elaborate than what a few paras can permit but, perhaps, the point can be made provisionally with reference to the forms of social relationships characteristic of our traditional society. I count three forms: (1) the very intensive, multistranded kinds of relationships within the extended family, caste, and the like; (2) the relatively distant, stereotyped relationships; with those of other castes within one's own village; with one's in laws, especially for rural men in North India; or the relationships one might have established in the course of say a pilgrimage; and (3) the relationships held together basically by the king's fiat, such as those between say Aurangazeb's mansabdars.

What we have lacked is the learning of the habit of growing into relationships open-endedly, on a basis of mutuality, in terms of a shared normative order. Like if or not, this latter is virtually the only possible basis for creative relationships between academic colleagues, regardless of their formal status. I full realise the gravity of the position I am taking: for building an academic community of equals, there is very little support from the principal types of our inherited repertoire of social relationships-and of associated ideas.

The foregoing may be put another way. In the Indian tradition, says the anthropologist Louis Dumont, the person is subordinated to the group consistently, one is expected to subordinate one's judgement and one's interests to those of the group. The psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar comments on the general Indian preference for close social relationships, despite considerable costs in terms of personal autonomy. Neither the traditions of ideas we have inherited, it would seems, nor the way most of us grow up in childhood and youth, encourage us to think and to act autonomously. Whatever the value of this room for social intimacy in other directions, it would seem that the attendant sacrifice of autonomous thought and action does perhaps detract from a vigorous academic community.

The complex issue clearly has numerous other facets but the point has perhaps been made. If in terms of inescapably Western standards of academic conduct-inescapable, for there are no other-our habits seem at times to border on the bizarre, the explanation is to be found not in the oddities of this person or that but in the cultural traditions, the social institutions, and the psychological dispositions which are part of us. Exceptionally endowed individuals do manage now and then to defy the stagnation which ultimately arises in this heritage; yet this stagnation is a serious matter and we have to take its full measure if the long journey necessary for overcoming it is not to be lost in the wastes of purposelessness.

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