PUCL Bulletin,

February 1982

University and the State
-- By Manoranjan Mohanty

Knowledge is not a private property. It is a social asset. In the pursuit of knowledge, both the individual as well as society make significant contributions. Educational institutions are fostered by society to facilitate the systematic process of learning. Higher institutions do something more. They not only educate the young in advanced fields of arts and sciences, but their members, particularly the university teachers are engaged in creating new knowledge. They assess the existing body of ideas and explanations and evolve new ones. At both these levels-training a vast cadre and proposing new ideas-the university performs a key role in social development.

For that reason the performance of the university is constantly a point of discussion. If the practitioners of knowledge namely, the teachers. Students and the educational administrators merely echo the voice of the ruling classes, then they only play their role as the instruments of legitimation. Knowledge as a social assest remains mainly at the disposal of the government. But, if the university community is responsible not to the government but to society at large, then the entire picture changes. A scholar has not only to be conscious of the intellectual standards of his discipline but also the reality of his social environment. The process of knowing cannot be divorced from participating in social practice. Therefore, if the intellectual is a seeker of truth, then he has to perceive his vocation independent of the State.

He has to relate his work with the needs of people, material, moral, aesthetic and others, while maintaining the logical and scientific rigour. When this is done the university experiences diverse pulls, some from the State, some from society and others cutting across both. Various sections of society demand that the university help in solving burning problems of the day. When the university responds, it might threaten the ruling classes. So on their behalf, the State moves in to control the process of education. Sometimes the State tries to make the university impotent, even irrelevant. But actually in such a situation, the university continues to be relevant but only as an obedient messenger of the ruling classes. The diverse pressures from society and State are both the impetus for innovation at the university and also the source of tension and crisis.

Originally the State took over the responsibility of sponsoring or maintaining educational institutions of ashrams, churches and private trusts primarily to reduce the interference of narrow economic or religious interests. That was a way to ensure a commitment to the common good and also to mobilise adequate resources for carrying on education. It was also believed that the pursuit of knowledge was facilitated under conditions of autonomy. State and society both had to respect this while both had the right to assess the performance of the university within their own forums.

Rulers Threatened
In recent decades as Indian society has experienced a deepening crisis, the ruling classes have found the university a source of threat. As a result, State intervention has steadily increased in campuses across the country.

At the same time, the academic climate has deteriorated and we do not see around many centres of ideas. So it is not true that a politically advanced class of students and teachers have turned the campuses into citadels of revolutionary protest. Nor is it apparent that there is intellectual ferment in the various disciplines which threaten to subvert the developing capitalist system. Actually a more or less inert intelligentsia pervades our campuses and much academic mediocrity easily passes for high prizes. Yet in the very nature of the university, the ruling class sees threats since truth is ever subversive of facades.

If we look at the variety of State intervention in the university, several trends are visible. The first I direct control. We see frequent cases of universities being taken over, academic bodies being suspended and administrators replacing vice-chancellors. In some states I.A.S. and I.P.S. officers are sent to put things in order. Almost all the universities in the country either have already got new legislation's or are in the process of having them. The new acts give more power to the government in appointments, conditions of service and management procedures.

In many campuses situations of tension have been so badly handled that police was called in frequently to bring peace. As a result, a most deplorable condition exists today where vice-chancellors and principals feel dependent upon collectors and police superintendents.

In fact, vice-chancellors today are no longer out standing scholars who evoke respect and inspire scholarly endeavour, but are political proteges of the ruling party rewarded for their service to the State.

Another set of measures which the State has taken emerge from the government's education policy. It has created a divide between teaching and research and has developed research institutes to do what the State needs. In physical and life sciences, the SCIR and its laboratories are a much favoured category. Undoubtedly they do a lot of good work and need support. But the science faculties of the universities have got step motherly treatment. In social sciences, the ICSSR has paid special attention to research institutes while universities scramble for grants from the UGC. Institutes are encouraged to do policy-oriented research for the State and so they get greater support in return. What is not realised is the fact that teaching and research are interdependent, creative exercises and cannot be isolated from one another and the university has to be not just a training school but a place for both.

Equally disconcerting is the divide between arts and sciences. By developing a particular thread from the Nehru era, the Indian government has cultivated a peculiar affection for the scientists and shown a degree of indifference to social scientists. The CSIR and many other government agencies directly interact with the scientists and award numerous projects to them. In a developing industrial society this is not unusual. But it is an act of State patronage for the scientists and as mentioned before from a superior position. As for the social sciences, the State has developed a deliberate disregard. Their work gets less funds. Facilities for them are scarce.

Yet, selective interaction is favoured. Economists find their way to the government and some orient university work accordingly. In the increasing committees and commissions, social scientists get some berths. Posts like vice-chancellors, super-numeracy professors and members of legislative bodies, are attractive carrots often dangled by the government. There has grown, on the whole, a steady contempt for social scientists in the minds of politicians and administrators, with the latter trying to keep the social scientists within their clutches.

Increasing Politicisation
Yet another trend encompassing our campuses today is the ruling party's reaction to the process of politicisation. Almost everywhere the Congress party has moved systematically to create a support base among the students, teachers and officials in the university. The phenomenon was most conspicuous with the advent of the Chhatra Parishad in West Bengal in the early seventies. Today almost all major parties have their student wings in colleges. And as a rule, electoral politics in the states gets entangled with student politics. The teachers have also undergone a degree of politicisation. "This was bound to happen because political consciousness is on the increase in the society as a whole.

But this politicisation has to be reconciled with the commitment to the idea of the university. What some political parties have done amounts to sacrificing the character of a knowledge-community and p[laying the political game. This has created a vulnerable atmosphere for State intervention. Its agents splits the university community, putting one segment against another. The ruling party now has its teacher groups who intervene in appointments and defend the government's policy. Other parties also play this game of pressure politics in the campus instead of being positive links between the university and society. In the process, the university's intellectual and social functions suffer.

Finally, we must take note of the subtle intellectual domination by ruling class ideas which pervades the disciplines. Selective western ideas are allowed to sweep through disciplines with State support. The behavioural movement in political science, functionalism in sociology, quantitative functionalism in economics, mysticism in philosophy are some examples from social sciences. Some colonial inheritance and some tradition legacies are strengthened, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by default. The international linkage both with the capitalist as well as the socialist worlds is used to patronise and support the prevailing trends. Sometimes controversies like the one on secular historiography, which are creative otherwise, are raised to settle factional scores, but intellectually the conservative ethos is supported by the State.

In all these trends the common theme is that a desperate State machinery, which feels insecure in the face of mounting opposition grabs, opportunities to use the agencies of communication towards its own end. If fully uses its legislative and executive powers but still finds them inadequate. So it resorts to political organisation within the campus. Knowing that knowledge itself is the source of threat, it wakes up to control the fountain.

The only way this process of State intervention can be halted is to make the university more intimately linked to society. If our pursuit of knowledge can convince the working people of the country that it is convince the working people of the country that it is purposive and scientific then they will elect a State which protects academic freedom. When we find popular support for university autonomy then the State will be pressurised to refrain from intervening. On the one hand, our intellectual endeavour must be of a quality that deserves support from people. On the other hand, it must contribute to creating social conditions which favour such pursuits of knowledge. Protecting academic freedom form the onslaught of the State and enriching it for the sake of human progress must become a pledge of every concerned individual.

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