PhD in “National Priority”: Why Does Every Indian Government Have a Beef with Academics?


PhD in “National Priority”: Why Does Every Indian Government Have a Beef with Academics?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, the American political theorist Hannah Arendt writes: “There is hardly a better way to avoid discussion than by releasing an argument from the control of the present and by saying that only the future will reveal its merits.” Arendt’s book, released back in 1951, is eerily analogous to the climate of India today, as suppressing and controlling the present – and the past – seems to have become a rule of thumb for the central government. A circular released by the Human Resource and Development ministry on March 13, apparently directed universities under the centre’s arm to admit students only if their PhD topics fall in line with “national priorities”. Citing the notice as “feudal”, on the 24th, Director at the Centre for Cultural Studies of the Kerala Central University, Meena T Pillai, resigned in protest.

The HRD ministry, however, backtracked on the circular, stating that it hadn’t issued any such directive, restricting the choice of research subjects, and that “national priority” had arisen from the minutes of a meeting with vice chancellors of different universities. Still, it did cause the high-profile resignation.

In an interview soon after her resignation, Pillai said, “Research has to happen in an atmosphere where you can think freely, dissent, and ask questions. All of these are important. So when you say national priority, whose priority becomes national priority?” Pillai’s resignation is only the latest fallout in a series of persistent attacks on India’s academic institutions – a gash made visible because of Pillai’s dissent. A great number of teachers, scholars, and students whose work and livelihood depend on the state’s funds have probably been forced into submission, their freedoms cut short by an idealistic pursuit of both intelligence and agenda.

Following Pillai’s resignation from the post, her university clarified that the circular had been misinterpreted. National interest, it said, is meant for the betterment of the nation. Such a misunderstanding sounds plausible until you consider the second, perhaps more ominous part of the circular – the part that says no “irrelevant” topics will be allowed, and that students will have to choose from a shelf of topics prepared beforehand. This take-it-or-leave-it strategy is primed to wrest control of spaces that are meant to question conservative visions.

In her interview, Pillai asked a pertinent question – whose priority becomes national priority? Or rather, whose idea of nationalism is the supposed basis here? Would a study of adivasi rights be considered a national priority, or as Pillai asks, “Could you do research on a small tribal community?” Surely not. It has been made clear over the last few years that India’s many religious and cultural minorities, especially the narrative of their past and present struggle, is an aspect of our history that governments of any persuasion would rather see banished from records. The NCERT has started to phase the struggles of the Dalit community out of their textbooks, while a significant chunk of Mughal history is being drained into the sewers of rejection. All of last year, there were reports of the Rajasthan government changing textbooks to reflect the majoritarian view.  

The browbeating of the academia, goes hand in hand with that of the press, and no government in power is alien to that.

But it’s unfair to blame just BJP governments for this anti-intellectual atmosphere. Author Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus, was pulped under UPA rule, even if the pressure came from Hindutva groups. The browbeating of the academia, goes hand in hand with that of the press, and no government in power is alien to that. As this 2013 article in The Mint reminds us, “Open magazine reported recently on how Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar would use the state government’s media spends to censor the news, calling him the ‘editor-in-chief’ of Bihar. Daily News & Analysis former editor-in-chief Aditya Sinha went on record about how the Union information and broadcasting ministry under Ambika Soni tried to arm-twist his newspaper, threatening to pull government ads if their coverage did not fall in line.” And then, of course, we have the Emergency.

Academics are nobody’s favourite people because they work on things that can neither be seen nor validated without the end result; a result that can range from minuscule to major, but is seldom credited to the brains behind it. As for research in the domain of cultural history, perhaps a country struggling with eternal issues like caste and the vagaries of what land belongs to what religion – Ayodhya, for instance – needs more research and study than ever to better understand historic maladies that continue to cripple us. Despite the line between fact and fiction disappearing (thanks, WhatsApp), undoing years of hard work that academics, scholars, and historians dedicate their lives to. To limit the purview of our academic pursuits to demand of it anything other than rigour and commitment borders on the dictatorial.

In 2015, scholar Ramchandra Guha wrote at length about India’s “missing” conservative intellectuals, attempting to answer the quandary of why “while the country has a right-wing party in power, right-wing intellectuals run thin on the ground.” Perhaps, this is an attempt to manufacture a few conservative intellectuals. If students, who eventually become teachers and professors, are limited to pursuing fields the party in power approves of, chances are that they will grow to become the mouthpiece of their governments.

The ruling party’s political blueprint, it has been evident, is not prepared with intellectuals in mind. Rather, the BJP’s contempt for academia and its methodical approach to problem-solving is a fairly established fact. Though Pillai claims in the interview that a number of universities have ignored the notice so far, the oppressive nature of the government’s directives to strangle a field it neither respects nor endorses is disquieting. The only surprise here then might be the timing, considering elections are just around the corner.