Universities failed to educate Indians on the idea of India: An excerpt from the Idea of a University

19 January, 2019

The Idea of a University, a compilation of essays by teachers and academicians, is a book “located in this particular moment of history, when universities are coming to terms with the demands of nationalism,” writes Apoorvanand, the editor of the book, who is a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi. As campuses become increasingly prominent political battlegrounds, the essays in the book seek to examine a range of subjects that concern these spaces, from the current challenges to academic freedom, the history and evolution of Indian universities, the role of educational institutions and impact of market forces, among others.

In the following excerpt, Mohammad Sajjad, a professor of history at the Aligarh Muslim University, analyses the “social histories” of the academies of higher learning in a bid to trace the evolution of the challenges facing India’s universities. Charting the decline of rural and district-level institutions as a “linear progression of migrations for better quality institutions,” Sajjad rues the ruination of provincial universities by casteism, communalism and the insular self-interests of academics. Questioning the relevance of India’s elite institutions to the social and economic challenges facing Indian societies, Sajjad writes that the lack of socially relevant research and teaching has contributed in part to society’s disaffection with “our respectable institutions.”

Expansion in the number of universities has happened more in response to the need to become socially inclusive. Simultaneously, it has also asserted the needs of the heterogeneities with regard to the purpose behind setting them up. For instance, some universities have been set up with region-specific concerns of research, enrolments and recruitments, besides undertaking documentation of ethnographic details—customs, traditions, socio-economic and educational status, dialects, languages, etc—of the local communities.

To ensure all these, the universities enjoy autonomy. Nevertheless, when few historic universities came to be identified with certain grossly under-represented social groups or identities, they started facing a lot of trouble and opposition from various ideological groups. They questioned the raison d’être of such universities. They are facing existential threats and are under tremendous pressure to shed their specificities. Heterogeneities of the academic and social purposes of such universities, despite very few in numbers, are sought to be subsumed and assimilated by proposing to legislate a homogenous, single act for all such centrally-funded universities. Such an onslaught of a demand for homogeneity has not come only from the right-wing forces, but also from the left, liberal and progressive forces in India. This obsession for hegemonic homogeneity needs to be resisted at this point of time more fiercely than ever before in the journey of our republic. As put more candidly by Satish Deshpande, “Public university is more important now than ever before. It is the critical site where the future of the social justice agenda will be decided, and the fate of this agenda, in turn, will decide whether we have any future at all as a democratic republic.”

In the 1970s, when the Emergency was imposed, and now under the present dispensation, the premier universities have begun to face a lot of adversities and persecutions. In the name of “patriotism”, the students and academics are subjected to witch-hunts. Many provocative falsehoods are attributed to the free-thinking minds. With these falsehoods, society is misleadingly persuaded to stand in violent hostilities against the students and academics. There is an onslaught of muzzling the dissent; an atmosphere of fear and intimidation is killing the creativities of writers, of academics and even of young minds.

The moot question is: how did we reach such a grim situation? How did the larger society get alienated against our respectable institutions and the regressive political and cultural forces begin to prevail over the society? How did these politicians, rather than the knowledge producers and disseminators, succeed in persuading the society? This calls us all the more for much deeper introspection.

To my little understanding, part of the reason is: with the expanding social base of the campuses, the pre-existing upper-caste elites felt threatened about their pre-eminence in the sphere of knowledge. Our practices of knowledge production and dissemination have remained woefully inadequate on challenging the status quo.

Just one instance: Bihar has always been identified as more regressive about upper-caste hegemony than other states. Yet, the premier and the oldest college of north Bihar, founded in 1899 by a caste association, “Bhumihar-Brahman Sabha,” in collaboration with the Bihar Scientific Society of Muzaffarpur (established in 1868), and later named after Langat Singh (1850–1912), does not offer a course in sociology and anthropology, as yet. It was only in the 1980s that a lesser-known college of Muzaffarpur came up to offer an undergraduate course in sociology. Did the universities of Bihar promote studies and research on flood-control, on rural distress, on agrarian improvements, on limits and failures of the municipal systems and urban planning, on development studies with a perspective of sensitising the people on regional imbalances, on caste-based oppressions and violence?

On the interregional and intra-regional imbalances, when Bihar was characterised as “Internal Colony” of independent India, a study (1973) came out of a non-academic socialist thinker, Sachidanand Sinha, rather than from the teachers on the payroll of a university. How many of the regional universities undertake research on letting off the ones who were directly, as well as indirectly, involved in the communal violence of the colonial and post-Independence eras? How many of these universities, till the 1980s, really had centres for studies about Dalits, tribes, gender and religious-linguistic minorities? We have studies on the Dalit community of Musahars, but these are not from the universities of Bihar. Such studies come out more from certain kind of NGOs engaged in research and documentation. Most of the researches funded by the UGC fail the rigours of top-tier journals.

In Uttar Pradesh, there are 66 communities of Dalits. Of these, most of the Dalit communities have not been studied by the social anthropologists of the government universities of Uttar Pradesh. In fact, socio-anthropological studies about Indian castes took place more in the USA. Even the micro areas of political studies, such as subjects like election studies and psephology, and social complexities involved in electioneering processes and outcomes thereof, have originated more in the USA and elsewhere, than in the Indian universities.

The Rajendra Agricultural University (Pusa, Bihar) could never show any significant output on research on bananas of Hajipur, on lychees of Muzaffarpur; flood resistant varieties of rice crops could not be developed.

Similarly, did the IITs devise and invent vehicles of low fuel consumption? Did they come out with kitchen utensils, such as bread-bakers, microwave ovens, pressure cookers, or any such devices which could consume less energy and could save cooking time? The IITs came to stand for a means of upward mobility of select individuals, who rose up the career ladder by getting employed abroad. In common perception, the academics of these elite institutions are and were perceived to be least relevant socially.

An instance of socially relevant research and teaching is pertinently relevant here. Professor Shakeelur Rahman (1931–2016), former vice chancellor in two universities of Bihar, and former union health minister, in his Urdu memoir Aashram, recalls that when he was doing his undergraduate studies from Munshi Singh College, Motihari, it had offered economics as a subsidiary. For this course, it was mandatory to have a month-long field trip in a village of Champaran. With this, he had to write a dissertation on the economy of the village. This is how documentation of rural distress used to be prepared. We need to ponder, from that kind of rigour, where we have now slipped down.


there are still a few university institutions in which standards of teaching and research are maintained at a fairly high level, but none of the older universities are any longer in the forefront. In an increasing number of them, hardly any research worth the name is done, and even the regularity and routine of ordinary classroom teaching are often dispensed with. In the majority of state universities, virtually the entire budget goes into salaries and other establishment charges, with hardly anything left over for libraries and laboratories. Standards and facilities for undergraduate teaching in many universities are often below what may be found in the better schools in the country.

Andre Beteille, 2010

Moreover, whatever relevant researches some of the writers, journalists, activists and academicians have produced are, and were, mostly in the English language, and hence have a limited reach. These articulations should have been brought out in the vernacular as well. The vernacular spaces came to be filled mostly by the reactionary forces. Zoya Hasan has demonstrated how the Uttar Pradesh polity and society were communalised through some of the major Hindi dailies, since the 1980s. Even elsewhere, for instance in Turkey, as articulated by Jenny White, the Islamist takeover took place predominantly because of a long term, sustained Islamisation of the vernacular spaces.

After Independence, not a single high school and college was set up by the state government in Bihar. The landlord politicians opened it up, recruited their specific caste-men from top to bottom, and got these colleges taken over by the government. Thus, these recruitments had almost a 100 percent reservation for the specific upper castes. About Uttar Pradesh, a government report by JP Naik in 1961 declared that the government may have theoretically abolished zamindari on land, but in its place, a zamindari in education has been created. Yet, these very castes-classes were so very vehement in opposing the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1990–91. They were now invoking the arguments of meritocracy. These landed upper-caste elites obtained degrees in medicine and technology through “capitation” fee at the cost of genuine meritocracy. But conveniently forgetting these aspects, they protested that doctors and engineers produced through caste-based quotas will be a menace to the nation. Such duplicities have had their impact.

Because of these, we failed to educate Indians on the idea of India. The partisan and outrageous manners of recruitments, promotions, publications and enrolments all contributed towards an ever growing discredit of the academics and academies.

This is an edited excerpt from The Idea of a University, edited by Apoorvanand and published by Context.