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.