What the Gujarat Government’s decision to dictate PhD topics says about the nature of Higher Education

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Youth volunteers conducted Path Sanchalan procession in Allahabad. Amar Deep/ Pacific Press/ Corbis/ Getty Images
09 May, 2016

In a bizarre case of government imposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Gujarat dispensation has drawn up a mandatory list of 82 topics that  PhD students in state universities have to research for their doctoral theses. Each state university has been asked to ensure that a student selects at least five topics from the government-approved list. Not surprisingly, this intellectually whittled down catalogue includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet high-profile project Swachh Bharat Abhiyan as well as model schemes like Kanya Kelavani (encouraging the education of girls), Gunotsav (improving primary education) and MA Yojana (a health coverage scheme for the poor), run by the Gujarat government.

The list reads like a training manual for a regimen of bureaucrats rather than research material for scholars and intellectuals. If the government has its way, PhD scholars—regardless of their specific intellectual inclinations—will be forced to research utilitarian topics such as the following: “A comparative study of Sardar Patel Awas Yojna and Indira Awas Yojana”; “Education of minorities—A critical study”; “Gujarat: Good governance for growth, scientific management and development—A critical study of existing pattern and future course, Policy suggestions (sic)”; “Mutual cooperation among states action plans and comparative analysis of strategies for development—A Gujarat Model”; and “Comprehensive analysis of growth of water in seven reservoirs of Saurashtra through SAUNI Yojana.”

It would appear that the BJP government wants scholars to serve as adjuncts of state administrations, feeding into the governance and policymaking machine with their research. As a senior official in the state higher education department said, the idea is to ensure critical evaluation of the government programmes. PhD students do indeed often voluntarily choose to research the implications of landmark policies and their impact on the lives of people. For instance, West Bengal’s erstwhile Left Front government’s much talked about Operation Barga—an agrarian reform policy aimed at empowering sharecroppers—has been a popular subject of research among PhD scholars. As have been subjects that deal with policy-driven projects revolving around the environment, poverty, urban-rural dichotomy, etc. And of course, research on these important subjects often produces academic work of stellar intellectual quality even if—or more likely because—it does not serve a government agenda.

The bottom line in higher education research is and should be defined by academic autonomy. It is and should be solely the scholar’s prerogative to choose the subject of their doctoral thesis. Their autonomy in the intellectual sphere is sacrosanct and any form of interference from the university management—let alone political bodies—poses a serious threat to intellectual freedom. The privileging of intellectual autonomy over any other interest remains the hallmark of good scholarship.Coercing universities into undertaking a specific kind of basic, functional research, which the government considers productive for policymaking, is nothing but vulgarising scholarship.

Clearly, the Gujarat state as well as central government, as recently evident in the agitations across the country’s universities, are out of their depth in dealing with matters of education—particularly higher education. Nearly two years into governance, a defining trait of the Modi regime has been its singular lack of comprehension regarding what universities represent and what academic culture stands for. The ruling party’s propensity, willful or otherwise, to treat centres of higher education as bureaucratic fiefdoms is indicative of the party’s and its government’s failure to distinguish between a university classroom and an army barrack, between the intellectual temper of a scholar and the bureaucratic temper of a government officer, or the obedient temper of a state functionary. This perception of the ruling party’s alienation from the intellectual world is further fortified by the Gujarat government’s recent policy intrusions.

Consider for instance, the statement made by AU Patel, former Gujarat University Vice Chancellor (GU) and adviser to the knowledge consortium of Gujarat, which furnishes ideas to improve quality of education and frame education policies. A Times of India report on 26 April quoted Patel as saying: “With this initiative [the government’s list of PhD topics], there would be some relevant hypothesis available for PhD theses.”

It’s plausible to argue that the BJP’s lack of imagination and its distorted pedagogy in higher education is inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s militaristic, disciplinarian idea of institutions. The BJP seems incapable of separating universities from shishu mandirs—schools run by the RSS, where children are taught only one idea of politics, religion and society. The university, which is a site for engaging with multiple and often contradictory ideas, stands at the opposite end of this spectrum. The Sangh’s intellectual philosophy is predicated upon the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-disciple tradition) which demands unequivocal loyalty from the shishya, or the disciple.

It’s relevant in this context to recall how Human Resource Development (HRD) minister Smriti Irani responded to the Jawaharlal Nehru University crisis in Parliament on 24 February. Speaking at the end of a day-long debate, throughout her speech Irani addressed the PhD scholars—Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Rohith Vemula—as “children,” denying them any agency as independent thinkers or actors. “I look at this child who has been mobilised as a weapon against the State. This is a child who does not have an idea that India is one, but a child who must have been infected with this thought. By those who want to bear arms to overthrow the state. It bears the name of Kanhaiya Kumar, Shaila Rasheed, Rama Naga - they are all members of the student union,” Irani said in her response.

Now that it is in power at the centre, the BJP is working on a mission. The party wants universities to imbibe the RSS’s culture of nation building—whether by flying the tricolour on central university campuses, steamrolling their curricula, or dictating terms of research to PhD scholars. The party believes it is the nationalistic duty of scholars to produce research work that can help in nation building, and is relevant to government policies. Such a culture of academic conscription is reminiscent of military conscription, under which every scholar is perceived to be a soldier tasked with nation-building.

It is this demand for unquestioning loyalty and obedience that’s fueling more and more confrontations with the academic communities in universities across India. It may be important in this context to return to the original idea of a university—how philosophers and educationists across the world imagined the institution to be. How they considered the institution to be not just engaged in transmitting existing knowledge but also to create new knowledge. As sites of creativity, dissent, and fearless thought.