Of ethical illiteracy

Ira Pande

IT’s been a long time since I gave up being a university teacher but my interest in and respect for academia remains. These days I feel concerned at what is happening on campuses across India and wonder where state interference and a cynical dismantling of academic autonomy will lead us. We all seem to have forgotten that university campuses have always buzzed with student activity and radical thinking: in some cases, such movements are based on genuine local demands (more seats for economically challenged students or more hostels for girls), while in others they are a show of solidarity with universal issues. These can range from political events in another country (Vietnam in the ’60s), human rights violations (the Rohingya in Myanmar), religious fundamentalism (Yemen and sub-Saharan African theocratic states) or a positive movement for universal peace and harmony (the anti-nuke rallies of the ’80s). Right through our own university days, we were enthusiastic participants in all such stirs. We attended student rallies and lustily raised slogans against injustice without fear of being punished for voicing such concerns.

In those days, university authorities took a more benign view of student activities. At worst, the university was closed sine die until tempers subsided or matters were resolved between student leaders and the authorities, without calling in the police and marching us off to jail. It was accepted that young men and women would react emotionally to issues close to their hearts so the administration would allow us our space. Over time, all this changed radically. In the ’60s itself, Delhi University and Calcutta’s Presidency College were in the forefront of the Naxal movement, spearheaded by the Left parties. Several brilliant students went underground only to realise soon enough that the high-minded support for the peasants of the Naxalbari area degenerated into something else. In a certain sense, Bengal never recovered from that dark time when factories were shut down, rich landlords and industrialists were targeted and often brutally killed. Predictably, the state swung into action and hundreds of students lost their lives or disappeared from the streets, never to be seen again. The famous Presidency College was depleted of its best and brightest students as anxious parents sent their wards to colleges elsewhere to protect them. A flourishing economy was reduced to a state it has never been able to recover from.

Few students now remember that time and the harm it did to West Bengal. The flight of a generation of bright young men and women, the lumpenisation of politics and the imposition of Bengali as the medium of instruction in state schools had long-term consequences that are emerging now as the election there draws nearer. It is ironic that while most well-known universities abroad have outstanding Indian academics (many of them Bengalis), our own country is rapidly being depleted of the few noble teachers who have opted to teach here. The witch-hunting of those who write critical articles or teach radical theories is like a déjà vu of what was done by misguided state apparatchiks in times past. In any case, we have somehow mastered the art of reducing schools and universities to teaching shops but now, even teachers are being targeted.

Ashoka University had emerged as a beacon of excellence in the last few years, largely due to the open, liberal atmosphere it promoted. Its faculty members were the best to be found anywhere in India. Added to that was the welcome return of the liberal arts into the mainstream of academic life. No longer were bright students going to cram shops to clear the IIT entrance or competitive exams for medical colleges. Opening up their minds and eyes to the great need for a social awakening among youth was encouraging philanthropists to set up great new universities that encouraged them to read political science, philosophy and sociology. This is why the abrupt departure of two highly regarded faculty members from Ashoka in a couple of days has shaken all those who looked forward to a new chapter in India’s higher education.

After the downgrading of iconic institutions such as Jamia and JNU, it was being hoped that these brave new campuses — free of government grants and bullying — would birth a new generation of students who went to universities to learn to become better citizens. After this new development, one is almost afraid of what lies in store for similar campuses across the country.

There are stirrings of protest both among the student bodies and progressive circles in India. However, this determined hounding of those who think differently and try to teach an alternative truth is now so feared that it may not become the pressure point on the government that it promises. I hope I am proved wrong.

As a one-time teacher, I pray that better sense prevails and that we do not descend into the abyss of moral illiteracy, unable to distinguish between what is right and what is dangerous for our fragile democracy. Vocational education has its own place but the greatest civilisations were nurtured by an education that provided them the right values and ethical perspectives. Those who destroy education are mankind’s worst enemies.

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