The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

Romila-Thapar

There has been much outrage expressed, and quite rightly so, over the action taken some days ago by the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to ask Professor Emerita Romila Thapar for her CV to determine if she was still fit to hold that distinguished title which was conferred on her more than 25 years ago.  JNU has, since its inception, easily been one the country’s leading universities; and Professor Thapar, one can say with even greater certitude, has added more lustre to JNU than nearly anyone else in the humanities and social sciences, and that too over the course of half a century, including the 21 years that she was on its faculty from 1970-91.  Professor Thapar is recognized the world over for her scholarship on ancient Indian history, having earned accolades that most academics can only dream of, but in India she has also had an outsized presence as a prolific public intellectual.

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As a Professor Emerita, Thapar receives no salary from the university:  though she may gain something from this affiliation, it is the university that stands to profit from a continuing association with one of India’s most widely recognized scholars.  Emeritus Professors are not typically “evaluated” once they have been accorded that honor, though the JNU administration claims, quite falsely, that leading American universities subject Emeritus Professors to such reviews.  It is transparent to everyone that Thapar is being subjected to such an ignominious demand to punish her for her principled and fearless critiques of the Hindu nationalists who have run the country since the last five years and whose minions have been installed in many of the country’s leading educational and research institutions.  The JNU administration, in its defense, has pointed out that other Emeritus Professors have likewise been asked to submit their CVs for review by a committee appointed by the Academic Council, but these new “regulations” were put into place just weeks ago.  It is, of course, wholly disingenuous of the administration to camouflage its intense dislike of Thapar with the pretense that she was not being singled out for retribution.

It should be wholly unnecessary to come to the defense of Professor Thapar.  One might have some intellectual differences with her, as the present writer does, but nothing can even remotely justify the utterly shameless and wretched conduct of the university administration. It would be a considerable understatement to say that JNU has seen better days.  Its decline in recent years, more precisely since the administration was packed with people who are virtually illiterates, insofar as they are wholly clueless about what constitutes a university and what makes for something called “the life of the mind”, has been precipitous.  It speaks volumes for the senility of those charged with the administration of the university that its Vice Chancellor two years ago suggested that a battle tank be placed on the campus to instill “love for the army” among its students.  Faculty are increasingly being treated as children, subjected to roll-calls and being marked for “attendance”. Those among the faculty who are known to be critical of the university administration, or who have expressed misgivings about the ominous directions into which the country is being taken, are having their petitions for leave to attend conferences or deliver lectures denied.

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While it would be idle to pretend that public institutions such as JNU were ever free of politics, or that patronage systems did not flourish under previous administrations, leading public universities today face threats unlike any witnessed in the past.  The culture of vindictiveness, openly on display in the insult to Professor Thapar, is deplorable just as it is alarming.  But far more is at stake than a petty meanness on the part of the administration, and it is instructive to understand what makes the university a different kind of battlefield in the attempt of the Indian government to stifle all intellectual dissent.  If the assaults on the freedom of speech and expression are being experienced in other domains—in the literary world, in the attempts to induce conformity and patriotism in the film industry, in the vicious trolling of those few journalists who have dared to adopt a critical stance—then one might what ask what makes the assaults on public universities even more objectionable?

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“When I hear the word culture,” the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels is reported to have said, “I reach for my gun.”  (It is immaterial, I may add, whether the story is apocryphal; that Goebbels and his ilk were philistines is well-established.)  The contempt for intellectuals in the present Indian government runs very high, and those in public universities are especially vulnerable. What may be described as an unprecedented assault on universities such as JNU, which are all too easily seen (and accordingly punished) as bastions of “anti-national” activity, stems from something more than a virulent Hindu nationalism and the intolerance for dissent.  It is no surprise, for example, that the country’s educational administrators are people of intensely bureaucratic disposition and most often engineers and scientists by training, utterly lacking in humanistic education.  They reflect the values, too, of India’s burgeoning middle class, which generally sees education merely as an avenue to job procurement and as an investment that is likely to yield social and financial dividends, rather than as a social process leading to ethical thinking, self-reflexivity, intellectual growth, and an appetite for inquiry into the human condition.  It is not only the staff at Indian universities who do not understand what is meant by a “university”:  many of the administrators who run our universities, and who are willing to do the bidding of their political patrons, are singularly lacking in any understanding of the nature of intellectual work.  Thinking is alien to them.

What remains to be said at this juncture is that, whatever the sins of previous governments, and there are many, the present BJP-led government is driven by the ambition to gut the public university in India.  The two finest public universities in India, Delhi University and JNU, are being strangulated. The government is not unaware that public universities the world over have often been the sites of dissent, and l’affaire Romila Thapar, it is useful to recall, follows the strident and calumnious attacks three years ago on Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya for alleged anti-national activities. Though the administrators who run JNU will not say so openly, they evidently think that Professor Romila Thapar, who has brought more distinction to the study of Indian history than nearly any other historian, is also anti-national.  What could be more pathetic?  The decimation of public universities furnishes, as well, an opening to even greater privatization of higher education.  And what could be more desirable for a government that, notwithstanding all the noise about “swadeshi”, is openly in cahoots with the most self-aggrandizing capitalists that India has ever seen?  But that is another story.

(This is a very slightly modified version of what was published under the same title at ABP on 9 September 2019).

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11 thoughts on “The Assault on Public Universities and l’affaire Romila Thapar 

  1. I certainly agree with your assessment of this situation and with your discussion of the devaluation of education, to view it as simply a path to a job, an attitude that unfortunately exists in the Indian diaspora as well, and share your indignation about the insult to such a well known historian of India. However, I think it is also true that those like Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Bipan Chandra, etc who have written most of the history textbooks we read as children and have an undeniable reliance on Marxist and left-wing historiography created a type of monopoly over the discipline of Indian history for many decades. It is only now that newer perspectives have challenged the old dominant narrative, which was clearly also a nationalist project, attempting to show India’s precolonial past as the secular vision that postcolonial India strove for and casting the postcolonial Indian nation state as the obvious successor to the long history of Indian civilization. While I share your opposition to the Hindu right, I cannot help but think that their rise and attack on academia is the result of the failure of India’s (now defunct) secular establishment, of which Prof. Thapar was a large part, which ought to do a bit of introspection about the narrative of Indian history they attempted to shove down all our throats. This is, in some ways, the chickens coming home to roost and while I am saddened by it I cannot say it was unexpected.

    As for India’s humanistically illiterate engineers and scientists, perhaps we ought to make a rule that everyone, regardless of what they are studying, ought to take a core group of humanities and social sciences courses in Indian civilization, history, literatures and philosophy, as some colleges do in the US.

    • Let me first begin by saying that I do not entirely share Professor Thapar’s worldview and I hinted at that in my essay by pointing to some “differences”. But that is not germane to the issue at present and I think we should just be in agreement that the treatment meted out to her is deplorable and wholly unacceptable. Now, did JNU historians like her and Bipan Chandra monopolize the writing and study of Indian history? Hardly, I would say. Historians such as R. C. Majumdar, who would be viewed as right-wing (though I am reluctant to engage in such crude characterizations) occupied a considerable public presence. I would also have some hesitation in describing Bipan Chandra as an outright “Marxist”; he was always sympathetic to Gandhi, for instance, and is more properly seen as what in India is called left-nationalist. The point is that one could enter into these debates at some length. If the Hindu nationalists are furnishing “fresh” perspectives, I would welcome that; but, regrettably, I don’t even see any evidence of any thinking on their part. There is a genuine critique to be made of secularism, but this is not coming from the Hindu right since frankly they do not have the intellectual wherewithal to do any serious work. It is, in fact, partly Professor Thapar’s views of secularism with which I have considerable difference, but I taken up many of these issues in my “History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India” (Oxford UP, 2003; 2nd ed., 2005), which I invite you and others to read if you wish to engage further in these questions.

  2. What a prompt intervention sir. Reading your pieces has in fact become intrinsic to my journey from kashmir to JNU, through my MA and now M.Phil here. If you remember, I had thanked you for your video lectures which helped me a great deal during my MA entrance preparation for JNU. However, sir- things are getting really difficult for research and I’d like to apprise you of the same at some length.
    The CV thing is just one of the moments of a larger scheme of disdain for the intellectual trajectories so painstakingly undertaken by the scholars .

    • I am aware of some of what is happening at JNU through my friends and students and, as you may know, I am in Delhi frequently and get updates. But I would like to hear from you at length about your experience and what is transpiring at the university. You may write to me privately at vlal@history.ucla.edu or post your thoughts on this blog. If you write to me privately, I shall of course respect your confidence. Your journey from Kashmir to JNU also would interest me very much.

  3. Professor Lal,

    Though I must admit that I am not as versed in the scholarship of Professor Romila Thapar as I’d like to be, it is indeed sad to see a life surrendered to public service and to the stewardship of an honest Indian history slated by the political actors presiding over JNU. How tragic for India and for the world that the JNU administration believes their ephemeral political sensibilities to be worth defiling the honorable, eternal contributions to Indian scholarship made by Professor Romila Thapar.

    Thank you for defending the life of the mind.

    At the risk of sounding so preoccupied with myself so as to make your wonderful defense of Professor Romila Thapar about my own life, I must admit that I found comfort in this piece Professor Lal. As an undergraduate student, I have become increasingly bothered by an urge to become “productive.” I have battled away persistent anxieties about my decision to study history. As I read about youth trends in affluent sectors of the West, in Northeast Asia, and now in India, a desire to prove that I too can compete in global markets casts an ugly shadow over my study of history.

    However, I have learned to temper this impulse to join what has become a global rat race with such pieces as the one you have authored Professor Lal. Professor Romila Thapar has led a rich, substantive life, one far more deserving of taking inspiration from than the lives of individuals who feed the consumption habits which are causing our collective ruin.

    Again, thank you.

    Michael

    • The problems that afflict the Indian middle class are not wholly distinct to them. The tendency to view education merely as an instrument to “success” and a “good job” is, unfortunately, overwhelmingly present among American students. I see very few with any genuine interest in what I have called “the life of the mind”, and this is all the more astonishing given that American universities in principle still allow a latitude for exploration which is almost entirely absent in countries such as India where the course of study is, as a general rule, tightly structured. The so-called “world-class American university” is, for the most part, an utter disappointment.

  4. What is happening at JNU is analogous to what is happening across India’s institutions. As Aijaz Ahmed has written about the RSS, theirs is a civilizational project with branches for nearly each and every group that is part of the Hindu fold. It is an altogether different type of fascism. As he writes: “In this situation the proper stance is not: watch out, Nazis are coming. The real question is the one that Kalecki posed at the time of Goldwater’s bid for the US presidency in the 1960s: what would fascism look like if it came to a democratic industrialized country that had no powerful working-class movement to oppose it? That is the general question, and I think it applies with particular force to the India of today: the far right need not abolish the outer shell of the liberal democratic institutions because these institutions can be taken over by its own personnel altogether peacefully and because most others are quite willing to go along with it so long as acts of large-scale violence remain only sporadic and the more frequent low-intensity violence can be kept out of general view, by media monopoly combined with mutual agreement between liberalism and the far right. Meanwhile, the communists are now too small a force to be considered even for a ban. Of course, the question of fascism of the classical type may well resurface if a powerful socialist movement were to be re-founded, on whatever new premises and strategic perspectives that may now be necessary for that act of re-founding and reconstruction“

    • I am familiar with Aijaz Ahmad’s analysis but am not certain that the experience of the past is as much of a guide as we think it. But I do think he is fundamentally right, though he is scarcely the only reason to reach such a conclusion, that modern forms of fascism will not necessarily entail large-scale acts of violence. It is possible to subdue people, contain dissent, and maintain a rigorously authoritarian regime by inducing the consent of neo-liberals, middle-class elites, and the media. It also remains to be seen whether economic discontent, particularly if it becomes more intense and widespread, will spill-over into some form of rebellion.

  5. It is the lack of equity in the system that is the problem, everywhere in the world. When going to college is so expensive, both in terms of tuition and the opportunity cost, it is only the wealthy who can study subjects that do not lead to a job at the end, and even they are often pressured by their families to start earning as fast as possible. If we want the “life of the mind” to return, whether in India or elsewhere, we must make university education more accessible. In India, the universities that are somewhat affordable, such as JNU, have an admission rate that is so low that most students couldn’t dream of getting in. In such an economic situation, it is no wonder that the life of the mind has been de-emphasized. There are many bright young students with a passion for subjects like history who are prohibited from studying it by their parents, to whom they must listen as they are often funding their education. If they are not, they must take out loans and paying them back requiresa a good job. In any case, this is only part of what you have addressed in this article, but I truly feel that the push for STEM and business is due primarily to the inaccessibility of a university education. It is truly an evil.

    • Hi Raghavan, There is certainly some merit to your argument, but the unaffordability of university education has become a major issue in more recent years. Indian universities for decades charged virtually nothing and even back in the 1970s when people such as myself were about to start college the students were gravitating towards courses in engineering, science, and medicine. No, I’m afraid the problem runs much deeper than the lack of equity, though you are right in bringing that consideration into play. There has long been a supposition that subjects such as history, philosophy, and literature are “useless”. In good Indian schools, there was an assumption that boys, and certainly the manly ones among them, would take science (and later commerce) and that girls, and the effeminate boys, would take “arts”. I could complicate the picture in this fashion, but to understand why “the life of the mind” has been given short shrift in India (and, indeed, as much in the US where community college and state universities exist in huge numbers to provide the foundations of a decent education) we shall have to understand contemporary trends, some of which I identified in my article, among them the instrumentalization and privatization of education, as well as turning over everything to the managerial types.

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