University and pluralism

The idea of the university and its enemies

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Ruins of the ancient Nalanda university. A 2006 photograph. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Ruins of the Vikram-shila university, now in Bihar. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Why does the university matter? It matters because in the present state of affairs the university represents the idea of pluralism, an inclusive approach to the oppressed communities, tolerance of diversity of views, and the possibility of argumentation without resort to coercion and violence.

In the multiplicity of crises we encounter today, a crisis that has moved to a central position receives surprisingly little attention in the public and media discourse. This is the fact that the idea of the university is in danger. A focus on the immediate problems in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or the University of Hyderabad or other institutions of higher learning is of course necessary, but beyond that there are more deep-seated issues and problems of longer range which concern the threat to the very idea of the university.

Why does the university matter? It matters because in the present state of affairs the university represents the idea of pluralism, an inclusive approach to the oppressed communities, tolerance of diversity of views, and the possibility of argumentation without resort to coercion and violence. (Needless to say, we are considering here the idea of the university as distinct from the university as an institution; not all universities, nor all the institutional features within each, would reflect the basic idea of the university in the same degree.) Those who are opposed to these values would inevitably try to destroy the university; those who wish to uphold these values must stand by and defend the university against those enemies. The values we are looking at here are not values in some vaguely ethical or spiritual sense, but essential resources in building democracy. Therefore, the confrontation has a significance in national life beyond the portals of the universities.

When a governing regime fails to curb terrorism threatening the nation in the favourite haunts of terrorists, it will turn to target the students of universities elsewhere, for they are a soft target. Further, when such a regime fails to mobilise popular support for its divisive creed, it may try to dress itself up in the respectable clothing of “nationalism”. If election promises remain unrequited, to distract public attention a regime may switch to an agenda of kulturkampf, cultural warfare. That is perfectly understandable and should surprise no one who knows that it is part of predatory politics. But why is the university vulnerable, why does it appear fragile, why is it an easy prey for predatory politicians who care not the least bit for the values the university stands for?

The reason is that the university is by virtue of its foundational principle open to all, porous at the boundaries, liberal in allowing differences to proliferate, and without a well-defined code of conduct that carries a substantial measure of penalties upon its violation. That is what the university is about. And that makes it a “soft” institution in society, unlike “hard” institutions like the corporate business sector or some segments of the government. One is reminded of the contradistinction made by political scientists between “soft states” and “hard states”. There are proponents of the view that the universities should forget about freedom, openness, tolerance and all that—or at least partially modify those ideas in order to emulate the “hard” institutions. However, it may be argued that such emulation to make the university a “hard” institution would diminish the university. Arguably, the idea of the university destines it to be a soft institution, and it should be ready to pay what that costs in terms of vulnerability to turbulence and even inimical attacks.

There is another reason why the university is vulnerable: the willingness of those in the lead at these institutions to bend their knees to the powers that be. This is a legacy of colonial times and the universities which were first created in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1858 were, after all, colonial creations. Their statutes as well as their financial dependence on the colonial government subjected the university authorities to governmental hegemony. In Europe in early modern times, endowments by kings and burghers ensured economic independence to the old universities. In Europe the Christian tradition of separating the sacred and the secular gave the university, initially in the Church’s domain, another kind of independence. Further, the intellectual revolution accompanying the European “Science Revolution” of the 17th century and the French Revolution of 1789 made a difference in terms of the autonomy of intellectual enterprises. Denied such advantages, the colonial universities did not develop a culture of autonomy. Matters remained roughly the same even after 1947 because the statutory structure remained much the same in terms of relationship between governmental authority and the university as a corporate body. Likewise, the financial dependence of the university on governmental funding persists. Hence, it depends on the inclination and ability of the individual head or members of the university to find how far one could go in search of autonomy.

Some Western observers have speculated that India’s own cultural tradition was hostile to the development of the autonomous university and that the university as we know it was after all only a colonial implantation. This view is difficult to accept. The idea of the university was not altogether unknown in pre-colonial India. I will not burden this brief essay with a compilation of the information that Indologists such as A.S. Altekar and R.K. Mookerji have discovered. Consider just one artefact from ancient India discovered by archaeologists—the official seal of the school or seat of learning known as Nalanda. The seal bears the words “Sri Nalanda Mahavihara Arya Bhikshu Sanghasya”. This is translated as the seal “of the venerable community of the monks in the great Nalanda vihara”. Here there is a notion of a corporate body of monks and men of learning; the community was sustained by the grant of land by kings, donations by merchants, and so on, allowing the community a degree of autonomy. Nalanda in Bihar, Taksha-sila in Punjab and Vikram-shila in western Bengal were perceived, as recorded by foreign travellers like Fa Hien in the fifth century A.D. and Hiuen Tsang in the seventh century A.D., almost as autonomous principalities. Moreover, regardless of the faith of the kings who patronised these seats of learning, both Buddhist and Brahmanical philosophy, logic, law, and other disciplines were taught by the scholars. The autonomy of the seat of learning was a characteristic not only of the Buddhist tradition. There is ample evidence that the “asrama” was regarded as a space beyond the domain of royal power in the Hindu tradition as well. The “asramas” were located in remote forested areas, and there is evidence of the veneration of the ruling class for the supposed sanctity of that space. While it will be historically inaccurate to exaggerate the separateness and independence of the “asrama” and later the “sangha”, these were certainly characteristics that went into the making of a tradition of a kind of corporate autonomy. So far as the Buddhist centres of learning were concerned, there was also an effort to transcend ethnic boundaries. There is evidence that in Nalanda, for instance, students from Java, China and Tibet were admitted. This admirable trait was, however, not seen in the Hindu seats of learning due to the well-known Brahmanical prejudices; however, exchange of scientific knowledge seems to have taken place with the Greeks and the Arabs.

Thus there was in India a political culture of according the seats of learning a measure of autonomy. In their history and tradition there were shortcomings that cannot be ignored. Consider, for instance, the failure of the institutions of higher learning in pre-colonial India to become inclusive towards the disprivileged castes and tribes. Further, when one looks at Europe, one realises the want of continuity in the Indian institutions, the inability of the institutions of higher learning to sustain their enterprise. Many of the universities founded in Europe, from the foundation of the university of Padua in the 11th century onwards, created a tradition of continuity through various changes, internal and external to them, right up to recent times. The presence of the Church possibly helped in the early stage, as much as the enlargement of the resource base due to Europe’s imperial expansion over the globe from the 16th century onwards.

The Indian historical experience was different. There did develop many seats of learning, Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim, in different parts of the subcontinent, but reversals originating in change in political regimes, sectarian conflict, and denial of patronage did not permit the kind of institutional continuity European universities enjoyed. By the middle of the 19th century, it will be only a slight exaggeration to say that the “sangha” had been totally forgotten, the “asrama” was a mere word in old texts, though its lesser cousins in tols and chatuspathis as well as Islamic madrassas survived, in a poor state. Hence there was a disjuncture in the continuity of tradition, and the colonial intervention in the form of statutory universities swept all before it. We have to live with the institutional form that universities have had since 1858. But it is interesting to reflect on the fact that that in our times the politicians claiming an exclusive franchise to uphold Indian culture and tradition choose to ignore the Indian tradition of conceding the seats of learning a kind of autonomy.

Apart from the autonomy of the university vis-a-vis the political power of the day, the idea of the university includes what Rabindranath Tagore, during his debates with his friend and adversary in debate, Mahatma Gandhi, called the “Swaraj of the mind”. The university is a body with an ascertainable “general will”. And that general will is sometimes silenced by a small vocal minority. When the university community allows that to happen, each member of the university is failing to perform his or her duty to the institution and to the very idea of the university. Those who rise to the defence of the university perhaps need to be alert to the need to prepare the university to become, within the given laws and regulations, a self-governing community. This is as important as protecting the idea of the university from external enemies.

Given the pattern of university politics today, we need to remind ourselves that freedom of thought and expression within the university needs to be carefully nurtured and protected by the university community itself. I recall a historic example. It is an event recorded by Krishna Kripalani, who was a student at Rabindranath Tagore’s university and later a prominent intellectual in national life, the Chairman of the National Book Trust, a member of the Rajya Sabha, etc. During the Non-cooperation Movement, Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi differed on several political issues, including the boycott then effected in many educational institutions at the call of Gandhi. Kripalani writes in his biography of Tagore: The university Tagore founded was in turmoil. “The students’ union had organised a public debate on the merits of Gandhi’s appeal for non-co-operation and had requested Tagore to preside. He did. After a long debate wherein one set of speakers spoke for the Mahatma’s point of view and another for Tagore’s, when the votes were taken it was found that the former had won by a majority. In his presidential remarks Tagore said that nothing could have made him happier than the result of the debate, for it had vindicated his basic principle of education. He had taught his students not to conform but to think freely for themselves.”

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, formerly Professor of History at JNU and Chairman, ICHR, was also Vice-Chancellor, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan.

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