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ICSSR conflicts

Print edition : May 26, 2001 T+T-

Two Sangh Parivar affiliates are locked in a war within the Indian Council of Social Science Research in a bid to change the course of its scholarly activities.

NEVER before, it would seem, has any party in government in India made such a sustained effort to pack institutions under its control with people who subscribe to its own ideology, ignoring academic calibre and credentials. Ever since assuming office, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has reconstituted various committees in premier research institutions, including the Indian Council for Historical Research and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), or, as in the case of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), "taken over" as an institution. The latest controversy involving the Human Resource Development Ministry concerns the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR). The institution is in a state of chaos and siege, and the blatant manner in which the whole exercise has been undertaken has surprised the academic community.

The case of the ICSSR is peculiar in that it involves the conflicts and contradictions within the Sangh Parivar. The protagonists of the struggle are the Chairman of the institution, Manohar Lal Sondhi, who was appointed during the current dispensation, and the HRD Ministry, ostensibly with the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Sondhi, a former Indian Foreign Service officer and Jan Sangh Member of Parliament, was appointed Chairperson of the ICSSR soon after the BJP took over the reins in 1999. His appointment did not come as a surprise, for it was but expected that the government would choose someone who was ideologically close to it. Also, there were 12 vacancies in the governing body of the academic council, which the previous United Front government had left unfilled. Taking advantage of the vacuum created by its predecessor, the HRD Ministry under Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi nominated persons of its choice to the Council. While Sondhi was appointed by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, the majority of the governing council members were HRD Ministry nominees. The Council consists of a Chairman, 18 social scientists, six government representatives and a member-secretary. All the members are nominated by the government.

It was expected that the general ideological affinity would make the job comfortable for the Chairman. But it was not to be. Sondhi was never perceived as a Sangh Parivar faithful (Sondhi attributes this impression to his tenure at the Jawaharlal Nehru University), although he did his bit to make peace with the hardliners by regularly inviting their leaders to lectures and functions at the ICSSR. Soon it became clear that not everything was harmonious with the new team.

The ICSSR became witness to petty politicking and one-upmanship - nit-picking dominated the discourse - while academic and research issues took the back seat. Sondhi and seven of the Ministry nominees began adopting a confrontationist posture and this did not go unnoticed by the hardliners who accused Sondhi of using the ICSSR to promote himself and of using his apparent proximity to Vajpayee to browbeat the rest of the Council.

While the first meeting of the Council in July 2000 was largely uneventful, the same could not be said about a meeting on February 13. Ten members had on January 9 written to Sondhi seeking a special meeting of the Council. When this was raised on February 13, Sondhi insisted that the agenda for the special meeting be discussed first. He apparently tore up the letter given by the 10 members, sparking pandemonium, which resulted in members storming out of the meeting. Later, when the minutes of the meeting were circulated for approval, Council members rejected it on the grounds that the meeting was held without quorum. The meeting and the minutes thus became infructuous.

Resentment against Sondhi had been growing ever since he took over. Members complained that meetings were not being held regularly, while huge sums were spent to hold high-profile seminars and lectures.

On the other hand, Sondhi was finding it difficult to get funds released from the Ministry. Resentful of the pressure from the HRD Ministry, Sondhi wrote to the Prime Minister, first on April 3, saying that "the potential danger facing the ICSSR is now the gravest it has faced in 30 years", and again on April 18. In his second letter, he mentioned that a cabal of seven members - Dr. J.K. Bajaj, Director, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai; Professor R.N. Pal, Punjab University, Patiala; Professor S.K. Gupta, Vice-Chancellor, Himachal Pradesh University; Dr. N. Vijaya, Osmania University; Dr. S.U. Kamat, Chairman, Mythic Society, Bangalore; Dr. S.N. Navalgundkar, from Pune; and Dr. Sardindu Mukherjee from Delhi - had imperilled the status of the ICSSR, and hence he recommended their replacement. He stated that some of them were attempting not only to interrupt the institution's scholarly activities but to change radically the course and force it into "intellectual obscurantism".

He alleged that this group was seeking to pre-decide issues, and requested the Prime Minister's intervention to "end the state of siege". Sondhi also wanted it to be made clear "at the highest level" that scholarly research would not be subordinated to any political or ideological requirement. Sondhi also wrote to Murli Manohar Joshi in March about the obstacles created by certain disgruntled members, saying "a few members affiliated to a faction of a political wing are trying to dominate administration and dictate terms as to how I should run the Council." He also expressed his distress at a Joint Secretary in the Ministry seeking his explanations regarding his order for the revision of pay scales for the academic staff as per the Fifth Pay Commission recommendations. The Ministry told him to reverse the decision.

Sondhi also alleged that a certain extra-constitutional authority was calling the shots. (This was apparently a reference to Devendra Swaroop Aggarwal, an RSS old-timer and a columnist in Panchajanya, the RSS mouthpiece.) Swaroop denied any role in the ICSSR's matters, although he expressed concern over the direction in which the institution was headed. According to sources within the Council, Aggarwal had been invited by Sondhi to the ICSSR several times in the past. So, that they fell out with each other was baffling. Explaining his position to Frontline, Sondhi said that the HRD Ministry had been particularly unkind to the ICSSR. The number of government nominees on the Council should be reduced by half, and the 27 institutes funded by the ICSSR should be able to nominate members, he suggested.

There are close to 25 members on the governing body and the majority of them happen to be either government nominees or ex-officio members. "The nominee raj should end," Sondhi said, quite forgetting that he too is very much a political nominee. He said that he had suggested to the Council members that the ICSSR move more in the direction of policy making. But over time, he said he had realised that the Ministry was getting hegemonic. His request for two deputational posts - of a financial adviser and of a chief accounts officer - was turned down. The Personnel Department of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India said that no recommendation for the posts had come to them. The Ministry apparently had a role to play in this.

"I did not bargain for extra-constitutional authorities when I took over. No doubt I had been in a political party but I am an academic as well," Sondhi said. Matters came to a head when Prof. Kiran Saxena from the JNU offered to do a study on Hindutva and wanted to go to Stanford University. "I don't have much discretion but this group of seven raised such a hullabaloo." Saxena apparently went to Stanford finally but the entire episode and the manner in which the trip was managed left Sondhi with few supporters in the Council. Sondhi then held that his opponents within the Council wanted the editorial board of the ICSSR journal Indian Social Science Review to be reconstituted in order to accommodate people of their choice. The group of seven, Sondhi alleged, had held the Council to ransom on more than one occasion.

S.U. KAMAT, a member of this group, told Frontline over the phone from Bangalore that from the very beginning Sondhi had tried to sideline Council members. His intention, Kamat maintained, was to "monopolise" the Council. Kamat wanted to work on a project on oral history spanning one century, but Sondhi rejected the proposal. On January 9, he said some 12 members had sought the convening of a meeting to discuss the by-laws of the Council, but Sondhi instead called for a regular meeting on February 13.

Among other things the special council meeting was to discuss violation of rules by the chairperson. The dissenting members signed a memorandum seeking to prevent Sondhi from spending funds without the Council's approval, but he tore it up. "He never asked any of us to present any papers. He does not have an economics, sociology or any social science background and does not know a thing about local economic problems," said Kamat. On the question of the RSS' interference in the Council's affairs, Kamat retorted that Sondhi was chosen only because of his BJP background. "What business does he have blaming the RSS?" Kamat asked.

Dr. Partha Ghosh, one of the directors of the ICSSR, feels that much of the controversy over saffronisation was inherent in the Council's circumstances. The government of India, he told Frontline, had always controlled the selection of the ICSSR's governing body. Autonomy was a chimera. What was unfortunate was that none, either in the Ministry or in the Council, had understood what ailed the ICSSR, he said. "The only person who realised this structural lacuna was the previous Chairman, Prof. D.M. Nanjundappa. He strove for a formal representation of the ICSSR professionals in the governing body but the Ministry turned it down."

Ghosh recently wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly lamenting the non-appointment of a regular member-secretary for the Council. Now, for the first time, a non-academic, Bhaskar Chatterjee, a Joint Secretary in the HRD Ministry, has been appointed to this post. The rules lay down that the member-secretary should be a distinguished social scientist, Ghosh said.

Another long-standing problem has been the steady reduction in project grants since 1997. While a sanctioned budget of Rs.40 lakhs for project grants exists, the ICSSR has not been able to spend this amount. In addition, the irregular release of non-Plan funds committed to the ICSSR affected salary payment. The Ministry was adamant that the ICSSR revoke all promotions before it could lay its claim to non-Plan funds.

Another academic, Dr. Partho Mukherjee, Director of the Council for Social Development, feels that the ICSSR had been the epitome of autonomous research in the country, and that that structure should be maintained. He told Frontline that while there was talk of evolving a national policy on social science, it would be disastrous if there were designs behind social sciences. The tradition of selecting the best social scientists to the governing body was established by J.P. Naik, who became the first member-secretary of the ICSSR when it was set up in 1969. Even that criterion has now been ignored.

In what he calls a move to create space for the ICSSR, Sondhi has announced the setting up of two committees. One of them, set up in March, is headed by retired Delhi High Court Judge V.K. Bahri. The purpose of this committee will be to examine and review the Council's functioning and see to it that it conforms to the Constitution. The other committee, headed by Prof. Y.K. Alagh and with Prof. Janak Pandey as member-secretary, will review the work of the ICSSR during the last decade and suggest programmes for the next 10 years.

The crisis is not over yet. The situation in the ICSSR is but a reflection and an extension of the conflict between the BJP and the RSS. For the hardliners, it is a case of "their own nominee" having let them down. It is evident that Sondhi's move to distance himself from the RSS has not been welcomed. Substantively, the approaches of the BJP and the RSS towards academic institutions have never been at variance with each other. What is lamentable is that the ICSSR has become the murky ground for internecine battles in the Sangh Parivar.