The manner in which the four-decades-old Gandhian Institute of Studies has been left in financial and administrative limbo for the past four years is a pointer to the increasing erosion of the autonomy of academic institutions under the present political dispensation.
THE autonomy of academic institutions has never been eroded to such an extent as it has today. Although the degree of autonomy enjoyed by institutions dependent on government grants varied from time to time, their overall sanctity has never been violated so badly. For more than four years now, the Varanasi-based Gandhian Institute of Studies (GIS) has been virtually under a financial siege, engaged as it is in a battle of attrition with the Human Resource Development Ministry. On June 27, when six eminent academicians, most of them sociologists, came out in support of the grant-starved GIS, a ray of hope seemed to have emerged for the troubled institute.
The 21-member Board of Management of the 40-year-old institute, founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, has been at loggerheads with the Ministry over the issue of control of the institute. For the Gandhians on the board, it has been a question of preventing the takeover of the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Apparently, the Ministry's decision to take on the institute was sparked off by the suspension and subsequent termination of faculty member Kusum Lata Kedia.
In dealing with the GIS, the Ministry has ignored all democratic norms. Funds were stopped after 1999 following complaints of financial irregularities. The GIS did not receive the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) grant and was deprived of the matching grant from the Uttar Pradesh government. However, an inquiry instituted by the ICSSR was unable to point out any serious evidence of financial malfeasance. Although the renewal of the institute's registration was challenged, it was stayed by the Allahabad High Court recently. All the audit objections that were made seem to have been cleared. But financial constraints have been affecting the payment of salaries, grant of retirement benefits and funding of research. Several faculty positions remain unfilled.
But the most peculiar aspect in the issue has been the role played by the ICSSR, which has been effectively used by the Ministry to starve the GIS of funds. Deeply perturbed by the state of affairs in the GIS and the arbitrary and partisan role enacted by the Ministry and the ICSSR, the six academicians issued a statement deploring the Council for trying to take over the institution. The signatories included Ashis Nandy, former Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Dhirubhai Sheth, eminent sociologist, T.N. Madan, former Member-Secretary of the ICSSR, Andre Beteille, a national fellow of ICSSR, A. Vaidyanathan, former Director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and veteran political scientist Rajni Kothari.
Their statement was prompted by a missive sent by ICSSR Member-Secretary Bhaskar Chatterjee to D.S. Bagga, Chief Secretary to the Uttar Pradesh government, and Anil Sant, District Magistrate, Varanasi, in February 2003, claiming that the institute was located on government land and that all its assets, including the building, had been created from government grants. This claim, according to a Board member, was patently false as the land belonged to the Sarwa Seva Sangh, which had purchased it from the Railways and leased it out to the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi in 1960. The Smarak Nidhi had spent money for the construction of the institute.
According to Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Award winner and member of the GIS Board of Management, the institute had functioned from 1960 to 1977 without any government aid. Pandey has resolved to resist the takeover. He is fighting back by rallying Gandhians, young and old, in order to save the institute. The Uttar Pradesh unit of the National Alliance for People's Movements (NAPM) has extended its support to the struggle.
In his letter to the District Magistrate, Bhaskar Chatterjee suggested that he contact "Acting Director" Kusum Lata Kedia as the ICSSR was receiving disturbing information that some of the moveable properties were being removed illegally from the premises, causing substantial loss to the Central and State governments. The mention of Kusum Lata Kedia as the Acting Director was strange, because the GIS Board had removed Kedia from service in August 2002. The usage was deemed improper as the ICSSR did not have the mandate to appoint directors of autonomous institutes, even if they happened to be funded by it.
Said Sheth: "The ICSSR has no business to do what it is doing. The Council gives a block grant, which is not for maintenance but for institutional purposes. The ICSSR cannot close the institution or change the Director. It is almost like the regime-change policy of George Bush." The central issue, Sheth said, was the autonomy of self-managed institutions. Like most autonomous institutes, the GIS was accountable only to its Board and to the grant givers insofar as the terms and conditions of the grants.
The ICSSR has termed the concerns expressed by the academicians as "misplaced". Responding to the concern raised by them, ICSSR Director Ranjit Sinha wrote that the grants to the Varanasi institute were discontinued on the grounds of serious irregularities, maladministration and financial impropriety. He added that the registration of the institute had been forfeited and unless the ICSSR was satisfied that the institution's credibility had been restored and its registration renewed, it would not be able to disburse grants. The issue of registration was sub judice, he said, and until the Allahabad High Court gave a final verdict on the matter, it would be impossible to take further action. He denied that an ICSSR member-secretary had written to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary. But both the letters, one to the Chief Secretary, dated February 4, 2003, and the other to the District Magistrate, dated February 20, belie the claims of the ICSSR Director.
On the issue of the registration of the institute following the stay ordered by the High Court, Sandeep Pandey said: "As of now, it is a registered society and there is no outstanding charge of financial irregularity." Pandey said that there was sufficient documentation regarding the ownership of the land, which only went to show that the GIS was not standing on Central government property.
However, there has been hardly any let-up in the harassment faced by the Board members. On April 15 and 16, the Board members were not allowed to enter the office; and they had to hold their meeting in a corridor. Pandey was abused verbally by the Varanasi Station House Officer when he and others sat in a peaceful dharna on the institute's premises. Commenting on the state of affairs in the GIS, Anil Mishra, honorary deputy director of Rajendra Bhavan and a former member of the Board, said that it was unfortunate that a few persons were holding the entire institute to ransom.
A former member-secretary of the ICSSR told Frontline that the autonomy of the ICSSR had been diluted over the years. The Council's constitution expressly states that a social scientist ought to be appointed as member-secretary, but of late the tendency had been to fill the post with a bureaucrat. "How will the autonomy of the ICSSR be protected vis-a-vis the government if its member-secretary is a bureaucrat and that too from the same Ministry?" asked the academician, who preferred not to disclose his identity. Although the ICSSR is funded by the Ministry, its administrative and financial control rests with itself. Its chief executive officer is the member-secretary and not the chairperson. Thus, the post of the ICSSR member-secretary entails great responsibility.
It was also learnt that the ICSSR had been increasing its representation on the boards of some of its funded institutes without their concurrence. According to informed sources, the ICSSR had written to the boards of two institutes - the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, and the MIDS, Chennai, - calling for increased representation from the Council. And even before the two institutes could respond, the ICSSR sent a letter stating that it was appointing a second representative. A funding agency, most academicians feel, cannot take over the role of administrator.
Bimal Prasad, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal and former president of the GIS, said that on more than one occasion he had written to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, requesting his intervention in the matter. Noted Sarvodaya leader Siddharaj Dhaddha had written to the then President, K.R. Narayanan.
Yogendra Yadav, a Fellow at the CSDS, said: "I do feel that it is an attempt to take over something which is now institutionally fragile but is of significant symbolic value. The value is that it is attached to Jayaprakash Narayan's name." He feels that the Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to get associated with the Gandhian legacy. This, he said, had made the struggle for the GIS a politically important one.