Questionable proposals

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The JNU's proposals to the UGC on new academic disciplines draw flak from students and teachers of the university.

IT is the Ministry of Human Resource Development again. Even as the controversy over certain deletions made in school history textbooks written by some historians continues, voices of protest have come from another quarter - Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. The issue relates to the Tenth Plan proposals submitted by JNU to the University Grants Commission (UGC) regarding new academic disciplines and programmes. The document, titled "Tenth Plan Proposals: Towards a Twenty-first Century World Class University", has been assailed by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers' Association (JNUTA) and the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union (JNUSU). The document is seen to be yet another attempt by the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to influence the educational system to suit certain ideological inclinations. The JNUTA says the plan document was not discussed by the Academic Council, or the various centres and schools of the university. In fact, even the deans of the three major schools of the university - the School of Social Sciences (SSS), the School of International Studies (SIS) and the School of Languages, Literature and Cultural Studies - were not involved in the drafting of the document. The proposals now await the UGC's scrutiny and will then be referred back to the Academic Council.

The administrative building of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.-RAJEEV BHATT

The document, it is alleged, reads more like a political statement than a cogent, well-thought-out set of proposals. It also appeared that the university was being dictated to by the UGC. The document states that the proposals were formulated "keeping close to the Plan profile formulated by the UGC in October 2001". In fact, the UGC had agreed to give additional funds only if new centres were set up. Moreover, it was apparent that JNU's teaching and student community will not have any say in deciding the content and the structure of the new centres. The fact that both the teachers' union and the students' union are led by representatives of the Left, liberal and democratic forces may have had a bearing on the matter.

The proposal is for the establishment of six new centres, to meet the needs of growing interdisciplinary trends. Thus, the Centre for Studies in Globalisation, the Centre for Media Studies, the Centre for Cultural Policy and Development Studies, the Centre for Water Sciences, the Centre for the Study of Human Consciousness and the Centre for Comparative Culture Studies are to be set up during the Tenth Plan period. Over the last three decades the JNU has been a major centre for multi-disciplinary teaching and research. The document does not deny the fact. Hence, the emphasis on new centres which will be "interdisciplinary in the very conception" has met with scepticism. The suggestions in the proposal, it is felt, hardly matches the current standards of teaching and excellence in JNU. For instance, one of the stated objectives of the Centre for Media Studies is to "comprehend newspaper and electronic journalism, film and television; it will also study the most powerful medium of communication and transmission, i.e, oral communication".

However, the two proposals that rankle with the teaching community most relate to the establishment of centres for the Study of Human Consciousness and Classical Studies. The JNUTA says that while the proposal for the former was rejected twice by the Academic Council in 2001, the latter was supposed to emanate from the already functioning Centre for Sanskrit Studies. The JNUTA claimed that the proposals "sneaked in from the backdoor" in new forms. JNUTA president Kamal Mitra Chenoy said that on January 22, in an unprecedented move, the JNUTA's general body meeting rejected the document unanimously. He said that the two proposals had been mooted in the Ninth Plan document as well.

When the Ninth Plan document was drafted, the School of Languages, Literature and Cultural Studies had suggested that Sanskrit could be a part of its curriculum. However, the suggestion was not considered. In the Academic Council meeting held in April 2001, a proposal was made to set up a School of Classical Studies and Indology, though it was not on the agenda of the meeting. The stated objectives of the school included overcoming the gap between the East and the West, the ancient and the modern, the occult and the revelatory. The school was also to have a department of yogic science and human consciousness. The proposal was rejected by the teachers present at the meeting and the JNUTA representatives. Chenoy said that the two people who supported the proposal actually shared the ideology of the ruling government. Chenoy added that the minutes of the meeting, which were reportedly distorted in order to suggest that the Academic Council had voted in favour of the UGC's proposal, had not been circulated yet. Chenoy said that he had written a note of dissent to the minutes.

Although the proposal to set up a School of Classical Studies and Indology has not reappeared in the Tenth Plan proposal document in its original form, the document suggests that the Centre for Sanskrit Studies should in time grow into one of Classical Studies, incorporating areas such as the study of Greek and Hebrew languages and cultures. It adds that the centre's coverage should be extended to include studies in Prakrit, Pali, Classical Tamil, the Dharmashastra, Itihasa and Purana traditions and Avestan as well as the various schools of Indian philosophy. The creation of a lexicon-cum-encyclopaedia unit to compile a multimedia encyclopaedic dictionary of Indian intellectual terms was also suggested. The inclusion of Classical Tamil in the Sanskrit Studies section has puzzled several people.

The proposal states that the Centre for Human Consciousness "has been conceived as a subject of study by neuro-scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and linguists, among others, sitting under one roof". Human consciousness, the proposal states, "has the elemental force of influencing every human being's daily as well as episodic life and is thus of fundamental significance for studying human life as an individual as well as a collective entity". Apparently, the centre would put to rest the perception that human consciousness is shaped by material realities and not vice versa.

The proposal to start a separate centre for studies in globalisation is also not free from controversy. The proposal states that both the SIS and the SSS are expected to initiate studies and programmes in globalisation. The document notes that the programmes will be multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. Hence, the need for an exclusive centre for studies in globalisation has been questioned. Moreover, the content as prescribed in the document appears to have little to do with any critical analysis of globalisation.

The document contains certain inexplicable suggestions. For instance, it suggests that "it would be desirable and indeed it would be optimal if courses in chemistry are taught by professional chemists". Moreover, elaborating on the content of the proposed centre for comparative studies, it mentions a hitherto unknown discipline called "reception studies". The objective of a centre for cultural policy and development studies is also unclear. Apparently, the centre is being created as there is a "need to visualise a path of cultural development closer to our vision", in contrast to the colonial influence on cultural institutions. However, whether such a vision of culture and development is pluralistic is left unsaid. Chenoy said that even the proposal to set up an institute of advanced study was not necessary as JNU had always been considered as an institution of academic excellence and advanced studies.

PROFESSOR Harbans Mukhia, Rector and chairman of the committee which drafted the proposals, defended the document. He said that the UGC had indicated in March 2001 that it was considering some universities as projects of excellence. A committee was appointed to help meet the requirements for the UGC's proposals. Although JNU came up with 12 new proposals, all were not accepted. Mukhia said that it was clear that the UGC would support only new disciplines, for which an additional grant of Rs.30 crores would be given for the next five years. Mukhia said that since the grant amounted to much more than any previous grant the university had received, it had no choice in the matter. He added that (in academic terms) the new centres were going far beyond what was conceived in the past 30 years. He defended the proposal to set up a centre for the study of human consciousness and said that it was being taught in the University of New York, Stoneybrook, and that the major objection was only with regard to the introduction of courses on yogic sciences. "Disciplines are not inherently ideological. Why can't we study human consciousness or Sanskrit studies in our own terms? Should we not study it so much as a basis of Indian civilisation?" asked Mukhia.

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