The University Grants Commission (UGC) wants higher educational institutions to organise meditation sessions for students and teachers. In a circular dated November 24, the UGC makes it clear that the method of meditation developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s agency, The Art of Living Foundation, has to be followed. One wonders whether the UGC has become an advertising agency for the foundation.
In older times such a diktat would have raised eyebrows. People would have asked if this was the job of the UGC. It is not for the commission to give instructions on what kind of programmes and seminars should be held in a university. Its mandate is to promote higher education, coordinate the field of higher education, and ensure and maintain the quality and standards of higher education.
What to teach, how to design courses, how to admit students, how to recruit teachers, what extramural activities to organise—all these are for the universities to decide themselves. They have the freedom to decide what kind of meetings, seminars, and cultural programmes they or their departments will organise. They are completely independent in all these matters. The commission should not interfere in these affairs as every university is governed by its own Act and statutes. Moreover, the UGC was not set up for these purposes. If we read the Acts of the universities, it becomes clear that even the government cannot interfere in their work.
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This situation has changed since 2014. Those who wonder how the UGC can promote the Art of Living meditation programme should look at the record of the UGC over the last eight years, when we have seen it working as a campaigner for various programmes of the Government of India. Or for the ideological programme of the ruling dispensation, or to put it bluntly, its patron, the RSS. Ever since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, there have been a series of such programmes, one after the other. It started with the Swachh Bharat Diwas to be celebrated on October 2. Then came the order to organise National Unity Day on October 31, the birthday of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Good Governance Day on December 25, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birthday. Then Yoga Day on June 21.
The government apparently sensed a lack of nationalism or patriotism among students and teachers. The relationship between patriotism and bravery is already known. Who knows patriotism better than the soldier? In order to instil respect for the Army, orders were given to set up gallantry walls in universities. These walls were to have pictures of armed forces personnel who have been awarded gallantry medals such as the Param Vir Chakra. Even that was not enough. The government then ordered that every university display the national flag permanently on campus. It should be at a height of 207 metres so that everyone could see the tricolour even from a distance and feel the vibrations of nationalism.
Photographs or videos of all such programmes have to necessarily be sent to the commission and the Ministry. The UGC suspects that the teachers might not follow its orders as they are still couched as suggestions, so to ensure compliance, it wants everything to be recorded and put up on the websites of the institutions.
Universities as propagandists
The government is propagating the Hindutva nationalist ideology and wants the universities to act as propagandists of this ideology. Just before Ravi Shankar’s “meditation campaign”, the UGC conveyed the government’s order to educational institutions to hold seminars and lectures on the subject “India: Mother of Democracy” on November 26, Constitution Day.
One does not remember such directives being sent earlier on important “national occasions”. Universities were regarded as independent minds. Their duty was not to make young minds “nationalist”. Things, however, have changed. Like the meditation missive, in this case, too, the UGC sent a note prepared by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Discussion on the topic was to be conducted according to the instructions in that note. The note says that India is the oldest democracy in the world and that its democratic traditions can be seen in khap panchayats. It says the ideal king is also to be discussed. And that democracy has its roots in the Vedic period. And that India has been in existence on earth from time immemorial. Hence, India’s greatness.
This note from the ICHR has been criticised in the media. Is it possible that any views critical of this official note can be expressed in the programmes themselves? The UGC makes it abundantly clear that the discussion has to follow the official line as enunciated by the ICHR note. So the question of any debate, discussion, and dialogue does not arise.
“The work of the university is to give students the intellectual tools to test each concept or idea.”
Thus, it would be more appropriate to call it propaganda rather than discussion. It is not the job of a university to propagate an idea. Its job is to examine all ideas and ideologies and to critically engage with them. No matter how great a philosopher or a thinker, he or she has to undergo the test of criticism in the university.
It is not the teacher’s job to teach students to believe in any thinker or ideology. Every claim of greatness is tested in classes, seminars, and research papers. The work of the university is to develop a critical faculty in all students. That is why universities introduce students to different opinions and views on the same subject. Their responsibility is to provide students with the intellectual tools or methods to test each concept or idea. The teacher may have an opinion of his or her own, but it is not an authoritative opinion with which the students cannot disagree.
Right now, however, the UGC is asking universities to create consensus, to build consensus for the current government’s ideology. There is no place for any contrarian voice here.
This is exactly the opposite of what universities are supposed to do. But let us leave this thought aside for a moment and try to understand how these directives are turning universities or higher education institutions into extensions of schools.
Flag hoisting, national days, or special days to be celebrated by government orders—all this was not expected from the university. Educationists the world over have criticised this control even over schools, pointing out that they are used to socialise students along the ideological lines of the state. But higher education has always meant freedom. And the space for individuality and institutional control over teachers and students has remained nominal. The job of the classroom and teachers is not to mould minds, but now the government through the UGC is doing exactly that.
Many people say that we ought to ignore such silly and ridiculous orders. Some ask what is wrong in hoisting the national flag, in spreading the message that cleanliness is a good thing, or in spreading the feeling of national unity. Similarly, they say yoga is good for physical health and meditation is good for mental health.Why should we object if the government or the commission encourages us to do all this?
On the face of it, these directives seem innocent. But they need to be understood in the wider context. Such central orders have to be read along with the other directives that aim at centralising everything and forging a uniformity in diverse institutions. Institutions are not being allowed to think and decide for themselves. The process of admission is being centralised through the Common University Entrance Test (CUET); a uniform criterion for the selection of teachers and vice chancellors has now become law. All courses are being made uniform. The autonomy of the universities in the matters of governance and academics is being taken away from them.
The call for uniformity has a popular appeal. The idea of making youngsters nationalist is also seductive. But we know that you cannot be world class and nationalist at the same time. No great university in the world tries to instil nationalism in its students.
The intent behind such orders is to change the very idea of the university in the minds of society.What is the objective of an institution of higher education? If the pursuit of knowledge and its advancement is the purpose of universities, then what is education and what constitutes knowledge? Is it to sing paeans to the golden knowledge of ancient times? To revive it?
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When the All India Institute for Medical Sciences does experiments to assess the impact of the Mahamrityunjaya Jap on patients lying in coma or when an IIT invites research proposals under SVAROP, an acronym for Scientific Validation and Research on Panchagavya (concoction of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd, and ghee), or when scientists work together to ensure that the sun’s rays will fall on the idol of Ram in the Ram temple of Ayodhya, or when the ICHR initiates research to establish that Indian culture is 12,000 years old, we understand that all this actually trivialises the very idea of knowledge and research.
Higher education institutions have now become machines for the Indianisation of minds. A few years ago, some teachers from Delhi University came to meet me. They had come to participate in teachers’ orientation and refresher programmes. Usually such programmes are meant to familiarise teachers with cutting-edge research in their respective areas; to help them become part of the international knowledge community. But in the courses these teachers attended, big and small office bearers and leaders of the RSS and its affiliated organisations had been called to deliver speeches. One of them even asked all participants to stand up and raise slogans of “Chinese goods, talaq, talaq, talaq.” Teachers were also forced to collectively take a vow “Mrityu ho toh Akhand Bharat mein” (let death come to us in Akhand Bharat only).
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Such absurdities have become so common that teachers have stopped complaining. In the colleges of Delhi University, speeches by RSS leaders are organised and teachers are expected to attend them. Now Vice Chancellors, Deans, and Heads of Departments, without waiting for orders, themselves organise such programmes to ensure their presence is registered in the eyes of the RSS leadership. Scholars applying for teaching posts actively participate in or organise such programmes to prove their loyalty to the RSS. They enlist and mobilise students and teachers for RSS programmes.
The result of all this is that the concept or meaning of education, knowledge, and research is disappearing from the mind of our society. The university cannot be a nationalistic institution; it has to be a part of the international communityof knowledge, it has to mark its presence there. Unfortunately, we seem to be forgetting this. Our universities are now turning into narrow and closed systems. There is little possibility in such a situation for fresh ideas to emerge. And by promoting a narrow Hindutva-based communal vision, universities are also becoming alienating spaces for non-Hindus.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University and writes literary and cultural criticism. His latest book is Muktibodh Ki Lalten.
- In a circular dated November 24, the UGC has directed higher educational institutions to organise Art of Living meditation sessions for students and teachers.
- To ensure compliance, it wants photographs or videos of all such programmes to be recorded and put up on the websites of the institutions.
- Over the last eight years, the UGC has practically become a campaigner for various programmes of the Government of India and the RSS, what with directives to celebrate important “national occasions”, set up gallantry walls and display the national flag permanently on university campuses and so on.
- Educationists the world over have criticised this kind of control even over schools, pointing out that they are used to socialise students along the ideological lines of the state.
- Such directives also need to be understood in the wider context, aiming as they do at centralising everything and forging a uniformity in diverse institutions with an intent to change the very idea of the university in the minds of society.
- By asking universities to create consensus for the current government’s ideology and promoting a narrow Hindutva-based communal vision, the UGC is ensuring that Indian universities turn into narrow and closed systems, with little possibility for fresh ideas to emerge.