one complain that the independence day speech of the Prime Minister had nothing to say about academic or research institutions? Is it because there is little to flaunt on this front? De-intellectualisation and mediocratisation have become the defining feature of institutional life of India. Institutions are being put to slow death by depriving them of intellectual oxygen.
Two days before the 70th independence day,Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned from the executive council of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He took this step to speak for academic freedom and intellectual integrity of an institution he was supposed to look after as a member of its governing body. His resignation was to protest its decision to foist on the prestigious academic institution a non-academic, a former administrator and one from the RSS family as its next director.
NMML , which was established in the Teen Murti Bhawan, where Jawahar Lal Nehru lived for seventeen years as the first prime minister of India. Named after Nehru, it emerged as a major centre for scholarship in history and social sciences. Fellowship at NMML is a coveted and prized thing for the social scientists of india. It also houses rare archives of the papers of nearly all major political and cultural figures of the modern India.Scholars from all over the world, interested in the history of modern India throng to NMML. NMML, like many other institutions is functioning headless for the last several months after the resignation of its previous director Mahesh Rangarajan. Mahesh was compelled to quit as he was publically humiliated by the culture minister Mahesh Sharma and other leaders of the ruling party,BJP. His appointment was questioned and an enquiry was threatened. Rangarajan chose not to put this harassment on record when writing his resignation letter and chose to leave silently. It is public knowledge that he was persuaded by the executive council to withdraw it but he insisted. So, the institutional memory of the NMML would not have on its record the real cause of the abrupt resignation of its director, a man who was widely respected for his performance and leadership.
After the departure of Mahesh, it was feared that the government would attempt to bring a Sangh loyalist as its director. History is an obsession with the Sangh, which has unfortunately not yet developed the skill and art to practice this discipline. NMML, like other institutions neded to be captured and put under someone who would put them to nationalist use.However, finding a successor to Rangarajan was not easy. The selection of directo kept getting delayed as the problem, once articulated by the culture minister himself was that the government had a very narrow pool of intellectual resources to choose from. The appointments at the Indian Council for Historical Research and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts have earned ridicule from the academic and intellectual world.
The government does not mind any of its critics at all. This regime has tried to discredit protests from the intellectual world by branding it a conspiracy of left intellectuals who were grieving, because with a rightwing nationalist party in power, they would now be deprived of the patronage they had been enjoying for the last six decades.
It requires some relaxed analysis to understand why intellectuals are generally seen as being left in India or why protest of any kind is seen to be a handiwork of the conspiring left.
However, it would not be so easy for the government to dismiss the concerns raised by Pratap. He is known for his independence of mind, very often disparaged by the left for being a mere ‘liberal’. What his resignation letter bring in sharp relief is the sheer fear and revulsion of intellectual work of any kind that this regime harbours.
Pratap writes in his un-agitational language “ sending a signal that completely marginalises issues of academic credibility, scholarly credentials, or larger contributions to the world of ideas or thinking does not befit an institution of the stature of NMML. It is the committee’s (and the government’s) prerogative to marginalise academic considerations if it so wishes. But I hope you will understand that I cannot be complicit in this marginalisation.”
It is not a question , therefore of bringing a right wing intellectual to lead the NMML but of forcing a non-academic on it who is not recognised in the field of scholarship which makes Pratap uncomfortable. Marginalising academic or professional considerations was also the reason for the protest by students at the FTII, Pune after the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as its chairman and some other non-professionals as members of its governing body.
Pratap had a duty to perform. His job as a member of governing body of an institution like the NMML was to ensure that its governance was in accordance with its mandate. He would have betrayed himself by watching in silence the distortion of its charter and character through the appointment of a person who has not been in the field of intellection and the only claim in his favour being his administrative experience.
Pratap was disappointed by the poor quality of the applications. The reason in his view is : There is an impression that good academics will find it very difficult to function in the institutional set up we have created, with its multiple political and administrative pressures. We can debate how this impression has been created. But we have to come to terms with the fact that we are doing everything to exacerbate the impression that leading institutions are hostile to academics of genuine accomplishment and promise. We are not even seeking them out, or persuading them to provide intellectual leadership to major institutions. This appointment will, I am afraid, exacerbate that impression.
A quick survey of the heads of our institutions makes it evident that the system does not aspire to have the best minds as leaders of its institutions. It is the responsibility of the selection or search panels to suggest names, which in their view are the most competent from among the applicants or take the initiative in persuading good minds to take up the job. Unfortunately, this search process is uually compromised. We have instances of such panels amending their list to make it easier for the governments to have their own candidates.
Very few academics have the courage or inclination to resist the pressure from governments. Seldom is the option of registering dissent applied. I have seen members of such committees expressing indignation but rarely insisting on recording their dissent. Most of us have in their university professional lives gone through the experience of not being allowed to register dissent. Many a times we hear lamentation that individual protest would have hardly mattered, hence their silent approval of a bad decision. When asked why did they not protest or resign when the committee was doing the inexcusable, they start talking about the larger duty to the system for the sake of which they swallow this poison. But we know and they know too that this is a weak argument. They have forgotten that their primary duty is to preserve the principles involved and the right of individuals to express dissent.
A democracy is sustained through its institutions. By weakening them we ensure the destruction of democracy. Those who are in some way responsible for governance of these institutions have a duty to perform towards democracy.
Protest remains protest even if is not part of a collective. The President of India, in his Independence Day message recalled Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s words: “We have adopted a democratic Constitution. It helps us to maintain our individuality in the face of mounting pressures for standardized thinking and acting……..”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta did what Radhakrishnan expected all Indians to do: assert their individuality and fight standardizing thinking and acting. It would be difficult for the government and the rest of the executive council to ignore his protest. For, he is neither left nor right. His resignation carries the force of his scholarship and his intellect. It would do us good if we hear his quite, sober voice on this day of Independence . It is, in fact, a warning: disregarding intellectuals would bring the entire nation and all its freedoms down.