An ‘anti-national’ regulation

Silencing of academics from criticising the government denies us a vital safeguard against despotism

The university in India is morphing under external pressure. How it will end up should be a matter of concern for all Indians and not just its denizens. This is so as universities are a source of new ideas for human advancement, hold a mirror to society, and act as a bulwark against authoritarianism. At least that is the idea behind setting them up at public expense. For almost a decade now they have been subject to unaccountable governance by India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission. However used they may have become to the meddling, nothing could have prepared them for the most recent diktat. This one requires employees of publicly-funded universities to be subjected to the Central Civil Service (conduct) rules governing Central government employees. Now, Central government employees are prohibited from writing critically about the government and making joint representations. So the latest regulatory measure would be a blow to India’s national prestige today and its health in the future. The silencing of academics is taken to be both a sign of backwardness and incompatible with democracy. But it is more than just how the world sees it, for stifling freedom reinforces the backwardness of a society. Lest we lapse into the defeatist telling that our own universities have always failed us, we may want to reflect on the discourse on India’s economic policy some 50 years ago. Then, as Indira Gandhi lurched leftward, and much of the economics profession had not protested much, two economists at Delhi University had chosen to go against the grain. Jagdish N. Bhagwati and Padma Desai wrote a stinging critique of planning in India. It is not as if their peers supported them strongly in their effort but it is unlikely that they had faced much hostility either, leave alone a menacing government. It was a time of intense debate about economic policy in India and these relatively young economists were able to express an anti-establishment view. It took two decades for it to find a place in India’s economic policy. The launching of the economic reforms of 1991 was a ‘Bhagwati-Desai moment’ in that their central prescription, liberalisation, was adopted. I find the authors’ approach to the economy incomplete, and have argued in a national conference at the Central Sikkim University earlier this month that the subsequent quarter century in India does not validate their thesis, despite its salience in certain spaces. But the point is not whether the freedom these two young Indian economists had in the 1960s has yielded commensurate fruit. The point is that they had had the freedom to challenge the then dominant position on Indian economic policy, and that this did have an impact. No government at the Centre since 1991 has questioned the rationale of the reforms advocated by them. And, incidentally, Jagdish Bhagwati is now an enthusiast of the economic policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi! Only time will tell us of the effect on the production of knowledge of the new conduct rules being contemplated for our public universities, but surely they are not in the national interest.

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