The UGC Gazette and the Politics of Knowledge Production

If our research halls become empty, if no young mind comes to us to discuss books and ideas, the job that we do as teachers in a research university loses its charm and meaning.


A view of Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

I have been interacting with a group of students – bright, energetic and filled with the urge to contribute to the domain of knowledge. They are about to complete their masters. But now I cannot look at their eyes. They are anxious, disillusioned and unsure about their future life projects. Because of the imposition of a UGC notification, a leading research university like ours can no longer do what it has been doing for years – invite a significant number of young minds – potential researchers – and encouraging them to do meaningful research so that they can evolve as good thinkers, teachers and concerned citizens.

It has been argued that we have exhausted our possibilities, we have overburdened ourselves, taken more students than what we deserve. The result is massive seat-cut across disciplines. However, in a university like ours that is known for its great trajectory of social science research, the problem has acquired yet another dimension.

For instance, the leading social science departments cannot take any student in this academic year. At a time when because of the hierarchisation of knowledge traditions (science/commerce vs humanities/social sciences), and massive asymmetry in the quality of public universities (most of the universities have been reduced into factories for distributing degrees and diplomas; there are only a couple universities left which retain the tradition of critical pedagogy and meaningful research) in India, it is a severe blow to the cultivation of critical social sciences and emancipatory liberal arts.

Possibly this measure is giving a message to my young students: What should you do with social sciences? Instead, understand the market, its utility; get yourselves inclined to the logic of technocracy, and rethink your careers.

No, it should not be like this. For years I have been telling my students about the beauty of social sciences and liberal arts. Because it was experiential; I realised it. I was a student of science. I loved mathematics and physics, and I too cherished the belief that science is ‘superior’ knowledge, and social sciences or humanities are not so relevant.

However, when I joined this university as a student of sociology, everything began to alter – my approach to knowledge, my understanding of the world, my idea of a university. For the first time in my life I saw a place known not for its science/technology, but primarily for its historians, economists, sociologists, political theorists, literary critics. This epistemological landscape changed us.

Knowledge is not merely for utility, for trade and commerce, for technological domination – this realisation opened our eyes. Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts became my intimate companion. With the Marxian notion of estrangement and alienation I could also engage with Max Weber’s melancholy, his anguish over disenchantment. I evolved a perspective, a way of looking at modernity and industrial capitalism. It would inspire students like us to undertake a journey with Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse, and it would help us to go deeper into the politics of ‘culture industry’, the formation of ‘authoritarian personality’, the discontents of positivism reducing science into a form of instrumental rationality.

It was not just about our own discipline; the very act of research enriched our cross-disciplinary sensibilities. Bipan Chandra’s reading of communalism, Ranajit Guha’s profound insights into the nuances of ‘subaltern’ historiography, professor Namvar Singh’s lectures on literary criticism and Ashis Nandy inspiring us to rediscover Gandhi, social sciences and humanities became a celebration. From cinema to gender, from caste to environment, from literature to philosophy, this wonderful journey gave us a new understanding of education. It gave us confidence, enabled us to gain clarity and lead a life with grace – even if not with money and brute power. And we also witnessed a remarkable growth in Indian social sciences – both in contents and methodologies. With good ethnographies, intensive field works, interpretative studies and narrative analysis, a great deal of literature on gender, culture, media, caste and social movements emerged, and prepared the ground for young researchers to explore their domains of enquiry.

And now when I see my MA students, I feel sorry. They would be deprived of this wonderful experience because the university is closing its doors for them. Why is it so? Is it merely because of their bad luck? Is it merely because we are overburdened (although none of us has complained about it. Instead, most of us are eager to create a delicate balance by involving senior research scholars, research associates and putting pressure on the university for recruiting new faculty)?

No, the reasons, it seems, are far deeper, which require a thorough understanding. We should not lose sight of the fact that the assertive ideology of neo-liberal global capitalism has further devalued what Jurgen Habermas in his classic Knowledge and Human Interests regarded as ‘hermeneutic’ and ‘emancipatory’ disciplines like history, literature, philosophy and social sciences.

With the growing corporatisation of life, the orientation to knowledge is altering fast and becoming recklessly instrumental. As the market rationale of ‘production’ and ‘utility’ is becoming the dominant discourse, and technocracy as a discourse of power is becoming triumphant, the educational institutions are increasingly pressurised to ‘process’ and ‘filter’ knowledge. To put it bluntly, this implies you need hotel management, not literature; information technology, not history; fashion designing, not philosophy.

While most of the private universities in the country have reduced themselves into education shops selling this sort of courses for the anxiety-ridden/aspiring middle class youngsters, for how long, I ask myself, can the public universities be from this invasion? Is it also the reason why at a time when there will be virtually no admission at M.Phil/Ph.D level in social sciences, the JNU authority has expressed its willingness to start management and engineering in the university?

There is yet another ideology – the ideology of assertive nationalism – that is also not very conducive to the cultivation of critical social sciences. If you think deeply, and through your research into, say, the Bhagavad Gita, you find that its multiple possibilities and interpretations – from Bankim’s Krisna as a war-diplomat to Gandhi’s Krishna as inner conscience, from Vivekananda’s missionary karmayogi to Chaitanya’s bhakti rasa – make Hinduism a religion with sufficient elasticity and heterogeneity, you would invariably critique a doctrine that transforms Hinduism into Hindutva – a centralised/standardised/non-reflexive ideology of bounded nationhood.

Or, for that matter, if you probe into the character of mother Anandamayee that Tagore developed in his classic novel Gora, you see how she was the embodiment of the poet’s Upanishadic universalism: his notion of India as a civilisation – compassionate, inclusive, oceanic, without boundaries and borders. And then, you begin to realise how Tagore’s ‘femininity’ was strikingly different from what these days the self-proclaimed nationalists regard as Bharat Mata. And again, if you dare to walk with the likes of Rajni Kothari and Claude Alvares, collect the narratives of adivasis, Dalit peasant women, marginalised/displaced communities, you realise the violence of ‘development’ and explore how the state – in the name of ‘development’ – is going against society.

This sort of penetrating research leading to critical thinking is seldom appreciated by those who are in a hurry, who believe in quick technocratic solutions. Stop critical thinking, meaningful research, create a generation obsessed with only ‘technical skills’, intoxicated with the market and ‘educated’ by only television news-entertainment – its simulations, its ability to transform everything into its opposite. Yes, ironically, this is the trend. Technocrats are educationists, corporate capitalists are pedagogues, bureaucrats are philosophers and cricketers are brand ambassadors of the leading private universities.

So what do I do with my students who are passing through these turbulent times, whose future is bleak, whose dream of doing good research in social sciences and liberal art has been shattered? They are angry and restless. From strikes to protest demonstrations, their culture of resistance manifests itself in many voices. Can I console them? I can’t. Can I advise them to attend classes? I am confused. Do they trust us? I don’t know. But I know one thing pretty well. A teacher is incomplete without students.

If our research halls become empty, if no young mind comes to us to discuss about books and ideas and field visits, if there is no moment to discuss a chapter with a cup of tea, the job that we do as teachers in a research university loses its charm and meaning. I know I will miss my students who could have become good researchers. I feel sad. Yet, sometimes I acquire the courage and try to whisper into their ears: Don’t give up. Don’t forget that some great works have emerged under extremely hostile circumstances without any institutional support – Antonio Gramsci writing his notes on Marxism and philosophy of praxis, Italian art and culture in Mussolini’s dark prison cell and as a prisoner Nehru contemplating and eventually enchanting us with Glimpses of the World History.

Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

  • Rohini

    Can these JNU professors not ever discuss anything with data and logic, dispassionately? Is it all melodrama, an appeal to the limbic centre of the brain rather than to the cerebral cortex?

    A statistic from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences – History PhD Program – for your edification.
    “The department has over 50 faculty members with a wide range of research specialties, spanning chronologically from ancient to 20th-century history, geographically from Asia to the United States, and thematically from intellectual history to global and transnational history.”
    “Each year, the department ordinarily receives between 300 and 400 applications to the doctoral program and offers admission to about 6 percent of applicants. The typical incoming class size is 16 students.”

    So, a ratio of less than 1 student per faculty member!

    Its simple – if there are too many students per prof, well,…….what is the logical conclusion?
    Second, WHO allowed such a distorted ration of students to teacher on the JNU campus? Why didn’t these great minds speak up then? Education is not quantity, but quality.

  • Independent

    As suggested by Rohini, his is how social science departments function with the attendant singular focus on oppression and identity. Here their case is extremely weak.

    Look at the first paragraph: The author talks about the IMPOSITION of a UGC notification. As if, a leading central university is not supposed to otherwise follow the regulating agency, and has to wait for it to be told that it should.

    The author informs us that “most of the universities have been reduced into factories for distributing degrees and diplomas” which is true, but that is because most of these universities are located in places where our author would not dream of teaching. Secondly, most universities are supported by the respective states and not by the centre. Owing to following long decades of stifling mercantilism through the pernicious ideology of socialism to which I believe the author adheres to, the states do not have adequate revenue to take care of those universities. They cannot pay more to attract world-class faculty because of something called the pay-scale which is another child of socialist India which ensures that a university teacher does not have to dedicate oneself to research or teaching in order to earn his bread; she has to simply exist. She would be paid equally to another professor who has written 20 books and is a renowned name in his area of interest/ expertise even if she cannot spell the name of her subjects.
    So much for equality!

    Post- liberalisation, the phenomenon of urbanization has gathered speed and has led to the movement of all good students/ teachers/ scholars toward urban centres of which the author is guilty. He sits at a metropolitan centre of knowledge and cannot imagine teaching, spending all his life in a tribal university in Chattisgarh, even though he may profess his acute empathy for the great unwashed.

    Towards the end of his piece, the author very intelligently paints the picture of contemporary India under dictatorship, in which subjects that lack explicit utility or are critical of the prevalent ways of thinking or being are under “extremely hostile circumstances”. This is classic left-ward trajectory of hope after the tunnel of bleakness, in which the ‘now’, the ‘contemporary’ would be forever defined in gloominess, under some kind of existential strain of bourgeois neo-liberalism, the collusion of the capitalist forces with the strident Hindu nationalists post which lies the green land of socialist utopia.

  • Rohini

    Sorry to disagree with you. You arguments do not stand the test of reason because they are only assertions without reasoning. Point by point below:

    ***”Secondly , these restrictions do not apply typically on centres for excellence like JNU ” -***
    What is the reason for the exceptionalism of JNU which is a public university.
    btw, Harvard is an example of a Centre of excellence , not JNU, I’ll thank you to remember that.

    ***”the university today stands as an epitome of successful research aptitude in social sciences.” ***
    THis is an assertion without evidence. Please show us the data on how successful JNU’s social sciences centre has been in having dissertations published in expert journals, peer citations etc, or any other measure of ‘knowledge created’ which is the basic premise of a PhD. We all understand how the PhD business works – please cite the data to support your and the prof’s assertion. So far, I see nothing that is based on FACT.

    ****”This might be true for research activities which require lab and huge finance to buy equipments, but social science research works differently and in a greater dimension where the society is the lab and mind is the bank of ideas.”***
    If we accept your premise, can you explain by what logic the current ratio of studnets per prof at the JNU social sciences cenre has been arrived at?
    Was it a considered number arrived at by some method or just a random pick? Why not take on 10x the current number per prof, or a 100x or 10,000x? Nothing but the mind and the wide open great spaces that limit PhD scholars in the social sciences, right?

    ***”but a PhD drop out from an institution like JNU finds himself or herself engaged as civil servants at state and central level……ASEAN, OECD etc etc”
    So, what you are saying is that the aim of these wondrous 600 students is to get into JNU, and not necessarily complete a serious PhD that is of some value. Their aim is to get in, and drop out, as there is a job at the end of this incomplete road! WHAT a scam!!

    QED – PhD aspirants in JNU, though by the 100s, are NOT necessarily serious about creating valuable knowledge. Neither are the professors, their guides! This is more about getting the JNU stamp, and then moving on to lucrative professions as fancy administrators in cushy jobs at global organisations!

    No wonder we get NO REAL breakthrough knowldge from JNU!