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The autonomy of universities is essential to empower them and enable them to resist pressure from outside, especially political, so they can devote themselves completely to achieving academic excellence and contributing to the nation’s economic and social development.

Prof. Ved Prakash



It is evident from the journey of the finest universities of the world that autonomy and excellence go hand in hand. It is internationally acknowledged that the best universities which have reached and sustained themselves at the top of the pyramid are the ones that enjoy absolute autonomy in a real sense. Instead of seeking autonomy, they have earned and nurtured it in a manner that it percolates down from the top to the freshest member of the university family. They are committed to the philosophical doctrine of excellence and pluralism substantiated by available evidence. They firmly believe that the power of decision-making in the academic world requires expertise out of the ordinary, and since knowledge in academics is beyond the ordinary, all decision-making, be it academic, administrative or financial, must be taken by accomplished academicians of rock-solid integrity.

University autonomy is a multidimensional concept. The principal dimensions of university autonomy are academic, administrative, financial and staffing. Basically, it involves planning and execution of the highest level of learning on the one hand and governance of a complex organization on the other. In fact, autonomy is a self-regulating exercise of decision-making with an allegiance to the ideals of university education. It is a structural solution to provide an enabling environment to achieve excellence in teaching and learning and advancement of knowledge. It is for this reason that universities essentially require academically distinguished professionals who can take decisions on matters pertaining to academics and governance with the fullest commitment and accountability.

The idea of university autonomy is as old as the hills. Its history can be traced back to the University of Bologna, Italy, which is considered to be the oldest university in continuous operation since 1088. It is believed that the University of Bologna was founded by a group of foreign youths living in Italy to educate themselves about the penal provisions of city laws. The elected council of students had full freedom to hire and fire professors and negotiate with them about their salary and other service conditions. Professors had their own rights to determine broad outlines of the course contents, pedagogical processes, modes of assessment, examination fees and degree requirements. Both the parties had their own mechanisms to keep a tab on each other’s activities and settle issues, if there were any. More or less, the same model was followed by the University of Paris, which was founded in 1150. The University of Paris was completely empowered to frame statutes concerning everything from courses to methods of instructions, discipline, costumes, award of degrees, etc. In fact, this model gradually began to percolate into other European universities of the medieval period. So much so that when the Uppsala University was established in Sweden in 1477, the Pope specifically ordered that the new university have similar freedoms and privileges as the University of Bologna.

Some traces of autonomy are also visible in the first set of institutions of higher learning that were established in India during the nineteenth century. Prominent amongst them were Hindu College, Calcutta, CMS College, Kottayam, Christ Church College, Kanpur, Fergusson College, Pune, and Khalsa College, Amritsar, to name a few. The most striking feature of these colleges was that they were imparting secular education and were absolutely free from outside interference of any kind. They used to certify knowledge and skills in the form of finishing certificates or completion certificates. Such was the recognition of these colleges that their pass out certificates were valued at par with diplomas and degrees awarded by premier foreign universities.

The modern Indian higher education system had a rocky start since the establishment of the first three universities in 1857 in the cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Despite being lawfully autonomous, these universities were given limited autonomy due to political considerations. They were treated like examining bodies as they were given the charter of testing the value of education imparted through colleges and were not allowed to offer any teaching and learning programs on their campuses. When Sir Asutosh Mookerjee started the first postgraduate department in the University of Calcutta in 1914, he not only got into a row with the domineering and control-freak government but also had to face an inquiry commission in 1917. Contrarily, the British were extremely protective of the autonomy of their homeland universities.

The misconception of the colonial era, that Indians lacked the ability to steer the affairs of education, was dispelled almost as soon as the new government took over in Delhi in 1947. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad reposed their greatest confidence in Prof. S.S. Bhatnagar and gave him charge of the office of the Education Secretary on 20 November 1947. It is heartening to note that the first six Education Secretaries in a row, until 1969, were renowned academicians like Prof. S.S. Bhatnagar, Dr Tara Chand, Prof. Humayun Kabir, Prof. K.G. Saiyidain, Shri P.N. Kripal and Shri G.K. Chandiramani. Of them, Prof. Bhatnagar and Prof. Kabir had held the office of the Education Secretary twice. They were the real architects of modern Indian education. They were men of honour and integrity with genuine concern for public welfare. They have left behind a lasting legacy of scientific insights and contribution that have served the country with great distinction for the last 74 years and unflinchingly remained the same throughout.

However, the very first Commission (University Education Commission) set up in 1948, soon after Independence, noted that Indian universities were not enjoying the autonomy that they deserved. According to the Commission, most of the universities had no real autonomy whatever, and proved incapable of resisting pressure from outside. The Commission believed that while universities have to be sensitive to enlightened public opinion, they should never let themselves be bullied or bribed into situations that they know to be educationally unsound or, worse still, activated by nepotism, faction and corruption. The Commission was totally opposed to governmental domination in educational processes. It unequivocally recommended that “our universities should enjoy full autonomy, constitutionally and actually, and that they be completely released from the control of politics.”

Since the country required a radical reconstruction in education, the Government of India set up another comprehensive Education Commission in 1964 wherein the subject of university autonomy was dealt with at great length. The Commission made a distinction between university autonomy and academic freedom of university teachers. The Commission observed that despite any curtailment of academic freedom on paper, it was neither practised within the university nor at the interuniversity and governmental levels. The Commission was of the opinion that without autonomy, the university would not be able to discharge its principal functions of teaching and research nor would it be able to serve the community. According to the Commission, “this freedom implies that a teacher cannot be ordered or required to teach something that goes against his conscience or conflicts with his conception of truth.”

Notwithstanding incredible recommendations made by two powerful Commissions, things did not get any better, partly because of a lackadaisical approach of academics to earn autonomy and partly because of the control-freak attitude of political and bureaucratic leadership. The general impression about the university system is almost a complete lack of accountability, dissension and disagreement, which are the essential hallmarks of autonomy. All these years, universities have been crying hoarse to seek autonomy which somehow is considered asking for rights of governance without accountability by the political and bureaucratic class. Thus, negotiations and concessions seem to have become the order of the day, resulting in a compromise on ideals of autonomy.

Inevitably the onus of responsibility for autonomy rests more with the universities than with others as was eloquently summarized by the Education Commission, “…that the universities should also realize that it would be unwise to expect that effective autonomy could descend as a ‘gift’ from above; it has to be continually earned and deserved.”Thus, universities will have to be resourceful enough to find solutions and workarounds on multiple fronts instead of looking all the time towards other power centres.

Universities need to focus on a whole range of parameters, from the quality of programs to degree requirements. If their programs are rated the best in the world, if they ensure the highest appreciation for meritocracy in terms of recruitment of both faculty and students, if improved academic excellence becomes the goal of every department, if they successfully prepare every student to adapt to new changes to solve the problems of tomorrow, and if their research outcomes start addressing issues and concerns of national and global concerns, then it could be considered they are inching towards autonomy.

If universities set up benchmarks for teachers, students, staff and management and keep a tab on them on a continual basis, if the statutory bodies of the universities learn the art of protecting themselves from the domineering role of public representatives, if every member of the faculty is trained to design and transact the course without confining within the defined boundaries of the syllabus, if every member of the faculty starts mobilizing resources through research grants, and if each member of the faculty is fully accountable to the self, the system, individual learners, the society and to the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom, then universities could consider that they are getting closer to their goal of earning autonomy.

A cursory analysis of programmes in universities reveals that most of them are offering identical programmes. There is hardly any cooperative arrangement amongst universities for the optimum utilisation of limited resources nor in the division of operations in terms of meeting out the social, economic and research requirements of the country. Issues such as these do not even become the subject of discourses during their zonal or national conferences. Most universities have been operating in much the same way. If they can come together and institutionalise interuniversity autonomy in its real sense and adequately demonstrate to the sovereign bodies that they are the real engines to fuel the economy of the country then they can presume that they have arrived. Once they sagaciously achieve a very high level of excellence on these parameters, no one would dare to trample upon their autonomy.

The global experience shows that governmental domination in universities is invariably counterproductive since it stifles innovative initiatives and creativity. It is clear that universities do a much better job when they are freed from outside control that impacts their governance. It is, therefore, imperative that the political and bureaucratic classes should be far too protective and generous in providing substantial funds to help them become self-reliant. Indian universities, as of now, do not have access to the kind of resources that are essentially required to become globally competitive.

However, it is never too late to learn from the pearls of wisdom which radiate from the Radhakrishnan Commission, wherein it is mentioned, “Higher Education is, undoubtedly, an obligation of the State but State aid is not to be confused with State control over academic policies and practices”, and that of the Kothari Commission, which observed, “University autonomy cannot become real and effective unless adequate provision is made to meet the financial requirements of universities and colleges”. There is definitely a groundswell of support for the idea for too long a time, but has not made any inroads into the system. Similarly, universities have also not been able to institutionalize standards of excellence in the true sense of the word. Both are compromising on the ideals of autonomy. That is a hard truth, but truth nonetheless.

The author is former Chairman, UGC.

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Savio Rodrigues



In a democracy, it is not incumbent on citizens to find favour or merit in its elected representatives. They have the right to disagree, dislike or even have disdain against their political leaders for legitimate or frivolous reasons.

So, if for some reason — political, social, or for a plain dumb notion of herd mentality — you dislike the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, that is your freedom to exercise. But your dislike or stronger feelings of hate for Modi or the BJP-led government in a global health crisis impacting our nation is misplaced.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not a “Modi” health crisis – it is an India health crisis. Modi is the Prime Minister of India today, he may or may not be the Prime Minister of India tomorrow, but if we fail to act as one nation today, we might not have a nation at all tomorrow.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious health crisis. We need to work collectively as one nation and one people to tide over these hard times our country is experiencing. Lives are being lost every day.

This is not about Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal or Uddhav Thackeray or Mamata Banerjee or MK Stalin or Yogi Adityanath. This is about thousands of Indians suffering due to the pandemic. This about thousands of lives being lost daily. This is about a damning and dangerous virus we know so little about and its changing mutation making the prevalent health crisis more severe by the day.

This is not about whether the Centre is acting more responsibly than the state governments, or one state government has managed to deal with the health crisis promisingly and is beating the curve. This is about citizens who are gasping for breath, wanting to live, and hoping that the Centre or State has done its job in ensuring that we have the requisite health infrastructure to deal with the pandemic.

This not about Uddhav Thackeray or Arvind Kejriwal saving Maharashtra or Delhi better than Narendra Modi, nor is it about Goa’s Health Minister Vishwajit Rane playing out a subtle media exercise to show he is more competent than the Goa Chief Minister Dr Pramod Sawant. This is also not about Chief Ministers or Health Ministers walking in hospitals followed by their media entourage clicking pictures for their media or social media campaigns. Most importantly, this crisis is not about which social media IT cell got which hashtag to trend more than the other IT cell. This is about life. The life of our people.

People want to live. The pain and trauma are heart-wrenching and disturbing. I do not think a political leader with an ounce of humanity will ever resort to playing dirty politics over the lives of our people but unfortunately, our nation manages to produce such rectums that think only about the political opportunities at hand and not about the welfare of the people or the nation.

Every Indian we save from the virus is one less potential carrier of the virus across a community, state, or our entire nation. We are a nation of travellers and our people travel around the country, therefore, this cannot be about saving your own state, this should be about saving our country. But we must while keeping a focus on the macro strategies in dealing with this crisis as a nation, we must ensure that we manage this health crisis at a micro level, at an individual level, and family level too.

While the nation is rife with stories of people rising to the occasion to fight this pandemic for other people, there some stories that have exposed the complete inhumanity that also exists. Making a profit over the desperation of people in a health crisis is pathetic and downright diabolic. But people resort to it, not thinking for a moment that people with immense wealth also cannot escape the wrath of the coronavirus if it decides to ensure that life is sucked out of you. Today you are profiting on someone’s misery, tomorrow someone will profit from your misery.

This is the time for the people of India to rise up against an enemy that we do not fully understand, therefore it is important for us to stick together because we know each other and we can trust each other. Every Indian in this war against the coronavirus is a soldier and as a soldier, we must fight this pandemic.

This pandemic was unleashed around to world to cripple our socio-economic existence by hitting us and other countries at the root of our strength — our people. The greatest wealth of any nation is its citizens and their health. If there are no people, there will be no citizens. This is not the time for blame-game but the time to play the game of defeating the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some nations want us to fail. Some nations want us to continue to remain like a third-world nation. Most importantly, some nations want our people to suffer so that they can gain from a change of political regime. As Indians, we must not let the lives of our people become pawns in the hands of political opportunists waiting for Prime Minister Modi to fail or for other Chief Ministers to fail so that India fails. If the state fails, the Centre fails. If the Centre fails, India fails. And we cannot let India fail.

I believe we can beat this virus and win this war against Covid-19 but we have to do it as one India. Therefore, it is my appeal to political leaders, their IT cells, their spokespersons, and their supporters, there is a time to play politics. However, this is not that time. This is the time to look at this crisis as an India health crisis and not the Modi health crisis.

Remember there is no balm to calm the heart of a person that has lost a loved one unexpectedly.

The author is founder & editor-in-chief at

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Pankaj Vohra



Cine superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s declaration that he donated Rs 12 crore towards Covid-related projects initiated in two prominent gurdwaras of the capital has snowballed into a major controversy that could have wide-ranging ramifications for Punjab in general, and Sikh politics in Delhi in particular.

Two prominent leaders, both former presidents of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Paramjit Singh Sarna and Manjit Singh G.K. have urged the Akal Takht to take strict action against the current chief, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, for “accepting blood money” from an actor who was extremely close to Rajiv Gandhi when the Sikh genocide took place in 1984 and is perceived to be the part of the “khoon ka badla khoon” gang.

Sirsa had apparently accepted money from the cine star for a project in the Gurdwara Bangla Sahab last year and for a new Covid facility at Gurdwara Rakabganj this year. The supreme irony is that the outgoing chief had himself in 2017 demanded that Amitabh should clear his name for his alleged involvement in the anti-Sikh riots after he had been named by some of the victims.

Senior Akali leader and former Lok Sabha MP Simranjit Singh Mann has also demanded strict action against Sirsa and others, who are close to the Badals, for concealing facts from his executive and trying to cover up the matter. The revelation of money being donated came from the actor himself, who stated on a social platform how he had contributed to the noble cause. The matter has become a major point of discussion in the ongoing gurdwara politics and could impact the final outcome.

Manjit Singh G.K. said that a complaint against Amitabh’s involvement was filed before the Akal Takht by Jagdish Kaur and others who were responsible in sending former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar to jail. Paramjit Singh Sarna demanded that Akat Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh should order the immediate expulsion of Sirsa for desecrating gurdwara properties with blood money, failing which he should resign. Sarna is a veteran of Sikh politics and was extremely close to former SGPC Chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Manjit Singh is the son of late DSGPC president Jathedar Santokh Singh, who, till his assassination in 1981, enjoyed cordial relations with Indira Gandhi. In fact, after Operation Blue Star, senior Congress leader Buta Singh had taken Manjit to meet Rajiv Gandhi who wanted him to help in the reconstruction of the Akal Takht. Only 26 years old at that time, Manjit had declined, stating that the Sikhs would never endorse this action.

The Sarnas are very influential in Sikh circles and this attack on Amitabh has found a lot of support at every level. The Sikhs have resolved that the Rs 12 crores given by Amitabh through donation to an individual was unacceptable and would be returned and “the tainted money’’ cannot be used for any gurdwara projects. Sirsa finds himself on the wrong foot and would be looking for support from the Badals, who themselves are in the eye of a political storm concerning the sacrilege incidents of 2015. It is evident that Amitabh’s effort to warm his way into Sikh hearts by charity has boomeranged. It is evident that the Sikhs would not settle for this kind of appeasement.  

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In the wake of the deadly second wave of Covid-19, some questions need to be asked about the biosafety lab in China’s Wuhan. Why did the PLA take over the lab, why were the lab’s French collaborators silent on the issue, and did the WHO investigation hide any truths?

Claude Arpi



China has mastered the art of disinformation warfare. Nearly one and half years after the dreaded Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan and while the virus is still raging all over the world, having infected some 153 million on the planet (20 million in India alone), Beijing has managed to fully cover the tracks leading to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

A team from the World Health Organization (WHO) was supposed to shed some light on the origin of the virus, but at the end of their inspection tour in January 2021, the members slipped the vital issues under the carpet and conveniently stated that initial findings suggested the most likely pathway the virus followed was from a bat to another animal and then to humans. They dismissed outright the possibility of the virus originating from the lab.

But l’Affaire Wuhan is not closed.

On March 4, a “Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation into the Origins of Covid-19”, was issued by some 28 senior world scientists. Speaking of the WHO’s China tour, they asserted, “We have reached the conclusion that the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses – whether natural spillover or laboratory/research-related incident.”

The eminent scientists further observed, “With more than two million deaths, more than a hundred million infected by Covid-19 worldwide, and a massive global disruption impacting some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, we cannot afford an investigation into the origins of the pandemic that is anything less than absolutely thorough and credible. If we fail to fully and courageously examine the origins of this pandemic, we risk being unprepared for a potentially worse pandemic in the future.”

Beijing is slowly, but surely losing its credibility worldwide. Further the role played by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is being speculated upon. Whether China manages or not to change the narrative and blame it on ‘foreign’ hands, the tragedy is bound to have deeper implications for the future of the Middle Kingdom.

Apart from the scientific recommendations of the Group of 30, an issue which needs to be immediately enquired is the role of an enigmatic personage: Chen Wei, a fifty-three-year-old PLA major general and a leading epidemiologist at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who was said to have developed the world’s first gene-based vaccine on ebola in 2014. She was sent to take over the Wuhan Institute of Virology on January 26, 2020, immediately after Beijing admitted the existence of the virus.

The Chinese press reported, “After arriving in Wuhan, Chen’s team started building a portable testing lab, which was in operation on January 30.” The State-run CCTV noted that Chen and her colleagues worked in shifts around the clock to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. The Global Times wrote, “People familiar with Chen Wei, all know one thing very well — she is fast. Chen walks fast, speaks fast, and works at a fast pace. Chen is now working to speed up the development of the vaccine of Covid-19 in China.”

But there is more to Gen Chen. Two months later, in March 2020, the Chinese media announced, “A Chinese doctor has stunned people around the world by injecting an untested vaccine for the coronavirus.” A commentator added, “Scientists in the country have been busily trying to find a way to beat Covid-19, however vaccines can usually take many months to go through testing and animal trials.

Speaking to China’s state-run TV network, Chen said, “We are doing all we can to put the recombinant vaccine that we are developing into clinical application. We must strive to bring the vaccine we are working on to clinical trial and application, providing strong technical support for winning this battle.”

This raises serious questions: why did the Chinese Army need to take over the P4 lab? How did Chen manage to produce a vaccine less than two months after the virus was officially found? Did she know beforehand about the virus?

One has to know that the P4 Institute of Virology in Wuhan is a high-tech facility partially funded and built by France. China had then a strong lobby in Paris led by former French Prime Ministers. When he had launched the research facilities in February 2017, Bernard Cazeneuve, the then French Prime Minister had declared, “France is proud and happy to have contributed to the construction of the first P4 high biosafety laboratory in China. …This cutting-edge tool constitutes a central element in the achievement of the 2004 intergovernmental agreement on Franco-Chinese cooperation in the prevention and fight against emerging infectious diseases.”

According to, “In January 2018, on the occasion of the state visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to China, the heads of state of the two countries signed agreements on bilateral cooperation and issued a joint statement stating: ‘China and France will conduct joint cutting-edge research on infectious and emerging diseases, relying on the P4 laboratory in Wuhan’. The medical and health field constitutes a very important part of the bilateral cooperation between the two countries.”

France then trusted China. But soon after, the French disappeared from the scene. The 50 researchers supposed to work on the project never reached Wuhan. Why was nothing made public? Was the PLA behind this? Could Gen Chen have used the P4 lab as a military facility in contradiction with the civilian agreement with France?

There are many questions that the unprofessional WHO team forgot to ask.

Xi Jinping had given the PLA’s medical teams the responsibility to win the ‘War’. When on March 10, 2020, Xi visited Wuhan to announce ‘victory’, the Chinese president took the opportunity to reaffirm the PLA’s leading role in fighting the virus.

Many more questions need to be asked today, especially after the second deadly wave in India. Why was the P4 lab, a civilian collaboration between France and China, handed over to the PLA, with Paris remaining silent? Was Gen Chen sent to clean up all the compromising evidence in January 2020? Were the French asked to leave Wuhan or did they leave on their own?

Macron’s government recently donated generously for India’s medical equipment needs, including a large number of high capacity oxygen generators. This was appreciated a lot. But he would now do a great service to humanity if he would tell the world about the cause of the end of the Sino-French collaboration in Wuhan and what happened in the P4 Lab between the beginning of 2018 and the end of 2019. L’Affaire Wuhan should not be closed.

The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.

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Bangladesh has sent Covid medicines to its trusted friend India as a sign of friendship during this tormenting situation. The nation stands by its close neighbour with sympathy and is ready to extend all possible assistance to save lives.

Indian Army Chief General Mukund Naravane had brought one lakh doses of the Covid-19 vaccine as a gift during a visit to Bangladesh last month. Earlier in March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave 1.2 million doses of the vaccine to its neighbour. 20 lakh doses of the vaccine also came as a gift from India in the first shipment. In addition to the 33 lakh doses sent as gifts, India has sent 8 million doses of the vaccine commercially to Bangladesh.

Now, before it could send the next consignment under the agreement, India is seeing a major crisis due to Covid. Every day there are new records of deaths and infections. In such a situation, like other countries in the world, Bangladesh also stands by its nearest neighbour and friend, India.

A week ago, Bangladesh gifted 10,000 vials of the remdesivir injection needed for Covid treatment to India. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, this is the first shipment of medicines and healthcare products sent by Bangladesh to help the people of India in the current situation. Bangladesh’s Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata, Tawfiq Hasan, handed over 10,000 vials of the antiviral medicine to a representative of the Government of India at Petrapole on the Indian border. These injections are made by Beximco, a leading Bangladeshi pharmaceutical company. The injections have been sent by the people of Bangladesh on the instructions of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as medical aid to people suffering from Covid in India.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi wrote in a tweet after the medicines were received: “By air, by sea and now by water. A consignment of emergency medicines has entered West Bengal through the land border at Petrapole. Thank you to our neighbor and close friend Bangladesh for this courtesy and cooperation. It will take our unique relationship further.”

In Dhaka, the foreign ministry had said in a statement on April 29 that Bangladesh offered to send emergency medicine and medical supplies to India to fight the epidemic. These included about 10,000 vials of antiviral injections, oral antivirals, 30,000 PPE kits and 7,000 tablets of zinc, calcium, vitamin C and other essential medicines.

Speaking at a press conference in New Delhi on the same day, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Sringla said, “Bangladesh is saying that we are producing remdesivir. Take it from us. Why they are saying, because they feel that this is the time for cooperation. India is cooperating with us and we have to cooperate with them.”

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Government of Bangladesh has expressed deep sorrow and grief over the loss of lives in India due to the spread of Covid-19. The people of Bangladesh are praying for the relief of the people of India. If necessary, Bangladesh is interested in cooperating further with India.

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The episode of how Satyajit Ray walked away from a promising career in Hollywood, inspiring in its wake multiple American films based on his story about a benevolent extraterrestrial, is yet another instance of how the legendary auteur left his mark on cinema.

Bhuvan Lall



On Thursday, 1 June 1967, an unusually tall and handsome Indian presented his passport in the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport. The immigration official questioned the well-dressed man who had an intellectual bearing and was carrying a still camera. The forty-six-year-old responded in a sophisticated British accent, stating his name was Satyajit Ray and he was a filmmaker. Ray entered America and as per the law was termed an Alien (foreign national). The Lincoln convertible transporting him navigated Los Angeles’ hectic traffic and turned into the luxurious Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. Ray was checked into a stylish fully-equipped two-storied cottage. The Hollywood sign glowed at a distance in the hills. Ray had arrived in the dream factory of the world. And like countless filmmakers before him, he too had a Hollywood movie brewing in his mind.

Ray with his honorary Oscar.

This was not Ray’s first brush with Hollywood. Early on, as a film enthusiast during the 1940s, he had watched the movies of Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Huston in Calcutta (Kolkata now). In 1949 he encountered Jean Renoir who was scouting for locations for his Hollywood film, The River. Renoir’s film was partly funded by Ken McEldowney, a famous florist who owned Los Angeles’ first drive-through flower shop. Ray later recalled, “I went there one day and saw him and introduced myself. I got to know him quite well, because I knew the countryside quite well and he wanted someone to guide him, so he took me along on Sundays and weekends.” Ray, the completely self-taught filmmaker, was inspired by Renoir and produced his first film Pather Panchali with music by Ravi Shankar. Travelling through India, John Huston viewed an excerpt and commented, “A fine, sincere piece of film-making”. The lyricism, compassion, and insight of Ray’s path-breaking film won unprecedented international acclaim including the Best Human Document at Cannes in 1956. The film established Ray as one of the world’s great filmmakers much as Rashomon had done for Akira Kurosawa. In 1958, the United States Information Service arranged for Ray’s month-long trip to the east and west coast of America. He admitted, “This was an opportunity I’d hate to miss because it meant staying in Hollywood and showing my film there”. On Monday 22 September 1958, on his first outing in America, Ray stood in the foyer of the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York. Distributor Edward Harrison had placed an advertisement on the twenty-sixth page of The New York Times publicising Pather Panchali’s American premiere. According to Ray, “I watched the audience surge out of the theatre bleary-eyed and visibly shaken.” The film eventually ran for eight months in New York. Later after the screening at the Writers’ Guild auditorium in Los Angeles, George Stevens cordially felicitated him for his passion for the cultural heritage of India and fixed his appointment with Billy Wilder. Ray arrived at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood where Wilder was shooting Some Like It Hot. On seeing the celebrated Indian filmmaker, Wilder exclaimed, “You won a prize at Cannes? Well, I guess you’re an artist. But I’m not. I’m just a commercial man, and I like it that way.” In America, Ray, though reserved by nature, had long conversations with Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, and Stanley Kubrick. On his return to Calcutta, he recorded his impressions, “The East is still as far away from the West as it has ever been…”

In the middle of 1966, on Kubrick’s invitation Ray entered the massive sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the MGM studios in Borehamwood, England. Here he discussed an idea for a science fiction film with writer Arthur C Clarke. Then a New Zealander, Michael Wilson, working as a filmmaker in Sri Lanka, arrived at Ray’s home with a glowing reference from Clarke. Ray’s wife Bijoya recalled the visit, “One day a young man called Mike Wilson came to our house from Sri Lanka with an unusual proposal. He asked Manik (Ray) to make a film in English for Hollywood.” Ray was amiable and began working on a Hollywood screenplay based on his original story “Bonkubabur Bondhu” (Bonkubabu’s Friend) that appeared in the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh in 1962. Set in an Indian village it portrayed the friendship between a small boy and a benevolent extraterrestrial with superhuman powers. It was titled “The Alien”. Canadian documentary filmmaker James Beveridge captured Ray undertaking location scouting for the film. Normally Ray’s films were produced with minuscule resources, but The Alien needed a large canvas and world-class visual effects. That’s where Hollywood came in. Ray had his reservations about the creative control mechanism of Hollywood. Previously, Oscar winner David O. Selznick had offered Ray a film with Jennifer Jones but he felt alienated amongst the overflowing studios and temperamental stars. so he declined. Nevertheless, copies of Ray’s The Alien reached the desks of studio executives in Los Angeles. On the other end of the planet, Columbia Pictures was struggling and needed a breakthrough movie. Ray’s script for The Alien indicated box office potential. In the summer of 1967, a cable was transmitted to Calcutta, summoning the cinematic poet from India.

On a sun-drenched morning in June 1967, Ray, driven by his associate Wilson, entered the Columbia Pictures Studios on Sunset Boulevard. In the meeting with the top echelons at Columbia, Ray visualized The Alien with Marlon Brando or Steve McQueen as the American engineer and Peter Sellers as the Indian businessman. The meeting with Sellers at Ravi Shankar’s home in Los Angeles had gone well and both Brando and McQueen were enthused. Designer Saul Bass was to create the wordless alien creature from outer space. In an unprecedented decision, Columbia straightaway offered to greenlight the multi-million-dollar movie titled “The Alien” in English and “Avatar” in Bengali, with Ray retaining the final cut. Ray was photographed across from the Dolores Restaurant for a publicity still and American newspaper headlines announced ‘Famous Director Of India Accepts Hollywood Challenge’. Shortly thereafter Ray shockingly discovered copies of his script on the desk of Wilson’s Chateau Marmont room with the credit: “Copyright: Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray.” Equally disconcerted Columbia executives subtly hinted that they preferred an exclusive contract with Ray excluding the middleman Wilson. With profound uneasiness, Ray called Bijoya on 18 June to say that he would have to stay for a while longer and would be back by the end of the month. She too had her apprehensions about Wilson. On one occasion in Calcutta, Wilson, fretting that Ray never touched alcohol, had told her, “He has managed to reach such heights without drugs; just imagine what he could have done had he taken some…”. On 28 June 1967, Ray returned from Hollywood to his flat in downtown Calcutta and shared his premonition with Bijoya, “I have great doubts of the film ever being made”. He explained, “They’ve enthusiastically approved my story. Yet I have a feeling that the whole project will come to naught.” Subsequently, Ray discovered in a meeting with Columbia in London that Wilson had unethically appropriated the $10,000 advance. Surprisingly, even Sellers pulled out, and in the film The Party, named his pet monkey ‘Apu’. The thoroughly distasteful experience that continued till late 1968 compelled Ray to gracefully shelve The Alien. Even though Columbia Pictures stayed committed, he walked away from a promising career in Hollywood and also relinquished the opportunity of reaching a global audience with Columbia’s distribution.

In February 1972, Ray revealed to The New York Times, “I have no desire to work outside of India. I have had offers to go to California, but I’m not used to working in a studio setup. I fear I’ll lose my freedom…” Essentially, Ray concluded, “the West took the slightest interest in India… A vast subcontinent with one of the oldest and richest traditions of art, music and literature existed only to be ignored.” Nevertheless, Ray’s films continued to be released in arthouse cinemas in America acquiring a rare cult following. And in Hollywood Meryl Streep. appreciating Ray’s pictures, maintained, “His handling of actress Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata shows how much respect and dignity Ray gave to his actresses. That itself is the hallmark of a true director. I have not an iota of doubt that if Ray worked in Hollywood, he would have proved a tough competition for the likes of Sir David Lean, Francis Ford Coppola and Sir Alan Parker.” Afterwards, Hollywood movies outwardly inspired by Ray’s The Alien kept surfacing. The erudite filmmaker insisted that such imitations “would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies”. In the end, Ray had no interest in pursuing the issue. Tragically, The Alien perished in Hollywood and remained a great might-have-been by a master filmmaker.

Years later in November 1991, the governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood debated the names for a possible Honorary Oscar. Honorary awards were not annual, could not be conferred posthumously and a two-thirds vote was required by the board of governors. Martin Scorsese, who as a teenager had admired Ray’s signature work, the Apu Trilogy, at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York, proposed his name and swiftly got the backing of Hollywood luminaries and legendary filmmakers. Significantly, Elia Kazan asserted, “It can truly be said in his case that when we honour him, we are honouring ourselves.” Then on a December day in 1991, an Indian post and telegraph employee rushed up the flights of stairs in an old building at Bishop Lefroy Road to the doorstep of Satyajit Ray’s flat in Calcutta. A telegram from Karl Malden, President of the Academy declared that Ray was to be the recipient of Hollywood’s highest accolade, the Honorary Oscar for his career in the moving pictures as a cinematic auteur. On receiving the news, Ray, both surprised and elated, remarked, “For a film-maker, an Oscar is like a Nobel Prize.” An ailing Ray scheduled a trip to Hollywood for the Oscar ceremony, combined with a visit to his cardiologists in Texas. But a health relapse forced him into seclusion at the Belle Vue Clinic in Calcutta. Around early March 1992, the Academy dispatched a three-member delegation from California to Calcutta. Professor Dilip Basu, representing the Oscar committee, disembarked at Dum Dum airport after the long intercontinental flight, tightly clasping his briefcase that transported the Honorary Oscar. And on 16 March 1992, after obtaining the cardiologist’s permission, the delegation filmed Ray’s acceptance speech in the intensive care unit. For the first time in its history, an Oscar was presented outside the ceremony.

Finally, on the night of 30 March 1992, one of the grandest days of Ray’s life, at the 64th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn walked on to the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. She had earlier requested Ray for the correct pronunciation of his name (pronounced ‘rye’) and now she announced, “The Academy Board of Governors has voted to award an Honorary Oscar to the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Academy recognizes Mr Ray’s rare mastery of the arts of motion pictures and his profound humanism which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world…”. Amid tremendous applause and a short montage of his works, Ray appeared in a videotaped speech, holding the Oscar statuette on his hospital bed. With his characteristic restrained humour, he graciously accepted the honour, stating, “Well, it is an extraordinary experience for me to be here tonight to receive this magnificent award, certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career. When I was a schoolboy, I was terribly interested in the cinema. I became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin, got a reply, was delighted…wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn’t get a reply. Then of course I got interested in cinema as an art form and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn’t reply either. Well, there you are…. Everything I have learned about the craft of cinema is from the making of American films. I have been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for how they entertained and later loved them for what they taught. So, I express my gratitude to the American Cinema, to the Motion Picture Association, for giving me this award and for making me feel so proud. Thank you very, very much.”

After the awards function, Hepburn traced Billy Wilder who mailed Ray an invite to discuss Double Indemnity in Hollywood. Sadly that was not to be, as less than a month later, on 23 April 1992, death came to India’s national treasure Satyajit Ray. Subsequently, at the suggestion of Hepburn, the Academy along with Professor Basu’s Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at UC Santa Cruz launched a project to restore over a dozen of Ray’s films. On 21 April 1995, Sony Pictures Classics through the ministrations of Merchant Ivory Productions, re-released nine of Ray’s restored masterworks across America. And in Hollywood, Los Angeles Times’ reviewer noted, “There are so many masterpieces in Ray’s filmography that his output is more than astonishing – it’s almost superhuman. And yet Ray was a supremely human artist.”

Bhuvan Lall is the author of “The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose” and “The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal”. He can be reached at

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Joyeeta Basu



The doomsayers have spoken. Three weeks of India going through one of its worst health crises ever, faced with a once-in-a-century pandemic and they have started writing the end of the India story. Many see India losing its global standing, its regional standing, with its image dented and the back of its economy broken as it fails to counter the growing influence of China in the neighbourhood. The rest of the predictions go like—the focus on Indo-Pacific will be a non-starter, as US and European Union will continue to have their trade relations with China; and since India has been badly battered, it may not even have the resources to be at the core of the Quad’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Needless to say, much of this commentary is emanating from China, which—according to media reports—while claiming to be by India’s side, has been gloating over India’s troubles. And as it happens with India and Indians, for every such narrative being spun from either China or internationally, it is being amplified by interests who would like to see India fail if that means a failure of the present political dispensation.

It’s a different matter that India is too big and too resilient for it to cease to matter globally. The world will be at peril if India with its 1.3 billion population fails. But the pictures of doom and gloom that are being transmitted across the globe have the definite purpose of showing India in a poor light as an investment destination and as a strategic partner of the western world. But then, if India was a spent power and the Quad a non-starter, why are Chinese diplomats going around arm-twisting a small country like Bangladesh warning it against “joining” the Quad? Why is China nervous if it was so secure in the knowledge that with the fulcrum of Quad—India—melting away, its competition for an alternative supply chain has dissolved? The reality is, no one knows it better than China that India may be going through a terrible crisis, and China may be cutting deals with the West, but that is not stopping world powers from converging on the Indo-Pacific. This is happening because they recognize the malign nature of China, a manifestation of which is the pandemic coursing its way through the globe. India may be bearing the brunt of the second wave, but now other countries—including Taiwan, which was believed to have managed the pandemic—too are witnessing a rise in cases. But nothing seems t be happening in China. Serious questions are being raised about the nature of the virus, including the reference to the documents with the US State Department that say that Chinese military scientists allegedly were talking in 2015 about militarising the SARS coronaviruses.

Several questions exist about the exact nature of the virus, and how it was allowed to spread across the globe by sending out people internationally from China, even though domestic travel was banned. But until now no serious attempt has been made to hold China accountable for what it has done to the world. Amidst this, the World Health Organization has been whitewashing China’s role as the originator and spreader of the virus. But if that has not stopped the powers that matter from converging on the Indo-Pacific, it’s because the civilized world realizes that China, if left unchecked, can be a serious threat to them. Of course, only time will tell if economic ties with China can be decoupled from security interests. Amidst this, the mistake that the Chinese have made is underestimating India, which may be down, but is anything but out. Even in the middle of the pandemic India sent out a strong message to China by not allowing any Chinese companies to participate in the 5G trials. Losing India’s billion-plus market and India’s meta-data would have dealt a body blow to China. India needs to get its act together in many areas, but it has the capacity to make China pay. And that is what worries China.

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