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NO, MINISTER

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Even teams led by experienced and expert captains suffer from occasional self-goals. These are usually a consequence of the best of intentions, but end up as embarrassments. There was in the recent past a stray statement by a Union Minister that the gallant soldiers of the Indian Army had moved several more times in the direction of the PRC than PLA forces moving in the other direction. The movement of Indian troops, who are and have always been seeking only to safeguard or to re-occupy territory that belongs to India, cannot be compared to the transgressions of the PLA, which is seeking to expand through military means the territory controlled by them, every bit at the expense of India. That remark of a minister, possibly reported out of context, was swiftly used by PRC spin masters to try and spread the falsehood internationally that it was Indian forces and not the PLA who were theaggressors on the LAC.

Fortunately, the world knows the truth, and such deception was not believed except by the usual suspects, such as Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is swift to repeat as gospel whatever gets conveyed from Beijing. The minister who made the earlier (possibly misquoted) remark has distinguished himself for his service both before and after joining the Council of Ministers at the Centre, and has not repeated the earlier remark attributed to him. The movement of Indian troops is to safeguard existing control over land and to recover territory that has been snatched in the past. This can never be compared with the transgressions of the PLA, which has joined hands with GHQ Rawalpindi in the errand of seeking to constrain and damage the growth and stability of India. These need to fail repeatedly, an outcome that can be made possible through strong will and capability on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues. Care needs to be taken to avoid statements that can be used by the other side to obscure facts and to discredit the factual narrative that has been disseminated by India about the situation on the borders.

The armed forces defend the territory of India with zeal when given full support by the government. In several statements and through many actions, Prime Minister Modi has shown his commitment to stand by the courageous men and women in uniform who are tasked with defending the borders of the Republic of India, the most populous democracy on the face of the planet. Moreover, ours is a country that alone in its neighbourhood has remained a democracy and not fallen victim to authoritarian rule of any form, save a brief period of quasi-authoritarian rule during 1975-77 that was swiftly replaced with the holding of elections that led to the replacement of the existing government through the ballot box and to a peaceful and orderly transfer of power from Indira Gandhi to Morarji Desai in the PrimeMinister’s Office.

Now another self-goal has been scored, in the form of the remarks of a Union Minister that the power outage in Mumbai was not the consequence of a cyberattack executed by elements in the PRC but was the consequence of “human error”. The statement is reminiscent of several made by other policymakers in the past, when unexplained misfortunes afflicted some of the most potent weapons platforms of different wings of the armed forces. In some cases, entire platforms were rendered inoperable, to great human and material cost, besides causing gaps in defence preparedness. Very quickly, unnamed sources rushed to pin the blame on “human error”, whether these relate to naval personnel or air force pilots. Both risk their lives in defence of the country and have shown an exceptional degree of competence in handling the weapons given to them to operate. The possibility seems to have been ignored of malfunctioning of equipment as a consequence of glitches introduced clandestinely, and which have had the effect of so damaging operational capability that nothing the pilot or seaman did could have rescued the situation.

In the past, there were serial deaths of those associated with the nuclear and missile programme, and the dots were first connected by the Sunday Guardian after having been in the open for several years, in each of which those connected with these key programmes had their number reduced through “accidental” deaths or “suicides”. Circumstances indicated that such hastily reached conclusions were far from accurate. That there was a cyberattack is not a reflection on the Power Ministry but a warning that this is a threat needing much more attention than shown in the past. There are powerful lobbies involved in the import of critical infrastructure equipment from countries that have a record of hostility to India expressed in a kinetic way. Such lobbies should not be given a handle to continue to keep the country vulnerable through dependence on equipment or other services from companies deeply involved with strengthening the offensive capabilities of at least two foreign militaries that have attacked India in the past, and are expected to do so again. There must not be a rush to hasty conclusions and the giving of clean chits to those companies and entities who are transparent in their linkages to enemy forces, including in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, territory that belongs to India and where no other country has a right.

Prime Minister Modi has spoken firmly and often about the dangers facing the country. Among the reasons why the PM is popular is the trust voters have in his ability to defend the nation. That same strength of purpose and determination should be present in each of the members of the government. The country is facing a grave threat, and action is needed to reduce vulnerabilities and to expand capabilities. In such a task, it is all hands-on deck, and an end to remarks by policymakers that may be used by foes of India to paint themselves as innocent of the wrongs that they have flagrantly committed.

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Opinion

THE POLITICS OF COVID-19

Priya Sahgal

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Finally, the Kumbh Mela has been called off and the politicians too (most of them) have decided to address virtual rallies instead of crowded ones, but the damage has been done. Were these measures too late? Both on the ground in terms of the spreading Covid surge, and I don’t believe the excuse that the rallies are in West Bengal, while the Kumbh Mela was in UP, so how will they impact Maharashtra and Delhi? We are living in a borderless world and even if Maharashtra and Punjab have been affected by visitors from the UK and the US, it is not to say that the rallies and the Kumbh Mela won’t take their toll on an already burdened healthcare system. The numbers will come in later, especially once the devotees and political leaders go back to wherever they came from. And we will once again see another spike before this one has been flattened out.

The politicians make these decisions, and it is the ordinary citizens that suffer. We are told that the lockdown could not have been avoided. But from all our actions, we have been heading straight into lockdown 2.0. This includes our rather nationalistic vaccination strategy that totally failed to ensure that there was enough to go around. Again, a decision has been made to rectify this situation. And again I ask, why couldn›t this decision have been taken earlier? 

In the end, we are once again seeing hordes of migrants heading to the bus stations and railway stations; while most middle class families are once again staring at their bank statements. The economic fall is a crisis waiting to happen. The government was able to inject some liquidity in the market in the last few months, but at some point it will have to tighten the interest rates due to inflationary pressure. What happens then? Again, it is clear that the states are broke and the only one with the money is the Centre. Where will the Centre raise the money from—by taxing the already overburdened salaried class? 

And what about our healthcare system? Was there any learning from last year? Our budget barely made provisions to handle an ongoing pandemic. Perhaps our policy makers were lulled into thinking that with the vaccination, the worst was over. But with the vaccinations barely able to handle the changing mutations, clearly this is not the case. Our doctors are nearing a breakdown point. They are doing tele-consultations, hospital visits and countering WhatsApp forwards.

We have all been so shaken by this second surge that is also affecting our kids, that we need a doctor›s okay for even the most basic medicines. And they just don›t have the time or the energy anymore. Over stressed laboratories now cannot even handle routine blood tests. Once again, as what happened last year, routine and in some cases life threatening ailments are being ignored to handle the Covid onslaught. Most laboratories have drive-in centres for Covid testing to take the pressure of house calls, but while the timing of these are from 10 am onwards, the slots are all filled up by 10.02 am. I have had Dr Harsh Mahajan, founder, Mahajan Imaging, on Roundtable (NewsX) making a plea to state governments to stop routine tests for those crossing state borders as it adds to the already burdened system and those who really need the test done in a hurry have to wait. He has a point. These are desperate times.

Apart from the healthcare system, shouldn’t our budget have looked at the economic drivers such as the hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors? It had barely begun to limp back when the second lockdown had thrown it back into a tailspin. Restaurants are once again reduced to take away counters and that is not where their revenue comes in. Malls are once again locked down as are gym and spas. Commercial real estate is at an all-time low, though residential real estate has taken off in these Covid times where work from home means you don›t have to live in an expensive apartment near your work place, but can actually invest in your own home in the suburbs.

These are not easy times. These are also times that need to see a strong leadership—by strong I don›t just mean a strong personality that can lead, but also one that takes the right policy decisions. During the last month, our Prime Minister has been too busy being a star campaigner. It is only in the last few days that we have seen him revert back to being PM. Hope he stays the course.

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Opinion

BORIS JOHNSON NOT SERIOUS ABOUT INDIA-UK TIES

Joyeeta Basu

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did it again—cancelled his visit to India. The visit was scheduled for next week, but was cancelled because of the current surge in coronavirus infections in India. The first time he did it was for Republic Day, when he was invited to be the chief guest but cancelled the trip because of a surge in infections in UK. While a Prime Minister going abroad when coronavirus is sweeping across his/her country can be bad optics domestically, by cancelling next week’s visit Boris Johnson essentially expressed his lack of confidence in the Indian government’s ability to protect him from the virus. This is rather strange considering a state guest of the stature of Boris Johnson would have been accorded the same security protocol that this country’s Prime Minister is given. A sanitized bubble would have been created for him, just the way it is created for the Prime Minister of this country when he is travelling. Anyway, the visit was meant to be a short one and only to New Delhi, and not to other cities that he was initially supposed to go to. So where was the need to cancel it? The irony is, it was his own government which failed to create a bubble for Boris Johnson, because of which the British Prime Minister ended up contracting the virus a few months ago.

The visit to India was supposed to be PM Johnson’s first major overseas trip after being elected to office in December 2019. If he had continued with the visit, he would have been considered a true friend of India. Instead, by cancelling it he proved that he was not serious about UK’s ties with India. This has to be seen in the context of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to New Delhi last week—in the middle of the pandemic—when he had a full-fledged meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Let’s also not forget that the corona pandemic did not stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from visiting Bangladesh to participate in that country’s golden jubilee celebrations. Internationally too such visits are taking place, a case in point being Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden at a time when the pandemic is raging in both countries. It is from actions like these that the depth of a relationship is proven—how much importance leaders and countries give to ties with other countries. And obviously, in spite of all those Indian origin ministers in Boris Johnson’s government, in spite of the presence of such a huge Indian diaspora in the UK, in spite of the apparent collaboration in different areas, UK’s relationship with India just does not have that kind of depth.

India is no longer the British colony it once was, while UK is yet to recover from its colonial hangover, so finds it difficult to accommodate India’s interests—a case in point being the trouble that India faces trying to get some crooks extradited from there. Also, it appalls Indians that the UK allows its parliamentarians to discuss India’s internal matters and cast aspersions on India’s democracy, or that India’s high commission in London is attacked by Pakistan-backed radicals but the British government doesn’t take any action, or that British soil is allowed to become a hotbed for anti-India activities. And all these things have been happening on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s watch. There exists a lot of scepticism about UK in India. Moreover, the British media’s blanket negative coverage about anything India and Indian is seen as problematic by a large section of policymakers in this country. Boris Johnson has not done anything “spectacular” about India ever since he has taken over as Prime Minister—first as a successor to Theresa May in July 2019, and then elected Prime Minister in December 2019—that should inspire India’s confidence in him. Even his current focus is primarily about having a trade agreement with India, now that Britain is out of the European Union. It’s not known how interested he is in paying heed to India’s concerns. UK also wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific perhaps because every European power has started sailing its vessels there. But then Britain’s presence in the Indo-Pacific can only strengthen the alliance of the free world and may help in containing China, so that is welcome.

There is a lot that India and UK can do together. A visit by Boris Johnson would have gone a long way in building trust. Instead, news is that soon after PM Johnson said that he was not travelling to India, Britain added this nation to its red list of countries from where most travel is banned. And this in spite of India being generous enough about continuing its flights to and from the UK at a time when the UK strain was sweeping through Britain—the strain that largely caused this second wave in India. But then India approached India-UK bilateral ties in the true spirit of partnership. But the way things are shaping up, UK under Boris Johnson is not a reliable partner for India. India has shown enough generosity towards UK. Not anymore. It’s time India sent out a message to UK by withdrawing its invitation to PM Boris Johnson.

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Opinion

The difference between faith and fanaticism

A person of faith recognises the truth that God is, whoever it may be, for him and others, while a fanatic is certain that only s/he knows who or what God is and is blinded by her/his passion. That is where differences between the two arise.

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Fanaticism has been in evidence across the world. Even Europe has no respite from the scourge, as one saw during the summer of 2016—from the acts of terrorism in Brussels on 22 March to the machete attack in Belgium on 6 August. And the trend continues till date. This wave of fanaticism raises certain questions for all people of faith. They are proud of the strength of their religious convictions, but so is the fanatic. What then sets a person of faith apart from a fanatic?

This question becomes particularly relevant in the context of terrorism, as one could pose a similar question about terrorism. The state uses violent force to combat terrorism but the terrorist also uses violent force against the state. So what is the difference between the two? All of us feel uneasy with an equation of this kind but we need to think clearly about this issue in order to feel clearly about it. In a country, the state has a monopoly on the use of violent force, which is supervised by a democratically elected government. Such moral and legal supervision is lacking in the case of a fanatic and that is why the apparent equation is misleading.

The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realizes that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways. But most will acknowledge, even the most faithful, that we can only know God as we can relate to God, not to God as God, not to God as God is by himself, herself, or itself. Right there we have a built-in check which prevents honest and profound faith from degenerating into fanaticism, because fanaticism presumes to know what God is. It is strange that sometimes religions tend to believe that they have a monopoly on God and that’s where fanaticism comes in. But if they examine the concepts of God in their own traditions, they will find that the traditions insist that one cannot know God fully.

Allow me to elaborate this point with an example from Islam, since some members of this tradition have been associated with many acts of terrorism in recent times. The fanatic member of this tradition is out to get the infidel, but in order to define someone as an infidel, we need to know who a true Muslim is. At this point a crucial distinction in Islam between the legal and theological identity of a Muslim becomes crucial. According to Islamic law, any person who recites the Islamic confession of faith in good faith in the presence of witnesses must be accepted as a Muslim and may not be denied access to a gathering of Muslims. He or she may not observe all the obligations of being a Muslim, such as performing the five prayers daily, but that only means that the person is not a good Muslim and cannot mean that she is not a Muslim. Thus, while the distinction between a Muslim and a non-believer is fairly clear in legal terms, the theological understanding of who is a Muslim is much more subtle. Whether one is a true believer or not is known only to God, and one and oneself only really know whether one is a true believer or not in the presence of God on the Day of Judgement. One can see how easy it is to fall in the gulf between these two understandings.

Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between truth and certainty. Often, when we think we are seeking truth, we are really seeking certainty. If such is the case then, yes, there is great potential for fanaticism in a faith, if we arrive at a conclusion and feel that it is absolutely certain. But the genuine seeker after truth realizes that we ourselves cannot know everything conclusively, except perhaps for the conclusion that ‘God is.’ Admittedly, there is a discomfort involved here. But if we can live with it—and all genuine faith recognises that we have to—then we have a built-in check against fanaticism, in faith itself.

Another distinction gains importance in this context. Whether one is a person of faith or a fanatic also depends on our attitude towards other people of faith. If we are certain that the people of other faiths are condemned, and abide by the ‘legal’ conception of one’s identity, then we have no purchase on our spirituality. If, however, we realise that only God can pronounce such a judgement and not mere human beings, then, as people of faith, it might be easier for us to understand that there are other people who are also people of faith like us. And that if we deny them their right to their faith, then in a sense we are questioning our own faith, or at least our humanity. Actually, when you become a fanatic, then in a sense, instead of worshiping God, you start playing God. Thus, like any other passion, even religious or moral passion can blind a person.

The writer is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at the McGill University in Montréal, Canada. He is also associated with the Nalanda University in India. The views expressed are personal.

The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realises that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways.

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Opinion

COVID WREAKS HAVOC ACROSS INDIA AS DEATH FIGURES MOUNT

Pankaj Vohra

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Multiple theories regarding the sudden surge in Covid cases across India, particularly in metropolitan cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, have come up with the government struggling to bring the situation under control. It is being said that China could have unleashed a double mutant of the virus in West Asia from where it has travelled all the way to this country since there is a large Indian diaspora which lives in that part of the world. According to this theory, the new strain of virus may have come to Mumbai, Delhi and Kerala, through Dubai. In any case, the mounting cases are a cause of immense worry, and both the state as well as Central governments should prepare themselves for meeting this growing challenge.

Another issue that is being debated is that why was the Sputnik vaccine not made immediately available here, even after reputed medical journals had rated its efficacy higher than that of other vaccines. It is evident that the powerful pharmaceutical lobbies operating out of the West and in parts of India, were interested in keeping the Russian product out of the market. The pharma companies have made tonnes of money in the past couple of months and many people who have been vaccinated were also getting afflicted, which effectively means that the pandemic is far more dangerous than what was the initial assessment.

It has to be clearly understood by all political parties that Covid does not carry any election symbol and therefore it was most important to keep politics out of this nationwide effort to combat this dreaded disease. There have been suggestions that like Britain, India should go in for a prolonged lockdown in order to decrease the number of cases. The flip side of this argument is that in an economically depressed nation like ours, people have to go out and work in order to support their families. There are reports of migrants once again returning to their native places. In the past 13 months, so many people have lost jobs or have their salaries reduced to one-fourth and in many cases, have not been paid for months. The Centre must come out with a policy to safeguard the interests of the citizens who are essentially bearing the brunt of this pandemic.

It is really strange that the Election Commission has chosen not to merge the remaining phases of the Bengal elections, even though several political parties have urged the constitutional body to do so. Election rallies and religious congregations must be immediately curtailed. What is unexplainable is that when schools and colleges can be closed and examinations postponed indefinitely, why cannot an appropriate decision be taken regarding the elections which are being needlessly prolonged. India must take some firm steps by involving experts who can help in providing solutions. The political establishment has been found inadequate in dealing with the matter. Therefore, the issue should now be dealt with experts who can help in containing the pandemic. Wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance is a reality that should not be allowed to be ignored.

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Opinion

PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES NEED TO GO BEYOND QUESTIONS OF CONVENIENCE

Private sector can play a significant role in realising the goal of expansion, equity and excellence as envisaged in NEP-2020, provided it makes right kind of investment in areas like curriculum reforms, recruitment of competent faculty, and research and development.

Ved Prakash

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The first attempt to lay down the foundation of modern Indian higher education was made in 1781 by the people of Calcutta when they petitioned Governor General Warren Hastings to establish institutions of higher learning. He paid no heed to their appeal for a long time. British did not want to repeat the same folly which they had committed in America by establishing educational institutions and losing control over its territory.

After what seemed like a long wait of thirty-six years, Raja Rammohan Roy formed an association and founded the Hindu College at Calcutta on 20 January 1817. This was the outcome of an altruistic desire of the people of Calcutta to improve human welfare. Soon after that, in the same year, the CMS College, Kottayam was established by the Church Missionary Society of England. There is a little controversy about the year of establishment of CMS College as some still believe that it is the oldest existing college, two years older than the Hindu College.

The philanthropic endeavour of these two groups caught the imagination of the people of the country, resulting in some more colleges in the later part of the nineteenth century. Prominent amongst them are Serampore College (1818), Agra College (1823), Wilson College, Bombay (1832), Medical College, Calcutta (1835), Grant Medical College, Bombay (1835), St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli (1844), Krishnagar Government College, Nadia (1846), Thomason College of Civil Engineering (1847), Elphinstone College Bombay (1856), Brennen College, Thalassery (1862), Christ Church College, Kanpur (1866), St. Xavier’s College, Bombay (1869), St. Stephen’s College, Delhi (1881), Fergusson College, Pune (1885), Khalsa College, Amritsar (1892), Hindu College, Delhi (1899), Cotton College, Guwahati (1901), Ramjas College (1904), St. Bede’s College, Shimla (1904), etc. All these colleges were established by arduous efforts of social reformers, philanthropists and missionaries as the government was not keen to spend on the education of Indian citizens.

The first wave of expansion of colleges in the country was mostly due to private enterprises. The scope of higher education widened a little with the arrival of Wood’s Despatch of 1854 in which he made the recommendation of establishing three universities in the country on the model of University of London. The main function of these three universities, that were established in 1857 in the cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, was visualized to confer only degrees after testing the value of education imparted not on their campuses but through different colleges.

Subsequently, some more universities were established through the efforts of luminaries like Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Sir Akbar Hydari, Sir Syed Ahmed, Thakur Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, Sir Hari Singh Gaur, Pratap Singh Gaekwad, Krishnaraja Wodeyar, to name a few. In fact, higher education in India owes a great debt to private initiatives undertaken by people and societies of variegated backgrounds including social reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Pachayappa Mudaliar and societies like the Deccan Education Society and the Arya Samaj. It was their selfless service to the society with no profit motive. Ironically, the spirit of that selflessness amongst most of the present set of educational entrepreneurs is incredibly lacking.

Most of the institutions during the pre-independence period were established with the help of generous donations from private individuals and princely states. Over the years, they found it difficult to support their programs due to growing enrollment and lower rates of internal recoveries leading to depletion of resources. There were only 21 universities at the time of independence and of them, 9 were teaching universities and all others were teaching-cum-affiliating. There were about 500 colleges that were affiliated with these universities. All of them gradually turned into grant-in-aid institutions.

There has been a steady increase in the number of universities during the post-independent period. However, it remained confined only to the public sector because there was no legislative framework available for the establishment of private universities. The era of liberalisation put an intense pressure on the state governments to open up the sector for private service providers as the public system was not in a position to fulfil the aspirations of swelling the middle class population. Thus, a beginning was made by the states of Madhya Pradesh and Sikkim in 1995 when they enacted legislations for the establishment of private universities and set up one university each. Thereafter, the government of Chhattisgarh went overboard in this direction and established as many as 112 private universities within a short span of one year, in 2002. The government of Chhattisgarh enacted the law in a manner that had completely done away with any kind of control of the Regulators (UGC) over these private universities. It compelled the former Chairman of the UGC, Prof. Yashpal, to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court against the government of Chhattisgarh and others, which resulted into complete shutdown of those universities in 2005.

After the severe jolt in Chhattisgarh case, the private entrepreneurs resorted to an alternate option, of becoming a deemed to be university. Consequently, the number of deemed to be universities shot up exponentially from 72 to 128 within a short span of four years from 2005 to 2009. Such a sudden spike in the number of deemed to be universities sent an alarm bell ringing in certain quarters compelling the UGC to replace its guidelines with the rigorous Regulations in 2010, to frustrate the proliferation of sub-standard institutions as deemed to be universities.

As soon as the private entrepreneurs realised the complexity of establishing a deemed to be university, they reverted to their earlier strategy of approaching the state governments to enact legislations for the establishment of private universities. More and more state legislatures enacted the laws resulting in an exponential rise in the number of private universities from 69 to 372 within a period of eleven years from 2009 to 2020. As of now, there are twenty-five states which have already enacted legislation for the establishment of private universities. The largest number of private universities are in the state of Rajasthan (52) followed by Gujarat (43), Madhya Pradesh (39), Uttar Pradesh (29), Haryana (24), Karnataka (19), Maharashtra & Uttarakhand (18 each), Himachal Pradesh (17), Jharkhand & Punjab (15 each) and Chhattisgarh (12), while in others it is in single digit.

It is important to recognize the trend in the growth of private universities and their massive proliferation in just thirteen states. The issue of only a few states with maximum concentration of private universities of unacceptable standards is a matter of great concern. It is extremely concerning that nearly 43% of them have not yet cared for UGC’s mandatory inspection. An equally worrying aspect is the quality of their programmes as is evident from their abysmally poor show of accreditation. The latest data from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) reveal that out of 372 private universities only 55 have got themselves accredited thus far. And, what is even worse is that none of them has been able to make the cut to the top grade (A++). Just 3 of them could barely make it to grade A+ and 13 to grade A. Most of these universities are offering run of the mill programs without qualified faculty and proper infrastructure that are necessarily required for proper transmission, certification and creation of new knowledge. Obviously, these developments are unacceptable, and beyond that, extremely disturbing.

Private sector can surely play a significant role in realising the goal of expansion, equity and excellence as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, provided it makes right kind of investment in areas like curriculum reforms, recruitment of qualified and competent faculty, professional development, classroom processes, students’ assessment, research and development. In addition, they should make the best use of the existing regulatory, ranking and accreditation mechanisms for quality enhancement rather than considering them as infringement of their academic freedom. These reforms should no longer remain in the form of an idea but become a reality. They better learn fast that only then they would be able to survive in this fiercely competitive world.

It may be pertinent to mention that there are over hundred institutions deemed to be universities that are in the private sector. Somehow, they seem to be doing much better than the state private universities as is evident from their NAAC accreditation and NIRF ranking. It is evidently clear that the overall situation of the state private universities is far from satisfactory. It urgently requires both programmatic approach and curricular reforms on a significant scale to give a much-needed boost to the private sector. There is a need to evolve pan-India norms in terms of land and infrastructure requirements to minimise wide variations that exist across the states. Each state should have its own regulatory authority which should monitor and evaluate the programs of the state private universities on a continuous basis and ensure their timely accreditation. UGC on its part should also make necessary amendments in its private university regulations and provide in it for a periodic review as is caused in the case of deemed to be universities.

The growing generation of private entrepreneurs should also draw inspiration from former reformers and philanthropists who had provided high quality higher education to the country with much lesser resources. It is true that the current challenges are far more difficult than the earlier ones but principles of exemplary dedication for selfless service, consistency and unyielding commitment to empowering youth can still be as much contributing factors for excellence in teaching and learning as for the advancement of knowledge.

Most of these entrepreneurs need to change this impression that there is no sense of urgency for them to fulfil even the mandatory requirements of the regulators and accreditors. If they continue with this lackadaisical approach even towards basic reforms that have been there for long then they are going to meet the same fate as the second-rate engineering institutions. They will have to go far beyond questions of convenience to provide real-life practical experience to students by modernising and transacting curricular provisions under the watchful eye of qualified and competent faculty. 

The writer is former chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

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CHALLENGES FACING MAINSTREAM POLITICS IN BANGLADESH TODAY

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In the 50 years since its independence, mainstream politics in Bangladesh has faced a difficult challenge. The main opponents of democratic politics are now Islamist fundamentalist groups which have gradually accumulated massive power in Bangladesh, a state based on secularism and national identity. However, there are countless forces that do not believe in the basic principles of Bangladesh. Political analysts believe that the reasons for their rise include the two military coups, the lack of proper practice of democracy, the indulgence of Islamist parties on various pretexts, and failure to take timely action to stop their rise and prevent Islamist groups from contacting Pakistan.

During the War of Liberation, two main pro-Islam political parties opposed the independence of Bangladesh. One was the Muslim League and the other Jamaat-e-Islami. Among the leftist parties, the Chinese, who were divided into different factions, were against the liberation war. After Independence, the Muslim League was politically abandoned and the government banned Jamaat-e-Islami. At that time, Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam formed a committee to restore Pakistan and traveled to different countries, urging governments and heads of state not to recognize Bangladesh. Later, the Bangladesh government revoked Azam’s citizenship. 

After the assassination of “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, army officer Ziaur Rahman came to power and formed a political party called the Bangladeh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP was joined by leaders and activists of the Muslim party, which was defeated in 1971, and the majority of leaders and activists of the pro-China political parties. At that time, Ziaur Rahman allowed the anti-liberation Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami to enter politics and also reinstated the citizenship of Ghulam Azam. From this time onwards, the politics of Bangladesh was divided into two streams—for and against the liberation war.

Sheikh Hasina returned to the country after being elected the President of the Bangladesh Awami League from her political asylum in Delhi. Under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League quickly became strong. After her return, the politics of the country started flowing in two streams again: pro-Awami League and anti-Awami League. Sheikh Hasina declared that her party’s policy would be based on secularism and Bengali nationalism. Hasina formed a political front with 14 leftist political parties which believed in the spirit of the liberation war. On the other hand, Khaleda Zia formed a political front with seven political parties. Besides the radical Jamaat-e-Islami, the other allies of this front were also pro-Islam.

In its 2008 election manifesto, the Awami League announced the trial of major leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami who were accused of war crimes. When Sheikh Hasina came to power, she started the trial process of the war criminals in 2009. Several top leaders of the party were convicted and sentenced to death. The most powerful fundamentalist party in the country fell into disarray at this time.

However, the radical Jamaat-e-Islami adopted four new strategies to sustain itself. On July 8, 2010, the party sent a circular to all its branches, issuing instructions to party leaders and workers to infiltrate the ruling Awami League. Youth workers were asked to join the court as lawyers so it could save them from police harassment. Thirdly, workers were also asked to take up journalism as a profession and join the pro-Awami League journalists’ forum. Finally, leaders and activists were told to take over the leadership of various branches of Hefazat-e-Islami instead of Jamaat-e-Islami. In the circular, Shafiqur Rahman, the current Amir of Jamaat, also mentioned that this was the way to go for the time being in order to survive and secretly organize themselves for the future. 

In addition, Jamaat-e-Islami has invested huge sums of money in and sent its cadres to Europe, the US, Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia, from where they launch cyber attacks and spread propaganda against Sheikh Hasina’s government. The Awami League government has also failed to respond to such cyber propaganda. The cyber sphere in Bangladesh is now under the control of the fundamentalists. Investigation shows that about 56,000 leaders and activists of Jamaat and Shibir have already infiltrated the Awami League since 2010. The government is not able to stop further infiltration. 

Although Khaleda Zia’s party, the BNP, has several anti-fundamentalist and liberal democracy-minded leaders, the main leader, Tariq Zia, is in favour of giving shelter to the fundamentalists. There have been several demands to expel Jamaat made by the BNP’s political front, but that has not been done yet. Why not? The top leader of the BNP, known as a liberal, has said that so many Jamaat members have infiltrated the BNP that a large part of the party’s top leadership is from the fundamentalist party.

These fundamentalists are now sustaining themselves in Bangladesh through various tactics. By occupying the country’s cyber space and putting out misleading interpretations of Islam, they are inciting the youth of the country against the principle of secularism and Bengali culture.

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