It is becoming increasingly apparent that some people have a major problem with India’s greatest badge of honour—its democracy. Or rather, they have such a huge problem with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that according to them India is ceasing to be a democracy just because he is in power. He may have been elected with a landslide, but according to them, they are the ones who know what India needs and not the “unwashed masses” who voted him to power. No wonder every second day we hear new terms being coined to describe India—“partial democracy”, “electoral autocracy”, by the so-called custodians of democratic values. Amusingly, this week, in that unelected citadel of British democracy, House of Lords, their lordships expressed their concern about the backsliding of democracy in India, without realizing the irony of the situation. It’s appearing as if some people, frustrated with the way the Indian political landscape is shaping up, and the way India’s geostrategic heft is increasing, are trying to knock off India from its high perch; while others, like the “lords” of the British Empire-Without-an-Empire, are having their Churchill-told-you-so (about India) moment by imagining the worst of India.
The sharpest reply to all this came from External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, who when asked about the downgrading of India as a democratic country, rightly replied, “You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy. You want the truthful answer—it is hypocrisy. Because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want it to be played. So they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgements and then make out as though this is some kind of global exercise.”
The problem is that this narrative in the West is being fed from within India itself. It’s sad to see the Opposition, particularly Rahul Gandhi become a part of this narrative-mongering. In an interaction with a US university, the democratically elected MP from Wayanad, brazenly said, “yes democracy is weakening…even Gaddafi and Saddam allowed voting”. So, the gentleman who was until recently the president of a party that is the main political Opposition in India, a party that has ruled this country for eons, in one fell swoop brought India down to the level of two of the world’s worst dictatorships. Does he realise the implication of the message that he sent out to the world—that India is unfit to be in the company of big powers or be home to big business? Can “responsible”, senior leaders afford to be so casual in their comments? He even cast aspersions on the institution of the judiciary, saying that it is failing. According to him, even the Indian media is failing, a conclusion he arrived at apparently because the media does not give him enough airtime. Surely that is a strange claim, for even Rahul Gandhi would have noticed that whenever he is in the news, all media spotlights are on him. But for that he has to be in the news. Interestingly, to prove his point that democracy is failing, he claimed that his microphone is switched off when he speaks in Parliament. The allegation perhaps had to do with an incident in 2018 when a technical glitch made his microphone malfunction for a few seconds when he was speaking in Parliament. However, to red-flag that incident at an international forum as an instance of democracy being killed is a bit of a stretch. The irony of such claims is that it was one of his family members who muzzled democracy in the country by imposing Emergency and it is again his party, which is being accused of muzzling inner party democracy even in 2021.
Questions will naturally rise about the intention behind such comments. Doesn’t the Congress leader realise that casting of aspersions on Indian democracy will not go down well with the Indian voters? If the intent is to convince Indians that they do not have democracy because they have chosen the wrong leader, it’s unlikely to have any impact on the ground. For, democracy is a living breathing entity for Indians. And it is as perfect or imperfect as any other robustly democratic country with strongly functioning institutions. The failure of Rahul Gandhi’s party to win elections is not Indian democracy’s fault. He needs to look closer home for it.
Certain sections of the western world can make all sorts of claims about Indian democracy’s health. But Indians are intelligent enough to know that such claims are not true. Indians have nothing to be apologetic about. However, politicians definitely need to rise above politics when talking about India internationally.
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RAM RAJYA: A MORAL SOVEREIGNTY
Both Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard.
“Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation”, wrote eminent scholar-politician-statesman Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in his seminal work The Hindu View of Life. He went on to say, “Precious as are the echoes of God’s voice in the souls of men of long ago, our regard for them must be tempered by the recognition of the truth that God has never finished the revelation of His wisdom and love. Besides, our interpretation of religious experience must be in conformity with the findings of science. As knowledge grows, our theology develops. Only those parts of the tradition which are logically coherent are to be accepted as superior to the evidence of the senses and not the whole tradition.”
Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism is not a religion of ‘believers’. “Unless you believe, you will not understand”, St Augustin of Hippo had exhorted early Christians of the Roman empire. But Hinduism allowed inquiry and wanted men to be seekers, rather than mere believers. Ram and the Ramayana are divine for many. Gandhi called Ram his personal deity. But Ambedkar did not agree much with Ram. He even challenged the Ramayana, going to the original by Valmiki, in his Riddles in Hinduism. However, there is a common aspect in Gandhi and Ambedkar’s stances: both argued from a logical perspective, not from blind faith or blind hatred.
Whether Ram was a historical person or not did not bother Gandhi much. What mattered to him was the concept of ‘Ram Rajya’. In his view, Ram Rajya essentially meant equal rights to “prince and pauper”. Even during his two visits to Ayodhya, the abode of his deity Ram, in 1921 and 1929, Gandhi’s rhetoric was about standing up for the weak and the meek. Addressing the saints of Ayodhya on the banks of the river Saryu during his visit in February 1921, he resorted to his favourite subject of Ram Rajya. He chose cow protection as the point of reference to tell saints, “Praying to God for our own protection is a sin as long as we do not protect the weak…We need to learn to love the way Ram loved Sita”. There is no way to achieve Ram Rajya or swaraj without observing this svadharma, he told them.
Meanwhile, Ambedkar’s criticism of the Ramayana was based on his perception of certain events. He believed, not necessarily correctly, that Ram upheld the Varnashrama system and had killed a Dalit saint called Shambuka. “Some people seem to blame Ram because he…without reason killed Shambuka. But to blame Ram for killing Shambuka is to misunderstand the whole situation. Ram Raj was…based on Chaturvarnya. As a king, Ram was bound to maintain Chaturvarnya. It was his duty therefore to kill Shambuka, the Shudra, who had transgressed his class and wanted to be a Brahmin. This is the reason why Rama killed Shambuka”, Ambedkar writes. Many scholars insist that the story of Shambuka’s killing was an interpolation. Ambedkar was also critical, probably on more valid grounds, of Ram’s treatment of Sita. He saw Ram Rajya as unjust and patriarchal and commented on Ram’s dismissal of Sita to forests the second time as “there are not wanting Hindus who use this as grounds to prove that Ram was a democratic king when others could equally well say that he was a weak and cowardly monarch.”
Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard. The search for such a just and equitable system where there is harmony between the ruler and the ruled has been carried on by political pundits for millennia. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was asked to consume poison by the democratic assembly of 21,000 citizens of Athens. His sin was that he supported the oligarchy of the 30 ruling tyrants of Sparta, a neighbouring city state. Socrates believed that the rule by a select class of wise men, like the oligarchy in Sparta, is better than a democracy based on mass hysteria as that in Athens. Tyrants in ancient Greek regime were those who usurped the role of the monarch; not necessarily the way we understand its meaning today. Plato and Aristotle detested both systems—the cruel authoritarianism of Sparta and the mobocracy of Athens.
Plato’s panacea was ‘philosopher kings’. As Bhishma tells Yudhisthira in the Shanti Parv of the Mahabharat, which was repeated by Chanakya in Arth Shastra:
प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ॥
This means, ‘The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It is not what the ruler likes that matters, but only what people like.’
In the Yudh Kand of the Ramayana, sage Valmiki narrates certain characteristics of Ram Rajya or Ram’s kingdom:
-While Rama was ruling the kingdom, there were no widows to lament, nor was there any danger from wild animals, nor any fear born of diseases. Every creature felt pleased.
-Everyone was intent on virtue. Turning their eyes towards Ram alone, creatures did not kill one another.
-While Ram was ruling the kingdom, people survived for thousands of years, with thousands of their progeny, all free from illness and grief.
-Trees there bore flowers and fruits regularly, without any injury by pests and insects. Clouds were raining on time and the wind was delightful to the touch.
-All the people were endowed with excellent characteristics. All were engaged in virtue.
Ram Rajya is envisioned as that state of governance where the ruler is wise enough to place the good of the people above the interest of his own. But then, who will determine what is good and bad? Nietzsche, the German philosopher, had interpreted ‘good’ as “whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man,” inadvertently becoming the darling of Hitler and the Nazis. Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ also became authoritarians when the Romans invested divinity in them and philosophers like Nietzsche gave weird interpretations of power. Julius Caesar commissioned dozens of sculptors to make different sculptures of him, while Hitler revelled in his wisdom of a ‘superior race’. Such smugness and self-righteousness have produced cruel authoritarians throughout history.
Ram presented a different ideal. Valmiki used two phrases with profound meaning to describe Ram, whom he called ‘विग्रहवान धर्मः’ or the epitome of morality. Those phrases are: आराधनाय लोकस्य and राज्यम उपासित्वा. Ram ‘worshipped people’ and ‘worshipped the kingdom’. He did not believe in his infallibility nor was he overpowered by any superiority complex. When his mother, Kausalya, asked him after his return to Ayodhya whether he had killed Raavan, Ram’s reply was: “Mahagyani, Mahapratapi , Mahabalshali, Akhand Pandit, Mahan Shivbhakt, author of Shiv Tandav Stotra, the mighty Lankesh was killed by his own ego”.
That is why Gandhi summed up Ram Rajya as “the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority”.
The writer is member, National Executive, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, and member, Board of Governors, India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.
THE POLITICS OF COVID-19
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.
BORIS JOHNSON NOT SERIOUS ABOUT INDIA-UK TIES
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.
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.
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.
COVID WREAKS HAVOC ACROSS INDIA AS DEATH FIGURES MOUNT
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.
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.
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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