Pipedreams for Indian Academia - II

A good bit of the teaching done at India's formal centres of higher learning today, especially in our metropolises, tends to rely on imported Euro-American theories, concepts, methods and ideologies.

Published: 17th February 2022 12:08 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th February 2022 08:44 AM   |  A+A-

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Image used for representational purpose.

In the New Year, it is customary to wish for good things to happen. In the first of this two-part series accordingly, we inaugurated a list of aspirations for higher education in India, starting with the need to free the field of both bureaucratic strangleholds as well as commercial monopolies over knowledge production and dissemination. Concomitantly, in this age of internet-driven fake narratives and disinformation, the need for qualitative self-reform by the academy, especially in the humanities, to facilitate the emergence of authentic versions of truth and knowledge, was also asserted.

However, what defines an authentic version of knowledge? Indeed who defines what knowledge is, in the first place? And who may be regarded as an authority? These are ethical as well as political questions. Even as it is essential to reform Indian universities and infuse in them greater rigour and quality, it must also be recognised that a good bit of the teaching done at these formal centres of higher learning today, especially in our metropolises, tends to rely on imported Euro-American theories, concepts, methods and ideologies.

Vastly engaging and erudite though these are, only a few of them may illumine culturally specific historical processes and worldviews of the non-West, while others may well inflict varieties of epistemic violence on endogenous ways of knowing. On the other hand, how many local thinkers, past or present, ancient or modern, can you name who are taught and applied in mainstream Indian universities today - pedagogical spaces which otherwise resound with Foucalt, Heidegger and the like?

Indeed, illustrative of colonial epistemic hierarchies is my own discipline of history, which continues to creak under the burden of 19th century European Enlightenment notions of scientism, objectivism and materialism, as if it were a physical science rather than a humanistic field. This has led to the delegitimising and rejection of vast swathes of traditional Indian literature and thought for their emphasis on human values, aesthetics, ethics, liberation or other subjectivities. Sterile facts versus meaning and values are two different civilisational weltenschauungs. In championing Western notions of history today that have become dated in the West itself, we are perpetuating an imperialism and backwardness that are of our own making.

Mind you, this is not a call for nativism or some brand of indigenist reaction. Far from it. This is a call for radically rethinking anachronistic and etic approaches to India and letting our profound and prodigious knowledge traditions - in every one of the hundreds of languages and dialects we have - speak for themselves. This will enrich and refresh international academic discourse as well, just as all other thought from the Global South is doing, and the world will thank us for it - for being what India always was in the past, an intellectual giant.

Within the country as well, this may be the way forward: There has to be dialogue between Anglophone academicians and vernacular scholarship, and on equal terms. And here in the vernaculars one includes the whole range from classical pan-Indic languages like Sanskrit to regional languages and dialects, and from texts and literary cultures to oral traditions and folk narratives.

All too many students from small towns and villages of India come to study in the megalopolises diffident and on the back foot - because they don’t know English or don't know it well enough. No doubt multilingualism is the need of the hour in the globalised world we inhabit, and we encourage students to learn English, but there is nothing intrinsically superior in one language over others. Our students need the confidence to know that language is a skill, not a liability, and must be the medium for trans-cultural conversations, mediating faithfully between their own thought-worlds and international ones. If this conversation has to be in English for now, so be it; what is even more important than decolonising the tongue is decolonising the mind.

That said, the Colonial 'Other' is not the only occupying force when it comes to Indian intellect. Academic circles, again in the social sciences and liberal arts particularly, are also in the thrall of a different kind of regime: the warring twin camps of Left and Right politics. There seems to be little intellectual engagement of substance between the two but plenty of disdain, name-calling and power lust. Worst of all, there is negligible space for independent scholarship that does not conform - and is promptly branded! It is high time to emancipate Indian academia from the tyranny of these labels.

One has no doubt that there are a large number of scholars in this country doing fresh and creative work, especially studying our vibrant traditions on their own terms, who are tired of being asked to see and show things through the prism of politics. But they are invisibilised and disenfranchised more often than not. Here is an exclusionist conspiracy of silence within the very bastion of freedom that academics like to believe they represent.

To those who speak for education’s powers of resistance and calling out oppression, here is the challenge within. Will we overcome it? One can only hope so. For, as Nelson Mandela said, "To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and can be reached at shonaleeka@mail.jnu.ac.in)


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