Saffronisation and Imperialism in Indian Education
Prabhat Patnaik talks to Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya and Prasenjit Bose
The following interview was originally published in one of the recent issues of Student Struggle, monthly magazine of the Students’ Federation of India. We are grateful to Prof. Patnaik and the editors of magazine for the permission to reproduce it here.
Professor Prabhat Patnaik is Professor of Economics at the Centre of Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has been one of the most consistent critics of the neo-liberal policies being pursued in India since 1991 besides richly contributing to the Marxian theory of imperialism in the context of globalisation. He has also been at the forefront of the ideological struggle against communalism in our country and is an inspiration for generations of secular intellectuals. In this exclusive interview to the Student Struggle, Professor Patnaik terms the recent bid to communalise and privatise education by the HRD Minister and his ilk within the RSS-BJP as an attempted ‘destruction of critical thought and reason’ meant to lay the intellectual foundations of a fascistic Hindu Rashtra in India.
The issue of communalisation of education under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government has been hotly debated within and outside the Parliament in recent times. It has been argued that the BJP, while appointing their sympathisers in academic institutions, is simply following its predecessors in the Government. Your comments.
No, the BJP is not just following what the predecessors were doing. It is a fact of course that every government appoints those people to positions who have some sympathy or relation with them. But these people are usually competent and are accepted as academicians. They are part of a certain discourse.
In any subject, say in history, there is a historian’s discourse, there is way in which historians, even when they have differing views upon an issue, argue with one another. There is a respect for evidence as well as certain norms which are followed in evaluating and assessing evidence and that is common to all practitioners of the craft, no matter what their specific positions.
Now, it is one thing for a government to appoint somebody who is part of this universe consisting of the practitioners of the craft who believe in a certain discourse; but it is quite another to appoint people who have absolutely no knowledge of history as it is practiced by these practitioners and who do not subscribe to the discipline of the subject, its mode of debate and discussion as well as its mode of evaluation and assessment of evidence.
What is happening today is that people from outside are being put here and there, who are not acknowledged professionals in the discipline. Here lies the big difference with the past, it is not just following the old pattern. The fact that among ten reputed scientists, somebody close to the government may become the President of Science Congress is very different from picking someone from the streets and making him the President.
So you think this is what is happening today?
But then in the case of Prof. M.L. Sondhi...
I would not object to the appointment of an M.L. Sondhi as Chairman of ICSSR. What M.L. Sondhi did at the ICSSR are separate matters, they are individual actions which you can be critical about. But I would not object to the appointment of an M.L. Sondhi because he has the credentials—a distinguished academician, professor of JNU and so on. He was not picked up from the street to head the ICSSR.
But ultimately he was removed by the government itself?
The fact that this has happened is an indicator of precisely what I am trying to say. If you pick up a practitioner of the craft, then given the discipline of the craft he cannot be a straightforward yes-man. As a result, he comes into conflict with the government which insists on having only yes-men and the Sondhi episode is indicative of the fact that this government is congenitally incapable of having practitioners of the craft, no matter now sympathetic they might be to their own point of view, in academic and other institutions.
The HRD Minister M.M. Joshi claims that his education policy is no different from the New Education Policy of 1986 also amended in 1992. How far is it true?
It is completely untrue. If you look at school education, it is well established that in the policy documents of the entire preceding period you do not have the word ‘religion’ occurring once. When they talked about value-based education they were not talking about religion as the source of such values. The idea that values are related to only religion—and M.M. Joshi himself said in Parliament that values are to be related to religion while of course also saying that he is not concerned with any one religion but several religions—is a fundamental shift. No preceding document has ever said that religion is the source of values. In fact I believe that the only place the word ‘religion’ ever occurs in the S.B. Chavan document is when they talk about combating religious obscurantism. Otherwise religion or religious education does not figure once in the document. Therefore the position that values have to be based upon religious education marks the shift.
No matter what M.M. Joshi says about all religions, what it in effect means is that we are going to have Hindutva values forming the backbone of our school curriculum. That is a fundamental change.
Mr. Rajput, the NCERT chairperson, has clarified that they are not talking about religious instructions but a study of religions which according to him is the need of the hour…
There is a difference between the study of religion as a part of the history syllabus or as part of the sociology or anthropology syllabus and teaching values based upon religion. M.M. Joshi has himself said in Parliament that he is talking about values being based upon religion.
Religion is a private matter. The very notion that students would learn values derived from religion goes against the secular foundations of the state.
Regarding the secular character of the state, what do you think has been the extent of communal infiltration in our education system under the BJP?
I want to make it very clear. The RSS and the Hindutva forces have only a one-point agenda and that is to establish a Hindu Rashtra. Consequently, no matter what the RSS or the BJP says, the basic agenda for education is to prepare the intellectual foundations of a Hindu Rashtra and they are making the changes in education policy as a preparation for that.
Could you elaborate upon the kind of things that are happening...
Let us take history for example. In history, the whole idea of suggesting that the Aryans were in fact indigenous to India and that they went to other places from India, reflects a sense of superiority of Indian culture over other cultures. Then this Aryan culture is being made identical to the Vedic culture and is being propagated as reflective of the superiority of the Hindu religion. Once this is done, you are in effect debunking the fact that human civilization is based on give and take between different peoples and different cultures. You are debunking all evidence because assertions about superiority of any particular culture have absolutely no foundations in evidence. In the process you are also debunking the multiple roots of Indian culture and in effect apotheosizing Hindu religion.
Thus even when we take a small sphere like history, the infiltration of the communal ideology becomes clear. When they are calling the Indus valley civilization as the Saraswati civilization, that in itself is a reflection of their basic agenda.
Would you relate the concomitant increasing influence of communal ideology on one hand and the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies in on the other?
I think this is a complex question. This can be answered at several different levels since neo-liberalism and growth of communal forces are related at several different levels.
At a very obvious level, there is a basic tension between the adoption of neo-liberal policies and democracy. The neo-liberal policies are bringing about massive inequality, they are fundamentally anti-democratic and are resulting in disempowerment of the poor working masses. How do you reconcile this outcome with the existence of political and democratic rights?
One way of dong that, in fact, is to divide the people along different lines. In Yugoslavia they were divided on ethnic lines, in Sri Lanka on religious and linguistic lines and in India the same role is being played by communalism. At one level, whenever anywhere in the world neo-liberal economic policies have been pursed, they have always been accompanied by divisive political forces. I can posit it almost like a mathematical theorem.
Looking at if from another side, whenever in any country you have had an anti-imperialist national project that has in fact united the people. In other words an anti-imperialist national project, in the sense of the nation being an inclusive entity, is essentially unifying while a pro-imperialist project of which neo-liberalism is a part, is essentially divisive.
This is the outcome at one level. This is sustained by the fact that as people become relatively or even absolutely impoverished—like in India under neo-liberalism unemployment has definitely increased—the soil for reactionary and fascist forces becomes fertile. So neo-liberalism provides the necessity as well as the means for these kinds of divisions.
At another level, which in a sense follows from the first, the era of neo-liberalism—and here I mean real neo-liberalism and China is surely not an example of such a neo-liberal regime—is an era of subjugation of the Third World. In other words this is an era where you have very few achievements to boast of. The economic growth rate collapses, whatever little domestic capacities had been built gets destroyed, whatever educational institutions had been built succumbs to the onslaught of neo-liberal ideas. All efforts at self-reliance in fact get abandoned.
Thus, this becomes an era of retrogression at every cultural level—in education, in the sphere of ideas. The attitude of the enslaved and the colonized remakes an appearance in the minds of the people. If there is something happening in your country, which some one says is good, it is not believed in. You say, “how can it be happening in India? It must be happening somewhere else”.
This self-denigration which is a part of the mindset which comes with the embracing of neo-liberal economic policies, creates as it were a counterpoint. I mean, after all people cannot live perpetually by self-denigration. Thus there is a tendency to withdraw into a mythical imaginary past. You say that “today we may not be very good but five thousand years ago we were the greatest”. In fact you claim that the entire world civilization has come from us.
This revivalism serves as a psychological prop in order to cope up with contemporary retrogression and subjugation in the neo-liberal era.
How would you compare this revivalism with that of the colonial period...
This is related to the third point that I want to make. There were all kinds of strands in the anti-colonial struggle. The Indian freedom struggle included all kinds of trends—from terrorists to the Arya Samaj movement. The point is that this anti-imperialist struggle was stretched over a long period with every period having some sort of an anti-imperialist resistance. 1857 was some sort of an anti-imperialist resistance. But the massive mass upsurges took place in the 1920s, 30s and 40s—what R.P. Dutt has called the three big waves of the Indian freedom struggle—and it was only then that the freedom struggle was accompanied by a huge participation of the ordinary people.
In other words, all your revivalist Arya Samaj movements or radical terrorist movements did have support and I am not debunking that. But it was the mass mobilization which really gave the freedom struggle a very different character.
That mass mobilization was one which was predicated upon an agenda that went beyond simply getting rid of the British. It was predicated upon an agenda that included social emancipation, abolition of caste inequalities, political democracy and all that the like of which the country has never seen.
I think somewhere Prof. Irfan Habib has said that the greatest thing which has happened to this country is the freedom struggle. There were differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi, differences between Periyar or Phule and the national movement. But I believe that notwithstanding all of that there was in fact a comprehensive social awakening which took place in this country which elsewhere I have called ‘a long drawn out social revolution’.
But you have also termed this social revolution as ‘confused and halted’...
Of course confused and halted. Otherwise why should we become victims of neo-liberalism today. Why should it be that half the population is illiterate, why should there be atrocities against dalits.
The fact that there are atrocities against dalits even today shows how limited it is. But on the other hand it is nonetheless the case that after all dalits are enjoying rights today which no one heard of two hundred years ago. So in fact it is in one sense a social revolution but in another sense it is also extremely limited, confused and so on.
But at the same time, there is a massive counter-revolution that is taking place. I see neo-liberalism as well as all that is happening against the dalits and communalism—all of it is one comprehensive counter-revolution and its comprehensiveness follows from what I was saying earlier, viz. a dilution of anti-imperialism is always associated by divisions of all kinds, in which there is once again an attempt by the ruling elite, the upper castes and so on, to reestablish their authority.
Don’t you think that the counter-revolution that you are talking about had its roots in the contradictions of the earlier regime itself? In other words would it be wrong to posit the counter-revolutionary trend to have started in 1947 itself with the betrayal of the working class movement by the Congress leadership?
That would be the same as saying that the overthrow of socialism in the Soviet Union had its roots in 1917 itself. Of course it had its roots; anything which happens has its roots. But the point is that some roots catch on and develop into plants while some don’t.
This is a complex issue. I don’t think it is correct to say that what is happening in India today is only an Indian phenomenon. It is happening all over the world. In other words I think there is a triumph of counter-revolution all over the world.
If in 1947, suppose it had not been Nehruvian but a socialist trajectory that we had adopted, I don’t think we would have necessarily withstood this counter-revolution. Along with the Soviet Union, lots of countries in Eastern Europe have gone under, admittedly for internal reasons. But you cannot just say it is only internal. There is something happening all over the world.
Having said that, how you respond to what is happening all over the world depends on your internal position. It is a fact that the entire development trajectory since 1947—and here development is meant in the broader sense of socio-economic development—in some sense did not command the support of the masses. When there is an onslaught there must be adequate forces to be domestically mobilized against it. The fact is that has not happened.
Let us be very clear. Long before neo-liberal economic policies began there was an economic crisis and there was a disillusionment with the Congress regime which had to do with its internal contradictions. But having said that I would nonetheless like to distinguish between a counter-revolution and the progress of a process under a regime that itself is not counter-revolutionary.
I see the BJP regime as counter-revolutionary. But just as Yeltsin cannot be compared with Andropov or even Khruschev, although the roots of the former did remain in the latter, there is a difference between the BJP and the Congress.
How would you relate the recent bid to communalise education with the agenda of privatisation and commercialisation of education?
Both of these, in a sense, represent in different ways the retreat of the state from the sphere of education, where it had a commitment to provide secular education on a wide basis.
Some things are so difficult to explain. I came from a family which virtually had no income. My father was a freedom fighter and communist—he never earned a penny. I did my entire education on scholarship from school, college and so on. In fact a condition for my getting these scholarships was that I had to always get a first class which was very difficult in those days. Lots of my classmates in fact dropped out after matriculation.
However, I am not the only one who could continue. That was reflective of the commitment of the Indian State. There was an enormous amount of social mobility wherein rural children could reach to places of higher education. It was the commitment of the Indian State which made opportunities detached from your income or status.
Now, I find that the whole process is on the retreat. Fees are being raised everywhere. Someway you can perhaps say that JNU is the only place where there is still a certain amount of relief because of the reintroduction of deprivation points. Otherwise JNU was also becoming like that.
They are making it impossible for a rural lower middle class child to come to a place like JNU in ten years time. That is privatisation. Privatisation in fact is a way of breaking social mobility, it is a way of ossifying social structures of upper class/caste domination.
The counterpart of that domination is also the communalisation of education. You cannot on the one hand say that everybody is equal and maintain the domination by the elite. That domination has to be justified in some terms which are necessarily anti-democratic. You cannot have a secular democratic education and yet sustain an exclusive privilege for the upper caste/class in acquiring it.
At a more direct level once education is privatised, it becomes a free for all. As a result these Hindutva forces roll in money into education and start giving their kind of indoctrination at the school level itself. So, the more the state retreats, the more it becomes possible for these communal forces to move in.
Precisely at a time when the drive to communalise education has been intensified, two industrialists from the Prime Minister’s Council for Trade and Industry have come out with a report on education. What are your observations regarding this Birla-Ambani report?
Whether you take the Birla-Ambani Report or the bid to communalise education, there is one thing common to all of them. That is the destruction of critical thought, the destruction of rationality and reasoned argument.
If you privatise education—what the Birla-Ambani Report prescribes—education becomes a commodity which is an essential input for industry. But for that you don’t need social scientists who could critically question the structures that underlie a certain established order. You would also not even need scientists—you would only need technologists.
In effect you want to produce technicians. You do not require knowledge, you don’t want to educate people, inculcate humanistic values and democratic consciousness. You simply want to produce technicians. And communalisation of education aims precisely at that.
Communalism also abhors democratic consciousness, notions of equality, rationality and reasoned discourse. So I think the explicit advocacy of privatising education in the Birla-Ambani Report and the design to communalise education come together in their conception of what the education system should be. And that conception is that education should produce obedient, disciplined servants of the order who are competent technicians.
According to this, we are witnessing a convergence in the prescriptions of the chief spokespersons of the bourgeoisie and the agenda of the communal forces. What are the political implications of the dovetailing of their agendas? Are we seeing a process which occurred in Western Europe 60 years ago?
I don’t think one should at any stage underestimate the threat of fascism in India. I think it is a very serous threat.
What is the class basis of this fascist threat in our country? Why is the BJP in power? I think the BJP is in power because in order to impose the will of international finance capital on this country the people need to be suppressed.
I think fascism in contemporary times, can be a way of imposing the dictatorship of international finance capital on this country while giving this dictatorship some kind of a mass base. This I think is the importance of the BJP. The BJP is one political formation which had nothing to do with the freedom struggle—none of them went to jail or participated in any movement. They tried to manufacture some story about Vajpayee’s going to jail but that fell flat. So none of them had anything to do with the freedom struggle.
But the liberal bourgeois parties have a very different past and origin. They have a very different mode of functioning since within them there are all kinds of voices. Therefore it is very difficult for them to work for the establishment of that kind of an imposition of the rule of international finance capital, which the BJP can do.
At the same time the BJP can provide a mass base to that kind of a regime by whipping up communal frenzy. The necessity of fascism in the contemporary juncture arises because of the tension between the fact that we have a polity where mass base is pretty necessary and at the same time we live in an universe where the rule of international finance capital dictates the terms. That tension produces fascistic tendencies in a Third World country like ours.
A large section of the domestic bourgeoisie also would like to go along as junior partners of international finance capital. I don’t want to go into the question of whether the bourgeoisie is comprador or not. When I say that they would like to go along as junior partners, I am not claiming that this was their intrinsic character in the past or would be their nature from now to eternity. I am simply saying that at this juncture of India history, a large section of the Indian bourgeoisie would like to go along with imperialism.
There is this entire media hype about schisms within the BJP, between hardliners and softliners or between the RSS and liberals within the BJP. Do you think this is significant?
But there was always a schism. This happened under classical fascism also, wherein they destroyed their own supporters. The point is that fascism always before coming to power propounds an agenda of the radical right variety which it jettisons once it comes to power. That is exactly what is happening in India.
I think the schism inside the BJP or more generally the Hindutva forces, is a schism on economic affairs. But there is no schism on communal issues. It is nonetheless trying to establish a mass base for itself by straightforward communal propaganda. On communal issues there may be differences over whether something should be done right now or later but there is in fact nobody who has been expelled from the BJP for believing in secularism. All of them believe in the Hindu Rashtra though differences might be there on strategies and tactics.
The more ambitious idea of having a radical right economic agenda along with the Hindu Rashtra objective is being given up in the sense of the former being given up. This is causing a schism, but a schism within a restricted domain.
How do you see the growing authoritarianism within educational institutions, particularly institutions of higher learning, in the context of the BJP rule?
If is the case that you want to reduce the tension between on the one hand having the will of international finance capital dominating society and on the other hand a certain political empowerment of the people, destruction of thought, destruction of reason is one way of ensuring this.
As Marx said in the Manifesto, a section of the intelligentsia detaches themselves from their own classes and makes common cause with the people. The people need ideas, which come from that section of the intelligentsia which until now had been privileged enough to have access to education. Now that is sought to be nipped in the bud. If it is the case that the universities become technician producing factories in which there is no critical thought of any kind, then the capacity of the people to organize themselves on the basis of new ideas, gets shrunk.
Destruction of thought is as much in the interest of the Hindutva forces as it is of imperialism. Let me give you a very simple example from my own discipline, Economics. At this moment a very few places exist in the country where you can have a critical attitude or approach towards the neo-liberal policies. The pressure upon these few places are also enormous. Economics is a highly imperialist dominated subject. All journals are run by them and even such journals which offer some limited space to critical ideas are increasingly being taken over by them. As a result you find that the critical voice gets cut out. Once you get cut out, you don’t get jobs or promotions. Thus anyone who is critical is systematically excluded.
Anyone who is critical of neo-liberal policies are not professionally regarded or respected. What is true of economics is true for any other subject where imperialism is directly involved.
Then what is specific about the BJP rule...
Destruction of critical thought and rational discourse is essential to communalism as well as to imperialism. There is a common cause.
So you think there is a growing attack on our critical thought and intellectual sovereignty?
Absolutely! People don’t often realize this. Sometime this attack comes from extremely well-meaning quarters. I know many distinguished persons who say that there is too much emphasis on higher education and we should spend more on primary education, literacy and so on. They say that universities have become white elephants and should not continue to be subsidised.
If the argument had been in favour of improving our universities, having more disciplines and regular classes, it could be accepted. But the whole idea that we should wind up our universities and spend more money on primary education is misplaced. How do you combat the ideas of imperialism? Only through higher education. At the primary school level you cannot combat Samuelson’s or Jeffry Sach’s economics. Neither can you combat the ideas of ‘Saraswati’ civilization.
Once your universities are destroyed, the whole society gets destroyed. A precondition for independence is independence of thought and universities are seed beds or nurseries for the independence of thought. Thus, any effort to wind up the universities should be resisted. Primary education must be developed and resources have to be raised for it. But for that the universities cannot be starved of funds. Starving higher education, using the priority for primary education is just a hogwash.
But how do you rate the condition of universities in our country today?
Higher education in our country today is in a complete mess. I think it would be correct to say that over vast tracts of northern India the university system has virtually collapsed. At the time of independence and even afterwards you had places like Allahabad University or Lucknow University which were outstanding institutions. Allahabad University was called the Cambridge of the East. These institutions had outstanding thinkers and teachers associated with them….D.P. Mukherjee, Ashok Mitra taught at Lucknow University. Now what has happened to these universities? They have virtually collapsed.
One reason for it is of course the pull from new institutions like JNU, but more importantly there has been a major crisis internal to these universities. The crisis consists predominantly of the fact that these universities have become inefficient teaching factories where nobody is interested in even producing the commodity called education. Moreover, there has been a total destruction of idealism, and a disappearance of social commitment.
There are a number of causes for this. Primarily, a certain pre-occupation with one’s own security has replaced every form of social commitment in a large number of universities. Secondly, it has been the result of very cynical manipulations by ruling governments to establish political support. To do that university structures have been made authoritarian.
Authoritarianism of course is destruction of critical thought. The same authoritarianism I was talking about earlier also takes the form of organisational changes. Once an authoritarian Vice-Chancellor is appointed, internal democracy within an university i.e. the respect for the rights of the students, teachers and other groups begins to disappear. In its place you have sycophancy and anyone who is critical gets victimized.
The third point which I would mention in this regard is that authoritarianism and anarchism are dialectically related. Authoritarianism and populism feed on each other—if you have anarchism or populism prevalent in universities it provides a justification for authoritarianism. Authoritarian structures tend to make use of all kinds of patronage systems to keep themselves going. When I say ‘authoritarianism’ here, I do not just mean it in the simple sense of command. It is that together with a lack of accountability at every level.
Teachers do no take classes. And why? Because some of them are close to the Vice-Chancellor and have the backing of the powers that be. Others do not take classes because the ones with powerful backing are not taking classes anyway. Thus authoritarianism along with its patronage system acts in a way that brings forth its dialectical counterpart—anarchism. Lack of discipline, lack of order, lack of accountability and sheer populism prevails and as a result universities instead of being structured entities engaged in critical discourse with social commitment become a scene of chaos. And this chaos further justifies authoritarianism and results in a destruction of critical thought.
This to my mind describes the condition in most of the higher educational institutions in our country today, especially in northern India.
How would you locate university politics, not just student politics, but the entire political environment within the universities, particularly in the context of increasing criminalisation...
Much of university politics has become rivalries between gangs or groups within students, teachers or karmacharis. Politics in the true sense of the term, which is associated with social commitment, does not exist. There is no ideology involved. There is intense politics at one level but without any ideology. This is what characterizes most of the universities.
One exception I would like to mention in this regard is that Shaswati, the next day after she was elected the DUTA President recently, was taking her classes. That is the point. Anyone who is ideologically committed to ideas would also want to transfer those ideas to students. Thus education becomes a passion for those who are ideologically inclined. Unfortunately, this is more of an exception in today’s context.
Do you therefore feel that our higher educational institutions are not robust enough to resist the communal onslaught?
It is a difficult question to answer. In the course of my extensive travels all over the country, however, almost everywhere I have found islands of dedication and commitment, islands of ideas and ideology. Even in institutions with apparently the maximum extent of criminalisation there are teachers who are committed to teaching and are extremely respected. Therefore despite the apparent phenomena there is an undercurrent of idealism in the institutions in this country which should not be underestimated.
The UGC had recently come up the proposal to introduce jyotish shastra and Karamkand as degree courses in colleges and universities. What is your opinion regarding this?
I think it is disastrous. It is a completely retrogate step. Murli Manohan Joshi justified it only by saying that the UGC had approved of this courses even before their government came which is incorrect…
He also claimed that even foreign universities teach courses on astrology
That is complete nonsense. He quoted the names of several institutions from a website. All of them are wrong. The American and British institutions he named – London University or Manchester – name of them have courses in astrology. There is one university which he mentioned, in which apparently a mysterious anonymous donor has given a certain amount of money to start an astrology course – must be one of these Hindutva supporters – but the university has not yet decided upon accepting it. But still he quoted its name. So it is a string of lies.
As far as astrology being taught in Indian universities before this government came, there should not any room for confusion. Just as you study Kautilya’s Asthashastra in your Sanskrit course, which is a book on economics and statecraft, similarly you may study Sanskrit classics on astrology. But I can not aware of any university of our country teaching a straightforward course on astrology.
And now the UGC is going around writing letters to all universities to introduce this course and offering money for it, i.e. the UGC is directly behind this. They are promoting these courses which are in fact part of the destruction of reason that was talking about earlier. If money is being given for astrology instead of history, economics or the basic sciences, it only reflects destruction of thought.
What about karamkand?
That is even worse. Sometimes they have put forward the argument that they want to create professional purohits and so on. But there are so many kinds of professional courses like hotel management etc. There are lots of careers that people can choose from. Let there be independent institutions catering to them.
They believer in the market, so why don’t they let the private institutions take care of these. If there is a demand for purohits then le the market provide for the supply of purohits. Why should the government give money for such courses.
Sometimes they argue – their positions keep on changing and they are not at all honest about their pronouncements – so they say these are going to be self-financed courses. So the government is not going the spend money on these, rather they are going to earn money. Now from when has the UGC decided to become an earning entity?
If that is the objective then they should start offering courses for GRE preparations in JNU, which would definitely be highly earning! I think all this is a part of a destruction of reason.
In defending jyotish shastra they sometimes claim that if we argue that astrology is not a science then many other disciplines like medicine or metrology, which do not yield. Precise predictions should also not be considered as science. What do you think should be the criteria for a scientific discipline?
It is not precision of prediction. Even economics does not have precision of prediction. The question is what is jyotish shastra? How can a subject have as its domain, everthing from stomach aches to political revolutions? In fact it is a subject without a domain. The moment a subject has as its domain everything, means it actually has no domain.
Medicine has restricted itself to a certain domain in which it develops theoretical propositions in the sense of a chain of cause-effect relations. Astrology has no such cause-effect relationship to explain phenomena which are happening within a particular domain. If astrology is right then every other subject is wrong, because of political revolutions happen because of the stars then sociology has no role to play or if the great depression occurred because of the stars then economic analysis becomes redundant. Therefore since astrology is all inclusive, it denies space to all disciplines which are considered to be scientific.
Is this your main critique of astrology? What about its mythology?
You have to have a chain of cause-effect relations. Also, there must be come established procedures for evaluation and assessing evidence. There must be an established procedure of how alternative views can contend among themselves.
Let’s look at astronomy. There is the Big Bang Theory and Fred Hoyle and Narlikar have a different theory – but the fact that there are two contending theories does not mean that astronomy is not a subject. Take economics. The fact that somebody says that the neo-liberal economic policies. The fact that somebody says that the neo-liberal economic policies will bring about frowth while I say that they would result in stigmatism does not mean that economics is not a science.
There are ways, established procedures, in terms of which we can argue when we do not argue. So there is an internal structure to any scientific discipline. Astrology does not have such an internal structure. This internal structure of a scientific discipline is in turn aligned with the fact that it has a certain domain, to which the facts that it investigates belong to. If it doesn’t have a domain, or an internal structure then it is not a scientific discipline.
It is sometimes argued that the reason that astrology has not developed till now is that it has not been thoroughly researched and if we login to do that now, something closer to scientific astrology may develop in the future. What are your comments?
Then we will have to put money into flying saucers because after all the study of flying saucers is also in its infancy and may be everything can be explained in terms of flying saucers. Or flat earth theory for that matter. If every crank proposition is deserving of support just because it may turn out to be the profound truth then one does not know where to begin.
How do we know that the rules of procedure that science adopts are in fact the right ones?
There is this whole post-modernist argument that comes in here. They think of science as authoritarian while I think of science as being fundamentally liberating and democratic. If somebody says that a Dalit is not human being. Why is that not a scientific proposition? There are criteria, and there are inter subjective criteria on which all of us agree. When Hitler propounded his theory of a superior race, there was some criteria on the basis of which enlightened humanity rejected it. I would say that the assertion that all propositions have equality of status is nonsense.
Just as Gramsci said that all of us are philosophers without knowing it all of us are scientists without knowing it. In our daily life we all the time make cause-effect relations and apply certain criteria to distinguish between propositions which we believe to be true and propositions which we believe to be false. The scientists in fact bring these criteria into some kind of explicit existence we are doing this implicitly. If you go to Orissa where there is no water or food and if you tell the tribals there that this is so because – say “there was lightening here years ago and you chaps did not pay obescience to the lightening god after that” – a lot of them are not going to accept it. These are implicitly rejecting your proposition. What science does is to make these implicitly criteria explicit. That is a perpetual effort which does not reach completion at any particular moment. But the fact that there is a perpetual effort should not for a moment make us loose sight of the fact that these criteria are there.
Are you saying that people, despite their set of beliefs, including religious believes, are materialists at their level of everyday experience? Or will it be more correct to say that they are rational?
They are both. To me materialism is a part of the rational discourse. A Lenis said, every scientist, at the moment he is doing science is a practicing materialist. That is precisely what I am trying to say. In the minds of all of us there are sets of beliefs which contradictory, which are even logically contradictory. But nonetheless, at some level all of us do go in for some kind of materialist reasoning, for a chain of cause and effect. That is also the level at which you argue with others, so it not just you in your mind. There is thus commonality of scientific discourse of which all of us are implicitly a explicitly a part and which consists in our mind with all kinds of other discourse which may even be contradictory to it. This relationship may be problematic one but it exists.
Now, once you start saying that disagreement among scientists justify the introduction of courses like astrology and karmaland, you are denying the existence of scientific discourse. It is to my mind illegitimate to say that since Hoyle does not agree with the steady state theory, why should we not introduce astrology. It is at a different level altogether. It is to my mind an illegitimate argument.
The fact that someplace had a course an astrology in the congress regime is now used as an argument for introducing astrology as a degree. Where there are discontinuities you claim there are continuities and you try to justify major discontinuities by minor discontinuities of the preceding regime.
Is the superiority of the scientific method ultimately a question of materialism versus idealism?
No, it is a question of praxis. To me science is praxis which is inevitably associated with human beings, march towards freedom – it is part of the freedom project. I believe that it is immanent in human beings to research for science, because science gives us mastery over our universe. When Joshi’s child is ill he will not go to an astrologer. Rather, he would go to a doctor because going to the doctor is part of the mastery over nature which is part of our freedom. This quest fore freedom is immanent and science to my mind, is a part of this quest. The recognition of course effect relationship in nature is a part of this mastery over nature which is in fact linked to human progress.
Murli Manohar Joshi claims that Left critics of Karmakand and astrology are in fact unduly apologetic about Indian culture and that shows how influenced by the west they are. Do you think that opposing Karmakand and astrology is equivalent to designating Indian Culture?
Murli Manohar Joshi’s problem is that he does not know what Indian Culture is, he thinks of it as Hindu Brahmanical culture. The ultimate test of patriotism, of belief in the destiny of this country, is to fight against imperialism in the current juncture. To my mind, Marxists, progressive thinkers, socialists have been in the forefront of this fight in this country in the last 100 years. So why should they have to take lectures in patriotism from Murli Manohar Joshi. Where was he in the freedom struggle? After all he was not that young. Lots of school and college students participated in the freedom struggle but I am not aware of him paying any role.
Are there parts of our heritage which we can claim as our own?
We have claim lots our heritage as our won. For instance the development of mathematics which happened long ago- Lancelot Hogben refers to it – the origin of algebra, the concept of zero the whole numeral system – all of them are major contributions. India has made major contributions to world heritage and we should be proud of it. But in saying that, let us not say that only we made a contribution, everybody else was an idiot. The give and tae among humanity is enormous, just as we made a contribution, others also did. The Arabs, the Greeks and so on – they have all made contributions. If you cut out all that and say we are the ones who made a contribution then you are promoting chauvinism.
Many progressive individuals have called for an ideological united front against communalism. What do you think should be the programme and constitution of such an united front?
The programme and constitution of any united front is specific to the time and context. The composition of the united front would keep changing though time. Ideally it should not, but one has to be prepared for the fact that it may.
I think at this moment defence of reason should constitute the basis of the united front. What is happening now is at an extremely crude level. For instance tae this measure that the government has now introduced. Without having selection committees they are going to appoint t4achers of spoken Sanskrit. I think that is basically a way of appointing a bunch of RSS guys in every university – jous for the boys so they can take over the universities. This is a very serious danger at a very crusade level. Opposing this does not require agreement on what science is . It just requires agreement that this bunch of intolerant, climatic fellows should not be allowed to dominate our universities. We may disagree on a number of things but let us make sure that our universities should not be destroyed. I think that preventing the assault on the structures of our institution by irrational forces should be made the basis for the immediate united front. This assault is coming through infiltration, through the introduction of degrees and courses, through appointments from the top and so on. If we agree on just that then it can be the basis for the united front. However I think that any such united front for the preservation of the university atmosphere would soon have to graduate to not just fight the forces of communalism but to fighting the market, to fighting privatization, to fighting imperialism. Thus any such united front would very soon have to move on to never domains.
Many minority religious groups are also opposed to the communal forces on this issue. Should our united front include such groups and if so what about the charge from the Hindu Right that the Left and the progressives tend to appease the religious minorities tend to overlook the religious bias in instruction in minority institutions. What is your opinion?
One has to distinguish about a political united front and the kind united front I am talking about of course, politics enters into everything but this is not directly political. Anyone who cares for the preservation of our university, preservation of a university ambience of rational discourse should be welcome irrespective of his political or other views because this is not a political united front. This is not thinking in terms of a manifesto. This is just a one-point programme – of preserving the sanctity of the university as a place where hundred flowers bloom. If there are people who themselves may be very “Kattar” but who are willing to come on such a platform, that itself is a victory. We have budged them an inch from their “kattar” conservative views.
What can be the role of the progressive student movement in this struggle?
I think that the progressive student movement has the maximum role because after all they are the custodians of the university while they are in principle the custodians of the university they have not lived upto this role in fact because students in universities are at a stage where they have to go on to the job market. As a result many of them are so preoccupied with these kinds of concerns that they tend to forget about the nature and the role of universities. I think that the progressive student movement must inculcate among the students that when they are in universities they should try and learn about the world. If the thirst for knowledge disappears from amongst students then we are finished because then in some sense you are doing what they want you to do viz. turn out technicians. If students do not have thirst for knowledge, if the just want to mug up a few things so that they can get a job, then you have fallen into the same trap where they want you to be.
Especially in the 90s, the RSS and the BJP have gained a path hold among students. The ABVP has also increased its influence, particularly in the North Indian universities, in the recent past. Would you relate this to the insecurities arising out of the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies?
I think that this probably has a lot of diverse reasons and the insecurities that your talking about can be a part of it. Another part is organisational – they get hold of people at the school level itself. Then, before they came to power there was a certain fascination for an ideology. They gave you an ideology – it may be a wrong ideology, it may be a dangerous ideology – but nonetheless it was a certain ideology. Against the flabby liberal bourgeois party called the congress, and where the left did not exist – because the Left gives you an ideology – they gave you something pristine, something to sacrifice yourself for, some kind of idealism. That appeal, I think would soon wane. But I think that the business of indoctrination from childhood and the insecurity you spoke about are still important.
In the whole of north India, in the old days, these used to be a strong socialist movement led by Lohia and others. The collapse of socialism has much to do with the growth of BJP just as the collapse of the socialist movement among the youth has a lot to do with the growth of the ABVP. Now, the socialist movement was always a mixed bag. On one hand it had a kind of anti-capitalist thrust but on the other hand it had a lot this Hind-Hindu business. The fact that many of the erstwhile socialist – George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav are today in the NDA is not a very surprising phenomenon because they did have that revivalism. Upto the Emergency you had a difference between the socialists and the Hindu right. That government came down because there was an alliance of the socialists and Charan Singh against the BJP. Subsequently the socialists have collapsed. However, it is also the fact that Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadac come from the same movement. The collapse of the socialist movement has made some of its constituents come to an anti-BJP, secular united front. Others have joined the BJP government. That is the contradiction of the north Indian socialist movement.
The student Federation was very strong in the very old days. The Student Federation was strong because there was a belief in the imminence of the revolution. The appeal of the Left has gone down as this belief has receded.
How would you envisage the struggle against communalism in the coming days? Are you optimistic?
I am extremely optimistic. This has been one of the few things which have taken off in a big way. Two months ago who was talking about it? Now everyone in the Parliament debated it for so many days. The SAHMAT convention found very strong echoes, so many chief ministers and Education Ministers come for it. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is organizing a conference today. They whole thing has noballed.
This has happened for variety of reasons. Obviously education is a very sensitive subject. A lot of middle class parents are worried about the dilution of educational standards. It is not only idealism. If you muck about in the universities you are affecting their prestige in the job market and hence your child’s career prospects. Lots of parents are very worried about it.
I am extremely optimistic and I think it will be possible to check these fellows. Already they are on defensive. Yesterday Joshi said he was willing to have a dialogue with the opposition they were not saying all this two months ago, they were just going ahead doing whatever they liked. So they are on the defensive and they must be put further back on the defensive. One must be relentters.
How do you think SFI (Students’ Federation of India can meaningfully contribute in this struggle?
That is something which is difficult for me to answer. SFI has to raise the consciousness of the students and it must be in the forefront of struggles to maintain standards and rationality in our universities. SFI should have a multiplicity of objectives. SFI has traditionally been a Left student organization which wants students to accept its ideology. While that may continue, it must join with whoever is exiling to come to maintain the sanctity of our universities against these irrational forces. So, as it is already doing, SFI has to break out of its specific domain and make common cause with a large number of people.
Thank you very much sir.
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