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Of Feudal Intellectual Capital: The History of the New Provincial Universities

By Debaditya Bhattacharya


#Are We JNU?

“बेटा, जान लो की यह JNU नहीं, CUB हैं.”

(Son, do bear in mind that this is not JNU, but CUB)

Such was the veiled threat that came from a teacher in Central University of Bihar (CUB), when a student of law urged discussions in class about the legal-technical merits of the sedition charges slapped against “anti-national” research scholars in JNU. While the obvious tenor of intimidation in such a classroom snub is hard to be missed, what is really alarming is that such tactics of verbal persecution have become part of the everyday disciplinary regime around certain university spaces in the country. The Central University of Bihar – renamed in a December 2014 Amendment as Central University of South Bihar (CUSB) – is one of the 15 new central universities established and incorporated by the Central Universities Act 2009. Seven years into its existence, the university still functions out of two separate temporary establishments in Patna and Gaya – while construction work for its permanent campus is underway in the provincial suburb of Panchanpur. Expectedly, the lack of permanent physical infrastructures to house the functions of the university has been used by its functionaries to justify all kinds of administrative anomalies – and to demand a moral ethic of ‘patience’-as-silence from the student community. Basic infrastructural provisions like hostel accommodation, mess meals, power back-up, drinking water, laboratory equipment, medical facilities, and common room spaces have consistently been denied, discontinued or disrupted in the excuse of not having a permanent campus. Whenever students have risen up in resistance, the managerial class of teacher-administrators have either resorted to the rhetorical sedative of the “happy CUB family” or openly threatened a suppression of the “virus of student protest” (as one former interim VC quoteth!). Incidentally, the most commonplace expression of disapproval of student activities – ranging from organising film-screenings/panel discussions to protesting against administrative indifference to conditions of hostel living – takes the form of teacherly insinuations like “क्या बेटा, तुम तो नेता बनने चले हो?” (So son, you’re grooming to be a [political] leader, right?) or “JNU जाने की तईयारी में हो?” (Ah, so you’re readying to go to JNU, is it?)[i]

As much as these everyday instances of moral-behavioural policing work at the anecdotal level to reinforce a populist stereotype around JNU as apparent source and succour of ‘student politics’, what gets performed in the process is more than a symbolic erasure of the history of progressive student movements across other parts of the country. At the heart of this “don’t-be-the-JNU-type” parable of cautionary import lies a negation of the liberal-humanist myth around the colonial origins of the university system in India. With the force of commonsense, the liberal is instead shunned as the condition of possibility of the ‘political’ within education – and the much-vaunted academic reformism of de-politicizing higher education is advertised in a decisive return to the secular feudal roots of the modern Indian public university. The ‘JNU-versus-us’ binary that is conveniently bandied around as a logic of deterrence as well as the bureaucratic rationale of university governance, is not so much a ghettoisation of a privileged exception as it is an assertion of a far more living legacy and historicity of the institutional norm.

It merely alerts us that no matter how many of those in these lesser-known and still-less-written-about Indian universities participated in hashtag campaigns of #WeAreJNU earlier this year, there is precious little in the history of our universities that approximates to what has severally been termed “the idea of JNU”. Much to the contrary, most central and state universities located outside media-circumscriptions of the ‘national’ (or, ‘what the nation wants to know’!) not only work with a perverse self-consciousness of their abstention from public opinion, but also actively feed into ‘local’ institutional networks of elite alliance and influence in terms of everyday practices of governance. The ‘provincial’ is granted legitimacy by virtue of its structural difference from and distrust of the metropolitan university as a ‘myth’ of ideological immanence. What is suggested here is that the ethnographic precondition of urbanism that went into the making of the ‘idea of the university’ as a colonial experiment is finally worth nothing, because the history of India’s educational reform testifies to the essentially secular feudal character of their material infrastructures. The new central universities, legislated into presence as non-urban public infrastructures of state-sponsored developmentalism, play up this spectre of the ‘old established university’ as divorced from material considerations of social context and demography and, therefore, failing the ‘work’ of the university vis-a-vis society. The re-connection of the university-as-colonial-fantasy with the lives of people-as-human-capital would thus mandate, through legislations like the Central Universities Act of 2009, a return to autocratic coalitions of elite interests.

This paper would argue that public-funded higher education in India, despite its urban-metropolitan instantiations for the most part, has both legislatively and materially been structured by what I call a secular-feudal complex of interests. In the following sections, I will attempt to show that the state of affairs in the new central universities – rather than striking in us fears of the unprecedented – actually confirms a policy-trend in public education that dates back to the early nineteenth-century. Taking Bihar for a case-example, the events that lead to the establishment of Patna University in 1917 and its subsequent history of social access with respect to educational opportunities seem only to entrench our suspicions around the ‘liberal’ idea of the university. The postcolonial policy on education, beginning from the Radhakrishnan Commission Report of 1948-49 to the currently-debated third National Policy on Education (2016), will then be briefly taken up for analysis to demonstrate the underpinnings of this ‘liberal university’ in independent India. We shall return in the final section to the provisions of the Central Universities Act (2009), and what it forebodes for the state of democracy and the quest for justice in Indian higher education.

The New Central Universities and the Fable of Democratization

The framework for the Act of 2009 was guided by the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-2012) of the Indian government with its “special focus for improving access and equity [of higher education] in remote regions and geographically disadvantaged places” (Clause 3.3.1 of the Report of Working Group on Higher Education), and it was distinctly bolstered by the immediately preceding Yash Pal Committee Report (2009) urging the Ministry to “respond to the needs of different regions in India in order to ensure not only equity and access but also quality and opportunity of growth along the academic vertical” (Recommendation xvii, Article 3.4, Report of the Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education). Pledging to a democratization of higher education, the Act instituted new universities in 12 Indian states and incorporated 3 more erstwhile state universities as central institutions within their respective territorial jurisdictions. Keeping with its declared purview of expanding reach, each of these universities was set up at a relatively remote location – mostly, rural or semi-urban – with hardly any semblance of an extant academic culture. This was important, in that these places were now expected to benefit from the traffic of cultural and intellectual production as much as the reduced social costs of learning were to make university education affordable and available to many outside dominant class-constituencies. What happened instead was just the opposite. The newly-established universities, with far steeper fee structures than the older metropolitan lot[ii], not only aided in structurally excluding those that they were avowedly catering to – but they also used their geographical segregation to appropriate local feudal modes of functioning in the way of self-contained personal fiefdoms. A few snippets from the recent history of some of these universities would suffice to bear out the truth in this statement.

In the early days of August, around 90 students of Central University of South Bihar went on a nine-day-long strike over the demand to have their courses recognised by regulatory authorities. Ten months away from graduating out of these courses, these students still do not know if the university’s B.Ed. (Bachelor of Education) degrees would hold any credibility, in the lack of requisite approval from statutory bodies. The university had, in 2013, instituted a couple of ‘innovative programmes’ at the School of Education – at the behest of the University Grants Commission – without seeking necessary approvals from regulatory authorities for teacher-training curriculum. The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) subsequently issued a public notice deeming the said running courses as illegal and unrecognised, and it later only agreed to grant recognition to the university’s curriculum prospectively from 2015 – while leaving two batches of admitted students in the lurch about the validity of their degrees. In the time that elapsed, not only has the university not been able to secure any assurance of positive intervention from the UGC, NCTE or the ministry – but it had instead unflinchingly gone ahead and introduced a Masters course in Education this year, again without having received the nod of NCTE. Admissions for the Masters course were completed in June-July this year, all the while duping the public into believing that all necessary procedures were complied with. When the beleaguered B.Ed. students went on strike, the university – fearing an imminent backlash from those freshly admitted into a yet-unrecognised M.Ed. course – arbitrarily decided to suspend the new course “for the time being” without cancelling their admissions. It was around the same time that the administration of CUSB decided to discontinue yet another course started last year – Bachelor of Vocational Studies (B.Voc.) – and the students registered in the programme were either handed out one-year diplomas or forced to write ‘letters of volition’ seeking admission into some other undergraduate course at the university. While the realities underlying the Prime Minister’s flagship of a ‘Skill India’ programme could not be better tested but at a central university, the illegality of manipulating students to write letters expressing their ‘desire’ to migrate to some other course explains the feudal extortions of ‘consensus’ that run these universities.

In February-March this year, while university campuses across the country were reacting to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula and the social boycott of Dalits on HCU campus, students in Central University of Haryana were brutally attacked and rounded up by local goons of the BJP’s student-wing (ABVP) when they tried to organise a peaceful candle-light procession in Vemula’s memory. Soon after, a newspaper report documenting ABVP’s protest rally against “anti-national” students in JNU appeared on the university’s official notice-board, almost as a warning to its own students. The university administration, apprehending antagonistic forms of solidarity from its student community and an upsurge of nascent political activism on social media, filed a police complaint against a Facebook community page run by the students of CUH. The step, the Registrar clarified, was necessary to prevent a tarnishing of the “reputation of the university” in social media circles[iii], and was followed up by suspending classes for a lecture by a local ABVP leader on “rashtra-bhakti” (patriotism) in the presence of RSS activists.

Not long after, on March 28, the Vice-Chancellor of Central University of Jharkhand ordered the suspension of a faculty member (citing provisions of the Central Universities Act 2009) on charges of having invited a retired Professor from JNU for a lecture at a university event. The suspension order accused the said faculty of having “tarnished” both “the image of the university…as well as the reputation of the Vice Chancellor”, and deemed her guilty of misconduct for inviting “a person of disputed integrity”[iv]. When, soon after, all these charges were proved to be unfounded and malicious, the VC ordered a corrigendum with a sly insertion that shifted the burden of evidence on what “the people believe”.[v] And, not to the facts at hand – which at once belied the aspersions brought upon the invited guest as well as the presumed guilty.

If universities were to begin to recruit and dismiss faculty, arrange lectures and invite scholars, expel and victimize students on the basis of what “people believe”, there can be no misgivings about the conversion of knowledge-institutions into agents and abettors of popular prejudice. Insofar as disciplinary-punitive measures are determined not by rational procedures of investigation or institutional principles of justice and fairness, but by the force of local belief-systems, the new central university seems little different from the khaap panchayats that order the killing and persecution of women for marrying outside of their caste or wearing jeans or carrying mobile phones. The terrorizing vehemence of these forms of everyday censure on the dignity of those working within such spaces is apparent in the fact that the harassed teacher was forced to maintain an uncanny silence both during the ordeal and after. Evidently, her final reinstatement brought in its wake the horrors of an informal machinery of censorship that revels in manufactured lies, unauthorised rumours and petty insinuations in a feudal-masculinist world of the university.

But in truth, this is only a destinal return of the Indian university to its moment of origin!


Popular Prejudice, Elite Interests, and the History of a Colonial Mimesis

Not surprisingly, when on April 23, 1831, the Committee of Managers in Hindu College decided to dismiss Derozio, the memorandum for the emergency meeting was drafted by Ram Comul Sen and read as follows:

Mr. Derozio, being the root of all evils and the cause of public alarm, should be discharged from the college, and all communications between him and the pupils be cut off.  (The Calcutta Christian Observer, Vol. I, 1832, p. 126)

It was the point about “public alarm” that was first vindicated at the start of the meeting through letters of guardians who expressed apprehensions about continuing their sons’ education in Hindu College.[vi] When the members of the committee failed to arrive at a consensus on the first resolution dubbing Derozio as “an improper person to be entrusted with the education of youth” (1832, p. 126), a proposal was mooted for Derozio’s removal in the context of “the present state of public feeling among the Hindu community of Calcutta” (p. 127). This second resolution, by using the excuse of popular outrage against the young Derozians, instantly garnered the vote of 6 members on the committee, led by Radhakanta Deb and Ram Comul Sen.

Interestingly, both Deb and Sen vocally championed the introduction of English-language education in public-funded institutions run by the colonial government, while continuing to lead conservative Hindu associations like Dharma Sabha and Gaudiya Sabha respectively. They were instrumental in the setting up of the Hindu College in 1817, abetting the demand for English as the only medium of instruction in the college. In this, they joined Rammohun Roy, despite their malignant opposition to the latter’s efforts for a legislative ban on sati. Staunch defenders of Brahminical practices constituting the core of the Hindu religion, Radhakanta and Ram Comul sought strategic support in Rammohun’s distaste for the radical agnostics trained in the Derozian school of thought. As Jogesh Chandra Bagal elaborates in his biographical sketches of Radhakanta and Ram Comul in Sahitya Sadhak Charitmala (1951), both leaders lent their voice to the Anglicist cause only so far as the liberal effects of such education could be contained through a Hindu upper-caste male dominance in the institutions of higher education.[vii]

What is conveniently missed in our Macaulayan narratives around the Charter Act of 1813 (setting aside a grant of one lakh for the education of natives) and the Anglicist-Orientalist controversy that rages till 1835 is the historical fact that state support for English-language education was not a simple colonial ploy to manufacture clerks – “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” (The Great Indian Education Debate, 1999, p. 171). The staunchest advocates in favour of the study of European knowledge-systems were in fact the local elites – and, as H.T. Prinsep notes in his diary, “a class of Anglo-Indians and the younger civil servants mostly joined it, who were opposed to Government’s assisting to give instruction in any kind of Eastern literature or science, the whole of which they declared to be immoral, profane or non-sensical” (Selections from Educational Records, Part I, 1920, pp. 133-34). The local zamindars too jumped in the fray in the hope of retaining their privilege with the colonial administration, and Macaulay’s infamous Minute of 1835 was in truth only giving voice to the most influential representatives of the Indian population. It occasions no wonder therefore that substantial portions of Macaulay’s understanding of vernacular knowledges in the 1835 Minute borrowed from Rammohun’s angst against the proposed opening of a Sanskrit college in Calcutta in 1823. Rammohun Roy wrote in his letter to Lord Amherst, protesting the public funding of classical native institutions:

The Sanskrit language, so difficult that almost a lifetime is necessary for its acquisition, is well known to have been for ages a lamentable check to the diffusion of knowledge, and the learning concealed under this almost impervious veil is far from sufficient to reward the labor of acquiring it….Neither can much improvement arrive from such speculations as the following which are the themes suggested by the Vedanta. In what manner is the soul absorbed in the Deity? What relation does it bear to the Divine Essence? Nor will youths be fitted to be better members of society by the Vedantic doctrines which teach them to believe that all visible things have no real existence…. (1999, p. 110)

The Minute that Macaulay – as the President of the Council of Education – prepared and presented on February 2, 1835, much to the satisfaction of Lord Bentinck and with a dramatic effect of sealing the debate in favour of English education, observed in accents strikingly similar to Roy’s:

It is argued, or rather taken for granted, that by literature the Parliament can have meant only Arabic and Sanskrit literature;…that they meant to designate…only such persons as might have studied in the sacred books of the Hindoos all the uses of cusagrass, and all the mysteries of absorption into the Deity…. Why then is it necessary to pay people to learn Sanscrit and Arabic? Evidently because it is universally felt that the Sanscrit and Arabic are languages the knowledge of which does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them.  (1999, pp. 163-68)

The influence that Roy’s opinions had on Macaulay’s denunciation of Eastern knowledge-systems is more than incidental, in as far as it is often contended that the British bureaucrat’s appreciation of “native gentlemen with a liberality and an intelligence which would do credit to any member of the Committee of Public Instruction” (p. 171) cannot but contain a hint at Rammohun’s habitual eloquence in the English language. Though Lord Macaulay assumed office as law member to the Governor General’s Council soon after Rammohun’s death, much of his initial period as a “silent observer” (as H.T. Prinsep reminisces) was spent in dealing with the ghost of Roy as one of those “men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues” (p. 165). His final opinions on the subject, calculated to produce the desired effect on Lord Bentinck, were largely informed by counsel and conversations with the native elite – who desperately wanted to snatch the reins of the instructional apparatus already set in place through informal community-arrangements and local endowments for vernacular schools in the countryside.

With the introduction of English-language education in public institutions, the ground was prepared for the emergence of a European-model university effectively consolidating the hegemony of the Hindu upper-castes in the field of education. It was this grasp over the knowledge-apparatuses that the Brahminical Hindus saw slipping away in the course of time, and especially with the British Parliament’s declared policy of encouragement to mass native education through public grants since 1813.

Caste Privilege and the Roots of the Indian University

To take the case of South Bihar (specifically, with a view to trace current-day continuities in a Central University of South Bihar that I began by referring to!), William Adam’s Third Report on the State of Education in Bengal and Behar (1838) punctiliously records the presence of 286 Hindi schools, 279 Persian schools, 27 Sanskrit schools and 12 Arabic schools in its nine thanas.[viii] Appointed by Lord Bentinck to conduct a survey of indigenous educational initiatives in the four districts of Bengal and two in Bihar, Adam compiled an extensive documentation of native efforts towards learning with an ethnographic rigour of purpose and detail. He defined the object of his inquiry – the indigenous schools – as institutions where “instruction in the elements of knowledge is communicated, and which have been originated and are supported by the Natives themselves, in contra-distinction from those that are supported by religious or philanthropic Societies” (1941, p. 6). Adam’s findings were naturally alarming to the Hindu conservatives, in that they succinctly demonstrated the latter’s failing sway over institutions of knowledge-dissemination. In fact, he concluded by recommending to the British government that an adequate allocation of state bursaries for such forms of mass education was the only way to break out of caste-hierarchies and ensure equality of opportunities as well as structures of social mobility within the Indian population.[ix] He discerningly noted that while the 27 Sanskrit schools in the district of South Bihar had enlisted only Brahmin teachers and an overwhelming majority of Brahmin students, the 291 Persian and Arabic schools recorded the attendance of 867 Hindus and 619 Musalmans. Of the Hindu scholars of Persian, not only were there only 11 Brahmins and a majority of Kayasthas (711 in number), but even students belonging to non-upper caste backgrounds like Koiri, Sunri, Kamar, Napit, Kurmi, Mayra and Aguri found representation (p. 287). Adam closed his analysis of the district in Section IV of the Report with a set of observations that perspicuously maintained:

The increase of Persian schools, nearly equalling the number of Hindi schools and accompanied by an increased number of schools of Arabic learning, is the fact which most arrests attention. (p. 226)

Notwithstanding the importance of the knowledge of Persian in deciphering revenue records or transactions, what Adam’s meticulous reliance on detail gave away as material evidence was the egalitarian nature of Persian-Arabic studies as compared to systems of Sanskrit education. It is not without sufficient reason therefore that Sir Ganganath Jha’s autobiographical accounts let out in a stray note of lament:

We have realised with somewhat like a shock that even in the home of intensive scholarship like Kashi, Mithila and Nadia, the deeply read [Sanskrit] scholar of whom there were large numbers 50 years ago, have practically disappeared and pundits who could be compared to these giants [can] even remotely be counted now on the fingers of one hand. (Autobiographical Notes, 1976, p. 87)

Jha’s regret about the state of classical Sanskrit learning strikes one with even greater intensity, when pitted against the context of Adam’s findings about the mass-appeal and extensive accessibility of vernacular schools in the several districts of Bengal and Bihar. Registering the existence of over a lakh of such schools in just these two provinces, Adam establishes with precision in his First Report of 1835 “that in Bengal and Behar there is on an average a village school…for every thirty-one or thirty-two boys [of the school-going age]” (p. 7). Adam’s most potent revelations come in the form of an exhaustive list of the caste-backgrounds that its students professed as belonging to. Notably for example, while the Hindu upper castes constituted around 37.5 percent of the student population in South Bihar (including as much as a meagre 9 percent of Brahmin students), the non-upper caste demography dominated the intake of vernacular schools by close to 61 percent of the total. Not only that, around 47 Dalit scholars from Dosad, Pashi, Dhoba and Musahar communities gained entry into these vernacular schools and received training in Hindi literature as well as the study of agricultural and commercial accounts besides Bhumihar, Brahmin, Kayastha and Rajput compatriots (p. 245). Jata Shankar Jha, in his magnificent account of “Education in Bihar” (included in Kalikinkar Dutta, ed. History of Modern Bihar) comments on the tireless attempts of a certain Headmaster of Patna High School, S. MacIntosh, to expand the infrastructures of indigenous vernacular education:

Among the records of the Council of Education for the year 1844 there are many statements which show that majority of the students in these [11] schools belonged to the Hindu community, the total number of Mohammadan boys being 57 only. Of the Hindus, the Vaishyas and Sudras were in overwhelming number. Thus, of the total 647 students in April 1844, 57 were Brahmins, 5 Babhans, 34 Kshatriyas, 128 Vaishyas and 366 Sudras…. MacIntosh’s system was a great success for some years in the beginning. But he had to close these schools in the long run for want of funds. (pp. 396-400)

Given the significant penchant for social transformation apparent in this early-nineteenth century system of mass learning, James Ray Hagen’s contention about its distinctly “secularized” nature and potential seems fairly justifiable (Indigenous Society, Political Economy and Colonial Education in Patna District: A History of Social Change from 1811 to 1951 in Gangetic North India, 1981, p. 259). Even in the four districts of Bengal that Adam reviewed in his Third Report, he accurately documents the presence of Goala, Mala, Sutar, Chandal, Kalu, Muchi, Sunri, Hari, Bagdhi, Dom, Bauri, Dulia, and Mal castes not only among the student-scholars but also within the community of teachers.[x] For example, in the district of Burdwan, out of the 12,408 Hindus studying in the Bengali vernacular schools, at least 61 students came from the Dom and Chandal communities each, and another 16 belonged to the Muchi caste (p. 241). There were Chandal teachers in schools of all four districts, giving instruction to upper-caste Hindus, Muslims, and Christian students. Commenting on the school-going statistics available from Moorshedabad district, Adam resolutely asserts that, despite the prevailing preponderance of Brahmins and Kayasthas,

…[the low-castes] are gaining ground, and are almost imperceptibly acquiring a sense of the value even of that humble instruction which is within their reach, but from which, by the customs of society, they were formerly almost wholly debarred. The time is not distant when it would have been considered contrary to all the maxims of Hindu civilization that individuals of the Malo, Chandal, Kahar, Jalia, Lahari, Bagdhi, Dhoba and Muchi castes should learn to read, write and keep accounts; and if some venerable and aged Brahman…were told that these low castes are now raising their aspirations so high, he would deplore it as one of many proofs of the gross and increasing degeneracy of the age. (pp. 231-32)

Indeed, the “venerable and aged Brahmans” and Hindu upper-caste elites who raised their voices to secure from the General Committee of Public Instruction a system of government-sponsored English education were unsettled by these growing developments in the vernacular schools. Hardly limited to Bengal and Bihar, such developments had been noticeable even in the 12,498 schools of Madras Presidency (as reported by Thomas Munro in his 1822-25 surveys)[xi] and an equal number in Bombay[xii]. As an organised attempt to wrest control of infrastructures of education through public investment, the onus for inaugurating a pedagogical shift through the English language cannot be squarely laid on colonial administrative interests – as official historiographic accounts would make us believe. The massive support garnered in favour of the attempt from native conservative elites was in effect aimed at two consequences: first, dismantling the informal practices of vernacular learning that seemed to be working out a silent caste revolution along the countryside; and second, laying the foundations for a social imagination of the Indian university as a ‘secular feudal complex’ following the example of the University of London. The final event of establishing universities in the three Presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1857 cannot steer clear of charges of an intentional metropolitanism prophesied well in advance. In this regard, the role of Wood’s Despatch of 1854 was no less significant in setting out the goal of public education within universities as “providing the means of acquiring a very high degree of education for a small number of natives of India drawn, for the most part, from what we should here call the higher classes” (B.B. Misra, The Indian Middle Classes, 1961, p.160).

Feudalism and India’s Tryst with Freedom: The Legacy of the Colonial University

While the public funding of English-language training literally contributed to the demise of vernacular systems of schooling through withdrawal of state support and student stipends, the opening up of the ICS examination to English-proficient native elites in 1869 further contributed to the project of upper-caste hegemony in the field of university education. Local Hindu zamindars instituted colleges of European studies in their own vicinity through direct patronage along caste lines. For example, through the 1880s to the first decade of the twentieth century, the Bhumihar Brahmins and Kayasthas in Bihar took on a leading role in reclaiming control over institutional forms of education and thus ensuring a near-complete percolation of its benefits only to caste Hindus. As Hetukar Jha recounts, the Bhumihar Brahmin Sabha contributed generously towards the coming up of a Bhumihar Brahmin College in Muzaffarpur in 1899, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Other caste-associations like the All India Kayastha Sabha (founded in 1889), Pradhan Bhumihar Brahmin Sabha (1889), Sarjupari Brahmin Sabha (1905), Rajput Sabha (1906), Revani Kahar Sabha (1906), and Bihar Hindu Sabha (1911) advocated not only for a representation of elite Hindu interests in terms of the material results of English education in the province, but also accounted for a strident anti-Bengali sentiment in terms of academic and public employment opportunities in Bihar.[xiii] It was this demand for a lessening of the Bengali influence on the material-cultural mobility enabled by education that finally translated into a concerted attempt to break free of the University of Calcutta. The growing insistence on the need for a self-contained university in Patna peaked after the Indian Universities Act of 1904 – which proposed the introduction of direct teaching facilities and student-enrolment in university departments. The Resolution of 1913, where the Indian Government conceded to the demand for a Patna University in principle, practically acknowledged the mounting pressure from Bihari elites. In the wake of the legislative policy mandating direct student admissions in “teaching and residential universities” (Indian Educational Policy 1913, p. 36), the upper-caste Hindus in Bihar recognised with renewed force the need to retain provincial dominance by severing all structural ties with Calcutta. Consequently, Patna University was founded in 1917 amidst raging conflicts of opinion, but yet with a script ready to drive it through to a secular-feudal destiny.

Hetukar Jha, in his painstakingly rigorous analysis of the history of student influx on Patna University campus between 1917 and 1951, makes use of the Reports on the Progress of Education in Bihar and Orissa through two decades (1929 to 1949), the literacy data from Census reports of the period and the register of admission forms (1929 to 1942) available at Patna College to arrive at a sociological understanding of the “caste and class composition” of postgraduate scholars in the Arts faculty. The Reports serve as statistical evidence for the fact that

the percentage of upper-caste Hindus till 1939 varied from 81.63 to 85.45 and in 1946 rose to 89.82. After that it went on increasing. Indian Christians, non-upper caste Hindus and Muslims…taken together could hardly exceed even 10% of the total student population. (1985, p. 68)

The overwhelming monopoly of the Hindu elites, when compared with Census ratios of demographic distribution and literacy rates, is corroborated by the information provided by students on admission forms in terms of caste background, occupational status as well as residential location. Having tabulated the details in a comprehensive year-wise manner, Jha concludes:

91.36% of the total students from 1929 to 1942 were of upper caste cluster. This cluster, though having about only 10% of the total population, had virtually monopolised the higher education at the postgraduate level….The students of lower cluster were only 1.08%…. Region-wise, it was the urban sector (tiny in size in comparison to the rural area) which received disproportionately greater advantage of University education. Among the urban centres, it was only Patna and towns close to this capital city of Bihar which generally availed this opportunity.  (1985, pp. 80-81)

No wonder we have come a long way from Adam’s Reports of 1837-38 to Jha’s numbers right before and after independence, and the idea of the Indian university has lived up to the material implications of its originary conception. The story of the independent nation-state’s policy directions with respect to public-funded university education has defended the status quo and fulfilled the prophecy that the university portended all along. The next and the last section of this paper will briefly outline this post-independence history of higher educational reform in India.


A Postcolonial Future of ‘Reform’: The Story of the Missing Caste Census and a Dalit-Adivaasi GER

A calculated anomaly pervades government data on the present status of higher education. Though statistical figures based on projected census findings cannot be assumed to provide an authoritative insight into the structural forms of institutional discrimination, it will be extremely telling to note the sham in the state’s advertisements of a steadily-growing knowledge-economy through Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) indicators. While it has been severally pointed out that the GER cannot be an adequate parameter for measuring distribution of educational access or opportunities because of its complete inattention to alarmingly high drop-out rates at different levels, the situation is obviously aggravated by the increasing costs of education in private institutions. The government’s projections of a rising GER in higher education fail to account for the hundreds of thousands of students who are forced out of colleges and universities on socio-economic grounds, before completion of their courses. Such a critique of indexing opportunities for higher education stands absolutely vindicated by the historical injustices and epistemic violences of a system long dominated by the elite upper-castes, as I have shown above. But there’s more to discredit this numerical metrics of ‘development’ on its own terms of reference.

The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2012-13, published by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, projects a national GER average of 21.1, and consequently goes on to conjure fictions of enrolment among Dalits and adivaasi students as 15.1 and 11.0 respectively (Tables 9B and 9C, EAG Report 2014). Judging by these figures, one seems to get the impression that reservation policies in the field of higher education have substantively forwarded the cause of social justice, especially in the context of Jha’s findings at the close of India’s colonial experience. But, that’s exactly how statistics are used to befuddle the truth of material conditions in the play of fractions and decimals. The obscenely inflated projections require us to understand that the GER figures for SCs and STs, instead of being calculated against census figures of the total population in the age group of 18 to 23 years, have been manufactured out of the national average of total students enrolled in higher education. It effectively means that if out of a sample of 100 students, only 21 opt for higher education, it is only around 15 percent of those 21 (which practically means, 3 students out of every 100) that belongs to Dalit families. Even then, the numbers don’t seem to match against the estimated census projections of the MHRD itself for 2012-13. A realistic calculation – not on the basis of an average GER, but in its necessary comparison with census data – reveals that while every 17 of 100 adults in the age-bracket fit for higher education are Dalits, less than three get to attend an institution meant for the purpose. With the adivaasi population, it is only 1 student out of every 9 (in a group of 100) who has access to university/college education. To be more accurate in the cause of statistical flourish, contrary to the government’s claims, the Dalit enrolment ratio in higher education is 2.5 and the corresponding figure for ST students is only about 0.9.

To now compare this with the Hindu upper-caste component in higher education, it comes to an apparently not-so-impressive 45.1 percent of total enrolment average as per AISHE Report of 2012[xiv]. So, in a sample size of 100, if around 21 students pursue degrees of higher education, the higher castes would only constitute among 9 to 10 of them. But given that the census total of Hindu high-caste (dwij/twice-born) population in the country may be projected at barely 10 percent, every nine out of the ten caste-Hindu students (in a designated sample size of 100) have easy access to university/college education.

It is not difficult to guess why the 2011 Census data about upper-caste populations continues to elude us!

The Secular-Feudal Pact as Policy: Commissioning Higher Education Reports

What Hetukar Jha diagnosed in terms of the sectarian composition of the colonial liberal university has hardly suffered any change over the decades of an independent India’s tryst with education policy. Higher education remains, as it were, the privileged preserve of the caste-elites – and the hegemonies established by the colonial-legislative institution of the European-model university continue to stake their claim in ways as palpable and real.

The reasons for this structural feudalism built into the constitution of the Indian university require us to look no further than the sustained policy-directions charted out by successive commissions, committees, and legislative proposals. Beneath the veneer of a ‘reforms’-agenda that has rhetorically guided all reports and recommendations in the field of higher education, the secular-feudal ‘constitution’ of the Indian university has remained unchallenged. The University Education Commission of 1948-49, chaired by S. Radhakrishnan and having as its members eminent educationists like Zakir Hussain and Meghnad Saha, deliberated on the “need for more universities on a regional or other basis” (p. 2) to come up with a proposal for setting up rural universities in close coordination with local communities of practice and systems of knowledge. But, despite an occasional acknowledgment of the principles of democracy and social justice, the Commission’s Report was hinged on a deliberate denial of the history of social privilege that tempered the university’s fortunes in the postcolonial nation-state. Instead, it maintained:

The fundamental right is the right of the individual, not of the community…. To insist on quotas for communities would be to assume that the nation is composed of separate and self-sufficient groups, which is a negation of our national ideal and democratic principle. Discrimination practices generate tensions and the spiritual damage caused by them is not measurable. Education should not be used for creating or deepening the very inequalities which it is designed to prevent. Progress for the nation requires that access to higher education should be determined by the interest, and ability of the student. There is much to be said for the suggestion that the information about caste and religion should not be asked for from candidates for admission to colleges and universities. (p. 45)

The deliberate erasure of “information about caste and religion” from the collective unconscious of the university amounted to a negation of history – and, in the guise of “the interest and ability of the student”, a sanction of meritocratic codes for exercise of the right to intellectual labour. In envisioning the rural university on the Danish model of the People’s College, the Report chillingly disavows its concern for social justice by separating it from the burden of historical justice, and thus reconciling to a bourgeois jingoism of social mobility: “[T]he chief issue is not where young people come from to get an education but where they go with their education.”  (Chapter XVIII, p. 485)

The Report of the Education Commission (1964-66), titled “Education and National Development” and exhaustively drafted under the chairmanship of D.S. Kothari, affirmed a bold commitment to addressing forms of social discrimination but structurally reinstated networks of intellectual elitism by proposing the establishment of a few “major universities” (Section 11.17, p. 279). Seemingly geared towards creating spaces for knowledge-production at par with superior foreign universities and preventing the exodus of talented students from the nation, it reaffirmed a hierarchized referentiality of ‘value’ as qualitative claim to intellectual labour, as if produced in ahistorical isolation. The Kothari Commission justified this feudal circumscription of the “best institutions” as the special prerogative of “the small number of students of superior capacity [who] are usually swamped by the large numbers of those who are not well prepared for intensive higher education” (p. 281). The Report further contends:

We recognize that our approach does involve at this stage a certain differentiation between the ‘universities’. This is, however, not only inevitable in an economy of scarcity but is also the only sure and practicable way to benefit all ultimately in the shortest time possible. Moreover, we must recognize that pursuit of excellence implies and requires a discriminatory approach; and that to provide equal resources to all irrespective of the quality of their performance and potentiality for growth merely promotes mediocrity…. In fact, we may go further and say that there is always need for elite institutions in every academic system. (p. 281, emphasis mine)

The 1968 National Policy on Education (NPE), which came close on the heels of the Kothari Commission recommendations, only paid lip-service to “develop[ing] education among the backward classes and especially among the tribal people” (Clause 4a). Expectedly, there was little political intention towards that aim and this was adequately reflected in the absurd lack of outlining concrete mechanisms for the purpose. The subsequently revised NPE of 1986 (amended further in 1992) acknowledged this gaping chasm between declared goals and suggested measures for implementation, and redressed it by ironically apprenticing the state to an informal feudal economy of local patronage and communal aid in rural sectors of underdevelopment.

Resources, to the extent possible, will be raised by mobilising donations, asking the beneficiary communities to maintain school buildings and supplies of some consumables, raising fees at the higher levels of education and effecting some savings by the efficient use of facilities. (Part 11.2)

The onus of funding was thus attempted to be shifted on the “beneficiary communities” – and a devious hint of the state’s withdrawal from non-urban infrastructures of education was thus doled out as early as in 1986. The agenda of social justice was explicitly abandoned to private feudal interests or collaborations in terms of mobilization of resources. The liberal sheen of the autonomous public university was already in the process of being unabashedly abandoned, through an encouragement to local political elites and philanthropists for infrastructural investment in the ‘public good’ of education. It was this suggestion, inchoately expressed in the 1986/1992 NPE, that was soon to give way to a large-scale financialisation of the university and a consequent distancing of the state from constitutional commitment to social provisions since the early 1990s. On the other hand, the government’s gradual retraction from the field of higher education allowed local coalitions of dominant class-elites in the gentry to re-emerge as funding agencies and private donors for universities, often in collaboration with corporate capital. The status quo in class-interests and solidarities was unaffected, while the maintenance-costs of hegemony were ceded onto elite civil society partnerships with corporations. It’s no wonder therefore that the National Knowledge Commission Report of 2006-07 openly advocated a model of self-financing for public universities by stressing on the call for “needs-blind admissions” (p. 63). The questions of access and opportunity in higher education were to be delinked from a subsidy-based model of public funding and made incumbent on aid-packages of scholarships and student-loans. The Report of the Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education (2009; alternatively known as the Yash Pal Committee recommendations) resolved the issue of social justice summarily, by noting:

The primary focus should, therefore be on making education affordable, either through scholarships or loans. An assured loan to every student (and a scholarship based on merit for the needy) in accredited institutions should be the aim (and our recommendation). Institutional funding can then be for capital costs and research, and based on the worthiness of the institution. Once a student qualifies to enter an institution of her choice, she should not be deprived of education for want of money. (Section 2.3.4, p. 39)

The Subramanian Committee Report for Evolution of New Education Policy 2016 follows the same line of argument and makes a pitch for increased student fees to cover institutional costs, while at the same time insisting on a ranking-based policy of grant-disbursal. Even more alarmingly, this Report goes on to depoliticise social privilege by explaining instances of structural inequality within the experience of higher education as psychological problems of adjustment to “prevailing circumstances and conditions of urban learning centres” (Sec. 5.8.5, p. 63). In this, instead of suggesting definitive policy-measures to address forms of social exclusion in their structural context, the committee recommends interpersonal efforts at “appropriately designed remedial/advisory/guidance/training facilities” (Sec. 5.8.4, p. 62). Such a step not only disregards the history of organised cognitive damage perpetrated on Dalit and adivaasi populations by prognostically identifying it as a psycho-somatic disorder, but also makes every effort at social justice seem like an individual act of charity. The underlying message is clear, in that social justice is no longer the responsibility of the state but of charitable individuals and of benevolent private enterprise within the university. The death of Rohith Vemula, framed in the context of the Draft NPE 2016, was a personal-psychological ‘adjustment issue’, and therefore a subject of individual moral concern rather than of the state.

The University as Internal Condition of Justice?

The Central Universities Act of 2009, which actually goes on to incorporate a bunch of provincial universities under one umbrella-legislation, uses the originary secular-feudal impulse at the heart of the university to protect a cult of irrationality through extraordinary amplitudes of power given unto the Vice-Chancellor. Autonomy devolves into autocracy, as an undefined “code of conduct” is statutorily made to govern “conditions of service for all categories of employees” and “regulate and enforce discipline among the students and the employees” (Sections 6xxi-xxii). Perfunctory obligations of obedience and loyalty serve to root the university in local matrices of feudal practice, even as the possibility of resistance is left to “Student Councils” with members nominated on the basis of merit, and statutory bodies with no directly elected members. The Act also enjoins the university unto a moment of censure and a space of prohibition against law; it makes disputes relating to conditions of appointment strictly internal matter, with no recourse to civil courts or extra-institutional infrastructures of justice (Section 33[3]).

In this, the university becomes the internal reference for justice – and this is the mystical moment of what Derrida would call the ‘founding’ of reason outside of the rational. Insofar as the new provincial Central University manufactures the ‘norm’ as exhaustively self-referential, its claim to autonomy rests on insertions of epistemological violence into the normality of ‘everyday’. The feudal is but an event of cognitive surplus – a moment where the incalculable supplement of equality re-produces sameness as multiplicity, the possible as [ac]countable. The university is the life of that irruption of sameness-as-community, the promise of the equal as structurally excluding the other. It is an interruption in the life of reason. And, not the other way round.

Derrida elaborates it thus:

…[T]o pose the question of the law of law [droit du droit]: what is the legitimacy of this juridico-rational and politico-juridical system of the university, and so forth? The question of the law of law, of the founding or foundation of law, is not a juridical question… If there can be no pure concept of the university, if, within the university, there can no pure and purely rational concept of the university, this…is very simply because the university is founded. An event of foundation can never be comprehended merely within the logic that it founds. The foundation of a law [droit] is not just a juridical event. The origin of the principle of reason, which is also implicated in the origin of the university, is not rational.[xv]  (p. 109)

Photo: The Hindu

[i] The anecdotal speech-extracts in this paragraph are reconstructed verbatim either from personal experience or through first-person witness narratives.

[ii] For the sake of a cursory comparison, while a student seeking admission to an MA programme in JNU is required to pay around 371 rupees as consolidated admission fee, a student enrolling in the same course in CUSB (to take a generic example!) is forced to pay up a sum of 9100 rupees at the start of the first semester. For a comparative break-up of hostel living costs, one may simply pit the annual room-rent of 120 rupees for JNU students (on double-sharing basis) as against the 12,000 rupees collected as annual lodging rent in CUSB. Notwithstanding the fact that CUSB hostels have students herded into makeshift triple-sharing rooms with ply-wood partitions and often without doors or windows, the administration has withdrawn all mess facilities for residents. Computed in its entirety, the annual cost of living incurred by a student of CUSB in Gaya is likely to be more than a lakh, while a residential scholar on JNU campus might well offset his annual living expenses for less than a third of his former counterpart’s.

[iii] See Aman Sethi’s “Reading Foucault in Mahendragarh, or Why We Need a Public University System”, in The Wire, May 10, 2016.

[iv] See Central University of Jharkhand Order, File No. CUJ/VC Sectt./2016/01/30/C, dated March 28, 2016, S/d Nand Kumar Yadav ‘Indu’, Vice-Chancellor

[v] Refer to Central University of Jharkhand Corrigendum, File No. CUJ/VC Sectt./2016/01/33/C, dated March 30, 2016, S/d R.K. Dey, Registrar (I/c)

[vi] A variety of letter-specimens, recording such scandalized response to the ‘moral blight’ represented by the young Derozians, was published through 1830-31 in Samachar Chandrika and Sangbad Prabhakar. For reference, see the section titled “Naitik Obostha” (Moral Condition) in Brajendranath Bandopadhyay, ed. Sangbadpatre Sekaler Katha, Vol. II, Calcutta: Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, 1970

[vii] See Jogesh Chandra Bagal, “Radhakanta Deb”, in Sahitya Sadhak Charitmala, Vol. 2, No. 20, pp. 12-17; See also Bagal, “Ram Comul Sen”, op. cit., Vol. 6, No. 72, pp. 10-16

[viii] Refer to Section IV, Table 4 of William Adam, “Third Report on the State of Education in Bengal”, in Anathnath Basu, ed. Reports on the State of Education in Bengal, Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1941, p. 226

[ix] See “Third Report”, Chapter Second, Sections – II (“Plan Proposed and its Application to the Improvement and Extension of Vernacular Instruction”, V (“Application of the Plan to the Instruction of the Aboriginal Tribes”) and VI (“Application of the Plan to Female Instruction”), in A.N. Basu, op.cit., pp. 358-454

[x] William Adam, in A.N. Basu, op. cit., pp. 227-242

[xi] Refer to Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Education in the Eighteenth Century, New Delhi: Biblia Intex, 1983

[xii] See R.V. Parulekar, ed. Survey of Indigenous Education in the Province of Bombay (1820-1830), Bombay: Asia Publishing, 1951

[xiii] See Hetukar Jha, Colonial Context of Higher Education in India, Usha, 1985, pp. 47-50

[xiv] See Section 3.11, Box 2, All India Survey on Higher Education 2011-12 (P), New Delhi: MHRD, 2013, p. 10

[xv] Refer to Jacques Derrida, “Mochlos, or the Conflict of the Faculties”, Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2, trans. Jan Plug et al., Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004

Debaditya Bhattacharya 
teaches English literature in Bhagini Nivedita College, University of Calcutta. He works on continental philosophy and occasionally writes on issues of contemporary political interest. He is co-editor of Sentiment, Politics, Censorship: The State of Hurt (Sage, 2016).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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