When the country became independent, people looked forward to a social transformation in India, and they expected the state to play a leading part in this transformation. Those who were placed at the helm of affairs were persons of great ability and integrity, and it was assumed that it was within their capacity to transform India from a backward hierarchical society into a modern democratic one. The Constitution and the laws on one hand, and centralized planning on the other were seen as a major instruments through which the state would usher in the new society.
As we now know, things did not happen as they were expected to. The state increased its power and at the same time reduced the capacity to meet the expectations of the people. The idea of socialism has lost most of its shine, and the talk today [i.e. 1995] is about liberalization and the possibilities that may be opened up by freeing the market of the many constraints imposed upon it by the state. A change of orientation has certainly come about, but what it signifies for the future of Indian society is not easy to determine.
Can the market be expected to bring about the kind of social transformation that state failed to bring into being? With the advantage of hindsight it is easy to see the mistake made in assigning to the state a kind of miraculous power as an agent of social transformation. It would be an even graver mistake to assign such a magical power to the market, and to treat the state as dispensable. Market and state are both very important, but they do not between them make up the whole of society. Today all the talk about liberalization and control, or the relative advantages of state and market, and in this talk the enormous significance for society of its various institutes tends to lost of sight.
A society such as ours has great variety of these, ranging from domestic and religious institutes to educational, scientific, medical and civic institutes. Some these go back to our ancient past, while others are of more recent origin. It is the modern institutions of a more or less public character that call for serious attention form us. To be sure, the state itself is an institute and the market may also be viewed as one, but here I wish to dwell upon institutions other than state and market. In an essay published before Independence in an Bengali magazine, N.K. Bose has put forward the provocative argument that modern Bengal has produced many great individuals but hardly any institution of lasting value. He had illustrated his argument with three examples: Calcutta Corporation, Vishva-Bharati and the University of Calcutta. He had said that Calcutta Corporation has been overshadowed by the towering personality of C.R. Das, Vishva-Bharati by that Ravindranath Tagore, and University of Calcutta by the personality of Sir Ashutsh Mukherji. With the demise of these personalities, the institutions associcated with them went into decline. When I look at the public institution with which I am familiar, I realize how precient Bose’s observation, made more than fifty years ago, had been.
Educated Indians today care a great deal about family and perhaps also about religion, but they do not seem to care very much about the institution in and through which they secure their livelihood. I have in mind such institutions colleges and universities, hospitals and laboratories and municipalities and corporations. The creation of these institutions in the nineteenth century was part of modernization of India, and large number of new one were added after Independence. It does not require a professional sociologist to discover that most of them are in a state of decay and disintegration. The decay within is signaled by the poor state state of physical maintenance and the derelict external appearance of so many of our public institutions. The modern university is among institutions occupying spaces in society that not or ought not to be regulated by wholly by either the state or the market. There are many such institutes, but I will concentrate on the university for reasons of convenience. It does not make a difference to these institutions whether or not the state and the market functions effectively as parts of the external environment. But their own health and well being can be guaranteed if they are able to develop and sustain ways of functioning that are to some extent independent of the state and the market.
As an institution, the Indian university is in a poorer condition that it was fifty years ago. This truth is most evident in the case of the university for the simple reason that it operates in a conspicuously open space: virtually anybody can walk into a university and see the disorder and apathy prevalent there. Vice-chancellors and the proverbial ‘deans and dons’ will say that the poor condition of the Indian university is due to their being starved of fund by the government. Others, apparently more adventurous in their ideas, say that the universities should shake off their dependence on the government, raise their own funds, and become more responsive to the laws of market. Both views are essentially shallow for the principal ailment is an institutional one, arising from the displacement of academic values and commitments by other interests, whether in social justice or in profitability not only outside the universities but also within them. I consider the main problem with the university to be not of finance but or morale: increasing number of both students and teachers have come to regard as trivial or even meaningless the everyday work of the classroom, the library and the laboratory.
It is one thing to set up lecture rooms, libraries and laboratories, although now even that is not without its difficulties. It is quite another to create feeling that the work that is done there may be not just profitable but also meaningful, and that it has to be governed by its own norms and values which different from those of both administration and management. Teachers and students often lament the breakdown of the regularity and routine of academic life in the universities, but that lament does not itself create a caring attitude towards the institutes of which they are members. Such a caring attitude takes a long time to grow, and perhaps it never struck such deep roots in our universities — and other modern public institutions — as to make them self-sustaining.
Indian academics write a great deal on an endless variety of subjects, and this is indeed what is expected of them. Yet it is remarkable how little they have written about the universities in which they live and work. It has struck me that every college in Cambridge and Oxford has its own biography, and some has more than one, whereas one hardly finds a biography of an Indian college or university. The fact that so few scientists, doctors, architects, lawyers or journalists have written about the institution in which they have spent the better part of their lives must surely tells us something about how much — or how little — their lives have been touched by those institutions. In the end institutions are damaged much more severely by the lack of care from within than by lack of support from outside.
Times of India Jan 18, 1995