Ode to the West Wind: Prasanta Chakravarty and Brinda Bose


The ‘lower hanging fruit’ has spoken. If ‘India wants to harness the benefits of internationalizing higher education, foreigners… and even PIOs’ who are currently barred from employment as full-time faculty in Indian universities need to be ‘harvested’. The HRD ministry, according to DeveshKapur in ‘The Elite’s Classrooms’ (BS: Opinion, November 12, 2012), has been barking at the wrong (higher-hanging) fruit in pursuit of this goal, though apparently not up the wrong tree – because as far as Kapur is concerned, the tree of intellectual bounty can only be the one that lies yonder over the seas. The fault, dear Mr. Pallam Raju, Honorable HRD minister, lies not in our stars that we are intellectual underlings, but in your predecessor’s eyeing of the wrong fruit on that delectable tree of knowledge rooted in faraway soil.

Devesh Kapur’s critique of the higher education policies of the just-exited Sibal ministry, and his reformulations of where the ‘foreigner’ focus should rather lie, amount to nothing more or less than an in-house debate between two kinds of liberal models of higher education. The Sibal model, that believes in endowed professorial chairs in foreign universities (a staggering 92 of them, from Oxford to Denmark and Lithuania, says Kapur);in investment in new liberal institutions and private/state universities with government funds (Nalanda, Presidency, South Asian University to name a few of the johnny-come-latelies); and in inviting branches of foreign universities to set up second-hand shops in India, which is likely to end up offering ‘high-cost low- quality education’ for the children of elites in the country. The other in the debate is Kapur’s own model, in which he suggests that the taxpayers’ funds should rather be channeled to open up rites of passage for the NRIs (non-resident Indians) and the PIOs (persons of Indian origin) to participate in Indian higher education, with a larger say and stake in its day-to-day academics as well as its policy decisions.

Examining the substantive arguments that Kapur offers in his critique-and-proscription for the old and new HRD ministry, we find that he is unhappy with the first (Sibal) model of liberal education not because the gaze is trained westward, but because he considers it a sheer waste of money to be funding chairs and centres abroad and creating behemoth-like structures at home – those he perceives to be the fruits on higher ground that the HRD had been mistakenly eyeing. They do not make economic sense, Kapur argues, and they perpetuate an old nationalist secular liberal model, seeking to revive lost glory and traditional pasts. He draws an equivalence for this with BJP’s Ayodhya, alleging that there is little to distinguish between a right-wing and a secular nationalism.

The genuine cosmopolitan transnational liberal educationalist argues for the following instead. He wishes to inhabit a world in which there are no restrictions on employing non-nationals in Indian institutes and universities – particularly PIOs. By his own admission, this might bring only a ‘marginal’ change to the composition of faculty in India, as no substantial number of immigrants will give up jobs abroad and move back to India permanently. (This is, indeed, a correct analysis as even the few who are returning with some fanfare to join new or revived institutions are mostly coming on lien, testing home-waters gingerly and keeping a valid return-flight-path lit and open.) The focus, therefore, must be on other passages to be created for NRIs/PIOs: inviting Visiting Faculty (who will come bearing aloft their knowledge and wisdom to save the almost-decimated higher education and research in the country, and go back feeling virtuous); removing bureaucratic bottlenecks for their frequent travel to India for conferences and meetings so that their value can be accessed; opening skies and minds to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), thereby slowly doing away with campuses and classrooms and serving the maximum with minimal human investment. The MOOCs, needless to say, would draw upon NRI/PIO expertise with the least trouble to them, and would be technology-oriented, with the focus continually on Science and Technology development: there is no word at all for the pure/theoretical sciences, let alone the humanities and social sciences, from Kapur.

There are some specific problems with this kind of gung-ho, paternalistic liberalism. Prima facie, it appears to be a shaped for smooth give and take between Delhi and PIOs abroad: you allow me comfortable visiting stints and smoothen ways to facilitate my stay in India and I will give you some crumbs so that a set of skills can trickle down, your general population may at least become job-worthy and you can continue to reign as satraps in little fiefs. One thing is obvious: this paradigm is not tailored for the Indian hinterland – not even for other metropolitan centres in India in all probability.  It is a certain model of excellence which will not touch the realities of most of India. The approach is completely oblivious to the sociology and politics of India; an aspirational model for the PIOs to open a channel for home, pure and simple.

A natural corollary to such a schema is a complete absence of any form of criticality that might be woven in within the scope of such a model. It pitches itself at the level of practicality and employment generation and is aimed at trying to lure a section of the Indian society that seeks to augment and consolidate its social and economic standing. Two things would have happened had Kapur been serious about any genuine form of internationalism.  First, any notion of complementarity would not have been a story of one-way transaction from the West to India. There would be a fair and robust exchange, with due respect for each other’s expertise that he would have highlighted. He does not do so. In a hypothetical serious exchange, one side may have an understanding of the local issues, everyday problems, organizational aspects, orientation of the milieu and so forth. The other side may have accessibility and capacities to disseminate. If both sides understand what they are looking for in the collaborator and feel that modes and methods of the transaction are not exploitative or tilted at one side, things can really work out. Genuine collaboration means leveraging on each other’s strength and gaining something in return. Second, if Kapur would seek international collaboration, he would also consider continents other than North America and Europe in forming fruitful and sturdy alliances based on far more solid grounds. He does not do so. This is the crucial change that has happened in new and improved India: internationalism has been jettisoned for globalization—a one way, narrow and partisan idea.  The basic point is that winds of international change should blow both ways and seek multiple democratic exchanges: Kapur’s model completely muzzles any level playing field.

More fearfully, the whole idea of MOOC as a method of instruction skirts all peripatetic ideas of education, of letting ideas roost and take shape, so central for developing all forms of competence, including practical skills.  A model that is purely based on S and T, as Kapur suggests, has a deeply-skewed idea of education, for there is no sense of a holistic university education that imparts knowledge via conceptual breakthroughs in science, humanities and commerce. Will UPenn allow all its own courses to be purely vocational and instructional? Of course not. But the rules are different for India – for India must create jobs for its industrial and corporate needs, and let its higher intellectual aspirations rot in hell.

This is a rehashing of the old benevolent colonial approach, a version of the white man’s burden now evolved on to PIO shoulders. And Kapur appears to be a man in a hurry – to bring transnationalism to higher education in India. But can higher education ever be achieved in a hurry? Kapur is asking the revamped HRD ministry to take heed of how much PIOs can help in the Indian growth story. For that he is asking the government to jettison all forms of residual nationalism, including home-grown varieties of liberalism. Let us even not go to how he would feel about alternative and more equitable models of higher education – to return to his picturesque fruits-on-trees analogy, those would be weeds in the grass below.

Prasanta Chakravarty and Brinda Bose are Associate Professors of English at Delhi University.

9 thoughts on “Ode to the West Wind: Prasanta Chakravarty and Brinda Bose”

  1. While some of the issues raised by Kapur’s article are clearly half baked and under-informed (after all he published in ‘Business Standard’, both terms equally a suspect), he does open up a conversation that is critical to the future of higher education in India. We don’t need a foreign university faculty to tell us how difficult it is to wash the misty-eyed stains of foreign branded education on our policy makers. But it is also high time to acknowledge some deep seated misconceptions about higher education, its roles and goals in India. It has remained underutilized and irrelevant or catered to few is not what is shocking; expertise by definition will remain the right of few. What is shocking is the complete lack of connection with the society it inhabits. It is not the apathy of so-called intellectual discourses towards anything plebeian (or only in forms that can legitimize its disassociated-ness) that is so often denigrated as the cause of this indifference but the often conflicting and contradictory aims of higher education, its representations and organization that results in its inability to articulate a socially coherent functionality.
    While I definitely congratulate both of you in pointing towards some of the complex negotiations that all of us make, surrender to and find ourselves participating in (however reluctantly), I wish and hope that we could brainstorm a much sturdier alternative to what is being proposed in the name of reforms.


  2. in all this one sees a technological-mimesis, a belief that ‘foreign’ represents advanced/maximal efficiencies in accumulation.

    its been going on for some time, many (not only politico-bureaucratic elite)/ i could be suffused with it


  3. Thank you both for your comments. This piece was of course specifically a response to Devesh Kapur’s exhortations to the new HRD ministry vis-à-vis PIOs, not really therefore the space for detailing alternatives, which would be a far larger topic. But in offering a critique of his prescriptions, we have in fact elaborated that such transnational collaborations would work only if 1. the distribution of power is equitable, using each other’s strengths and not following a donor-approach from the West; 2. a keen criticality is maintained in the collaborations and job-making is not its sole intent; 3. a truly international/’global’ exchange is envisaged, which would then include countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle-East etc and not confine itself to USA and some of Europe as givers of knowledge; 4. it is not restricted to science and technology and a question of money, but spans the financially-non-lucrative pure sciences, humanities and arts as well; 5. there is a long-term investment and interest in the institutions that PIOs come to, not just to be accomplished by visiting positions and easy conference trips. We also think there are other ways of approaching what you describe as the conflicting and contradictory aims of higher education in India, and the first would be to focus on local and existing institutions – there is a great deal of talent, for example, in state-level universities and colleges that lies unrecognized, and harnessing it might change the picture totally.


  4. The points made in this post are reasonable, and I do agree especially that internationalism in India should be much more than the starry eyed gazing at America and other ‘advanced’ countries.

    But as someone who worries about the higher education setup in India, the spirit in which this piece was written bothers me. Of course, universities have to do much more than provide vocational training. In fact, many students, even from very vocation centric institutions like the IITs will list the societal context, energetic peers and life lessons learnt in their four-five years of study as more important than any technical knowledge or skills gained.

    However Dr. Bose and Dr. Chakravarthy display a very cynical approach to Kapur’s recommendations. Higher education *does* have an economic role. Students do need jobs after they graduate, and India’s higher education system seems under equipped to provide them with the skills employers need. There is also the simple question of capacity, can we scale our higher education setup to meet the needs of a very rapidly expanding higher-education eligible population ?

    I am from a science and technology background, and a layman as far as social sciences are concerned. But for the past four years now I have been taking papers from the social sciences and presenting them on my blog. Unfortunately, I have found much more and much better analysis and investigation from faculty members of foreign universities than their Indian counterparts. I hope I am wrong, but I do believe that Indian academics, especially the JNU-DU complex have a lot to think about.



  5. Vikram, I read your blog with interest. Perhaps you would like to read more from the “JNU-DU complex” before making such a disparaging generalisation. I understand most of the country feels that academics from these two institutions are pampered and in an ivory tower. But not only is that ivory tower highly differentiated internally, but whatever remains of academic privilege is also being subject to a hatchet job at a mind boggling speed, with exactly the arguments you use – skill development. I completely agree that skills and jobs should be one of the outcomes of an education, but the problem in this country is how we define marketable skills. Building a road or a computer is a skill, learning critical thinking and nurturing democracy is a fool’s hobby. Why shouldn’t the latter be shaped into a marketable skill? As in, why shouldn’t I be able to live a decent life imparting that kind of knowledge – at schools, colleges, think tanks, government, non governmental level. We need well rounded engineers, sure. But we also need professionally satisfied and useful social scientists. Or else it will be a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of thousands of ‘highly skilled’ engineers, doctors and MBAs simply unable to understand why democracy is preferable to a dictatorship.


    1. Sunalini, I am sorry if my comment came across as disparaging. I realize that as Indian academics, especially Indian social scientists, you work in especially difficult circumstances. I also realize that many of the faculty of those universities directly work with important rights issues, which makes things doubly hard.

      But I cannot help but notice how isolated this community is from the middle class. I have been reading books/papers on social science for five years now. Maybe I didnt look well enough, but I am simply overwhelmed by the material I found from foreign universities.

      We may all have different opinions on ‘India After Gandhi’ by Ram Guha, but has anyone in JNU, DU written such a book ? Why did it take a Robin Jeffrey’s from the Australian National University to write ‘India’s Newspaper Revolution’ ? Why was it a PhD student from Harvard, not JNU who embedded herself in the BSP for three years, and wrote ‘Why Ethnic Parties Succeed (Kanchan Chandra) ?

      Even the latest paper I covered on my blog could have been written by a DU economist. Has no one at DU wondered about the educational attainments and income distribution of Dalits, after 20 years of a significant shift in the macro-economy of India ?

      Sorry if this comes across as rude, but you are flattering yourself if you think that the “rest of the academics from these two institutions are pampered and in an ivory tower”. For the rest of the country, academics from these two institutions do not exist in any statistically significant sense. JNU historian in Indian middle class ears does not ring the same bell as Harvard historian in the American ear.


      1. Well, if it doesn’t ring a bell, it doesn’t ring a bell. I don’t feel particularly obliged to be recognised by this Harvard-impressed middle class anyway. They are looking at different universes of value, and that’s fine for them. Anyhow, it’s nice you are rushing in with grand questions where angels fear to tread, Vikram, but perhaps a perfunctory glance at the pages of Economic and Political Weekly might help you. Not only have hundreds of good quality studies been published within the ‘difficult’ conditions of Indian academia, but many of us have also worried about “the educational attainments and income distribution’ of Dalits…’ Often we don’t have big publishers who publicise our book, but we get by. Why don’t you stop by at a good bookshop on your next trip to the market? If there are still major differences in output, maybe we should be looking at average working conditions in Indian universities versus U.S universities.http://kafila.org/2012/11/23/dreamum-wakeupum-hrd-ministry/


  6. While this post makes some good points, I’m more than a little confused by it overall. It seems to see the PIO suggestion of Kapur’s as somehow being stronger than it actually is. As they say: “Kapur is asking the revamped HRD ministry to take heed of how much PIOs can help in the Indian growth story. For that he is asking the government to jettison all forms of residual nationalism, including home-grown varieties of liberalism.” How so? That makes little or no sense. Also, the point of Kapur’s thing was that *it will not cost anything to Indians* to open up posts to PIOs, but will benefit us. Hence the reply’s various suggestions that there be a long-term investment in other countries, etc, etc, are all quite beside the point. And expecting higher-ed policy to somehow even the balance of power between Indian and Western academia through its hiring policy is the sort of idea that, frankly, Kapil Sibal would come up with. It simply won’t, and can’t, happen.
    Nor does Kapur say that social sciences or the humanities should be ignored. He merely says that lowbrow academic fields like, say, the veterinary sciences, don’t quite get the attention that many other fields receive, from either policy makers in Delhi, university administrators, or opinion makers in academia. This post has, for obvious reasons, not changed my mind.


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