The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The autonomy of intellectual life must be restored

The previous government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee has some achievements to its credit, but its interventions in the fields of education and research will not be counted among them. It is not simply that the ministry of human resource development acted badly, but the principles under which it acted were wrong. It adopted a distinct ideology and sought to direct education and research by its light, rewarding those who conformed to it and disregarding, if not penalizing, those who did not. Inevitably, a network of patronage came into operation. This may be seen in the ways in which it set about rewriting school textbooks and reconstituting institutions of social science research. Many felt that the attitudes to education and culture prevalent in the ministry were backward- rather than forward-looking.

The free development of knowledge is harmed when a government or a party uses the institutions of education and research to promote its own ideology. This is true irrespective of the nature of the ideology, whether it is conservative or radical, of the right or of the left. The misdeeds of the last government should serve as an object lesson to those who believe that there is no harm in putting science and scholarship in the service of ideology, provided it is the right kind of ideology. For it cannot be denied that there are intellectuals, including able and well-meaning ones, who believe that science and scholarship gain, and do not lose, when they are driven by ideology. Sooner or later they become partisans in the service of one political formation or another.

The problem is especially acute in the social and cultural sciences such as history, sociology and political science, and it operates to some extent independently of the good or evil designs of the government in office. Social scientists have divided opinions on the desirability of allowing their preferred social and political values to guide their teaching and research. Some of them are in favour of detachment, objectivity and value-neutrality, while others favour commitment and engagement. Those who advocate commitment to one or another set of social and political values are more likely than the others to slip into partisanship in their teaching and research.

In a democratic order, where groups with rival policies and programmes contend for public support, partisanship is the normal and expected course in the political arena. It does not follow that it is either necessary or desirable in institutions of education and research. It is essential to distinguish between those spheres of society in which partisanship is legitimate or even desirable and those in which it is not, instead of taking the same position on it across the board.

The sociologist, Max Weber, who was an advocate of value-neutral social science, made this point in his observations on Heinrich Treitschke, one of the most popular German historians of his time. Treitschke was a strong advocate of nationalism and an opponent of socialism, and he used his university chair freely to propagate his political views. Weber’s objection to this was not based on any antipathy to nationalism or sympathy for socialism, but simply on the view that a professor should not put scholarship in the service of ideology in the classroom. He was free to use a political platform to propagate his political views, but his obligation as a teacher was to always present both sides of a case, objectively and impartially, before his students. In teaching and research, unlike in politics, fair-mindedness rather than partisanship is the superior value. One should preach neither nationalism nor socialism in the classroom; there are other places where one is free to do that.

What is wrong with the ideology of Hindu nationalism' One might well say that it is based on the values of a great and ancient civilization, values that are accommodative, pluralistic and tolerant. Why should the propagation of Hindu nationalism through teaching and research be viewed with mistrust' No matter how great or glorious a national tradition might be, it has its dark side, and therefore the tradition as a whole must be examined in a critical spirit. No doubt the Indian social tradition was tolerant in comparison with other social traditions, but it tolerated the practice of untouchability and the perpetual tutelage of women.

The glorification of national tradition acquires a new momentum when it enters the agenda of a political party and when that party in turn assumes political office. Then watchdogs are put in place to ensure that the national tradition is “correctly” represented with all the dark patches gradually effaced. The work of the scholar and the teacher, which is to reveal the light as well as the shadows, is corrupted. There are always enough compliant intellectuals and bureaucrats to serve as watchdogs, and some of them become more zealous than their political masters. The outcome is that a complex and contradictory reality is simplified in order to meet partisan ends; simplification leads to distortion, and distortion to falsification.

It will be a mistake to believe that simplification, distortion and falsification for partisan ends is confined only to nationalist ideologies or ideologies of the right. Partisanship in the cause of socialism or in left-wing causes in a broader sense has been common and widespread. Such partisanship has been justified in the fields of teaching and research by the argument that the materialist interpretation of history provides the only scientific basis for the understanding of economic, political and social reality. The classic statement of the case may be found in the writings of Lenin. “Marx and Engels”, he wrote, “were partisans in philosophy from start to finish, they were able to detect the deviations from materialism and concessions to fideism in every one of the ‘recent’ trends.” Generations of Soviet and other east European students were fed on textbooks permeated by the distortions and falsifications that resulted from Lenin’s call for partisanship. There is a tendency in some of these countries now to go to the opposite extreme to rectify the distortions of the past.

Partisans for the materialist interpretation of history have never had in India the kind of free hand with textbooks that they had in the USSR. At the same time, where left intellectuals have had power and influence, they have not been shy to use them for partisan ends. They have been self-righteous and intellectually arrogant, attacking the evils of Western capitalism mercilessly while turning a blind eye to the horrors of Soviet socialism. And in the same partisan spirit, they have promoted second-rate and worse than second-rate scholars and teachers on the ground that they had the correct ideological orientation.

Some of the damage done to education and research by the thoughtless partisanship of the previous regime will no doubt be corrected. But there are right ways and wrong ways for intellectuals to deal with the problem. The wrong way would be for them to approach the government to help them to go back to the days when left intellectuals ruled the roost. Very little will be gained if one kind of partisanship is replaced by another. The autonomy of intellectual life must be restored, but that cannot be done unless intellectuals recognize that partisanship in any political cause subverts the pursuit of learning.

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