The last socialist bastion is a pathetic faith in the state. A bizarre manifestation of this faith is the formation, at the direct initiative of the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, of something called the Knowledge Commission, which was launched on its aimless journey on Tuesday. Most of the members of the commission, despite its token bow to the left, are very eminent people. It is difficult to imagine them advocating the position that the pursuit of knowledge can be driven by the state. Knowledge has advanced not because of the state but despite its presence. The state has a natural propensity to regulate, to monitor and to control. The pursuit of knowledge strives to free itself from shackles of any kind. These are irreconcilable positions. But in India the belief persists that the state can directly participate in the advancement of knowledge. This participation goes far beyond the funding of educational and research establishments. The attempt to control these institutions is common to all governments in India, irrespective of their ideological orientation. Indira Gandhi did it with great aplomb. The Bharatiya Janata Party during its short tenure in power in New Delhi, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) during its long tenure in West Bengal have done the same with crudeness. The state's involvement in educational and research institutions only makes knowledge a victim of patronage-mongering.
The new Knowledge Commission has a brief that goes far beyond previous attempts to set up state-sponsored research bodies and institutions. The commission has the task of working out strategies for promoting excellence in education, knowledge creation and intellectual generation. The subtext was delivered by Mr Singh at the launch. He asked the commission to put forward 'bold proposals' to help India achieve excellence in research and the teaching of science, technology and mathematics. In other words, branches of knowledge considered useful and utilitarian by the state have priority. This is not the pursuit of knowledge, but of utility. It is significant that the commission has no theoretical physicist, no classicist, no historian and no one from the field of the languages and linguistics. But this thrust towards utility is not surprising since the state is setting the agenda for knowledge.
The pursuit of knowledge qua knowledge has no notion of what is useful. Knowledge is a believer in equality. From the intricacies of Sanskrit grammar to Shakespeare's short lines to the complexities of the Black Hole ' all are as important and as valid spheres of knowledge as any other. The state should leave knowledge alone if it wants knowledge to flourish. Scholars in their own fields will set their own agenda. Knowledge is power, but it is also an enemy of state power.