‘Reviewing emeritus status a bid to show regime’s muscle’

In an interview to SEEMA CHISHTI, historian ROMILA THAPAR speaks about the row over JNU asking for her CV to review her Professor Emeritus status, laments the state of the university, talks of a “creeping fear” among people in asserting their rights, and says history is more complex than just a past narrative.

You have been asked for your CV. As a historian, what does this tell you about the questioners?

The letter was sent, I am now told, to a dozen of us over the age of 75. I can’t understand why they suddenly decided to do this, because nowhere in the world is an Emeritus Professor ever reconsidered for Emeritus status. The status can be negated if the person has committed a crime that embarrasses the university. But the status is not routinely reviewed.

The statement of the JNU administration that the status can be reviewed whenever the university so chooses and that this rule is applied at MIT and Harvard, is simply not correct. Nor is there a quota of which discipline gets how many Emeriti or that the status has to be equally distributed between disciplines. If the social sciences and humanities schools are strong in JNU and get good faculty, then obviously these will be the areas that will produce more potential Emeriti. Since the post is honorary, the number does not matter at all. It in no way blocks the appointment of more Professors Emeritus. The administration obviously has not understood the system as it is applied in universities elsewhere and have reduced it to a routine Professorship. Further, the demand for re-evaluation by a university committee is a slur on the Centre (JNU’s Centre of Historical Studies), since the Centre originally recommended the name. This is yet anther example of the JNU administration taking away what by rights is the function of the academic component of the university. This is also what happens when the administration of a university is taken over by people who basically do not know how a university functions and how it differs from the running of schools. I was thinking yesterday that the other two historians at JNU who were made Emeritus Professors along with me were Sarvepalli Gopal and Bipan Chandra.

I am puzzled as to why suddenly in the last few months, the university administration decided to go back on the terms and conditions of the Emeritus as it has existed since the beginning of the university in 1970. To maintain that a changed rule can apply retrospectively shows little understanding of legal systems. The other obvious aspect suggests that this may have been an attempt to show the muscle of the new regime — such as it is — and reject those that had been honoured earlier. This would be in keeping with the many other new rules and regulations that have been introduced generally incongruous for adoption by a university.

I have greatly appreciated being an Emeritus Professor at JNU, both because I enjoyed the continuity of exchanging ideas with younger scholars and colleagues as I have always done, and of course I felt close to an institution that I helped to found. A bunch of us who were among the founders had links with it since its inception and we contributed to both its intellectual projections and the administration of these. I looked forward to having this connection throughout my life. But whether one is or is not a Professor Emeritus does not make the slightest difference to one’s reputation as an academic, since this reputation comes from those in the same discipline. The Emeritus status matters in the close association that the university may wish to have with the Professor and the reciprocation of this by the Professor.

Those of us who joined the university when it began had a deep commitment to the idea that we as Indians were capable of building a university which would be a world-class university and adhere to all the principles of a great university — free thinking, free questioning, debate, discussion, a high standard of genuine academic achievement and all of that. And to our great delight, we succeeded in doing that. So one can’t help but feel that actions like the present one and similar other recent actions, where the administration has asserted itself as being the decision-maker in the university even in academic matters, are largely attempts to undo all that was invested in JNU previously and reduce it to a pedestrian institution of education.

Jawaharlal Nehru had said in a convocation address in Allahabad in 1947 that “if universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people”.

What does the state of Indian universities tell us about the state of the nation?

I think we are at the moment in a situation, as a society, where we are being encouraged to be anti-thinking, anti-intellectual, anti-academic. Students are discouraged from asking questions, organising debates and discussions and expressing opinions of various kinds in various fora. Permission has to be obtained for a host of things such as holding memorial lectures in the name of past faculty. This is the beginning of undermining what is meant by a university.

We have spent our lives encouraging every student to ask questions, since that is what is required of students in a university. The mind can only be expanded by asking questions and questioning everything. Being at university is the one stage in life when one can do that – think freely, argue endlessly, discuss, debate, ask anything under the sun.

I think the kind of thinking behind this last order from the Registrar, and other similar orders… are attempts at trying to assert the authority of those running the university over those that teach and are students and form the intellectual core of the university. This used to be an old battle in colonial times when the administration kept an eye on what the faculty was teaching, when certain readings were not allowed and there was a cultivation of an ambience of fear if one spoke against the administration. Is the same ambience being deliberately revived at this point in time, or do these things come about naturally?

This is not happening just in JNU, this is happening in some other state universities and research centres as well. Why are college teachers, who make a critical two-sentence statement in class, arrested ? Why is there an attempt to equate government and nation, which are distinct entities. Surely a remark that is critical of a government policy is not automatically anti-national.

May be we should redefine and repeatedly so, what we mean by saying that we are a democracy. We need to remind ourselves as to what this means. It is said that as a democracy we are in some ways more effective as compared to quite a few other nations that are theoretically democracies. But when it comes to people asserting their democratic rights there is now a creeping fear in doing so. The reason for this needs a wider discussion than we allow.

So for me, this particular incident was not so much a personal matter. It raises a deep concern that these are the kinds of acts that could eventually lead to attempts to control what one thinks, how one thinks and what one is allowed to think. If the professors who taught in the JNU prior to 2015 are to be re-evaluated, then one can guess what the purpose of re-evaluation is, and the likely replacements. Political science textbooks tell us that one of the methods used by organisations to acquire power is to replace existing personnel in important institutions with persons trained to project the wishes of the organisation. We know enough organisations in society that follow this procedure. And let’s not forget that science fiction and advanced technology are together projecting the coming of a world of robots !

Intellectuals and professors are now being seen as the new ‘elite’. How do you view this?

A3. I wish we were the elite ! What this last JNU episode shows is that academics are far from being the elite since their status is being consistently downgraded by the administration. Yes, intellectualism in a sense is ‘elite’, but only in societies that respect intellectuals, writers and those who think critically outside the bounds of convention. We are busy these days in describing such people as ‘Urban Naxals’ whatever this ridiculous phrase may mean, and shoving them into jail. They are not the elite that we have to guard against but are the people with whom we should be having conversations and arguments about their views and our views on the condition of our society, and how these appalling conditions can be improved…

What we really have to caution against, and be aware of, is the attitude of anti-intellectualism that is evident in society today. One of the indicators of this is the role of trolling as a form of persuasion — the more abusive it is, the better it works – keeping in mind the formula of (Nazi politician Joseph) Goebbels that if you tell a lie sufficiently often and effectively, it will be taken as the truth. Trolling is successful where people have switched off their minds and don’t bother to enquire for themselves and passively accept all that is hurled at them. They don’t even dodge. We have to remember that the most persistent trolls are also those who literally have an unthinking single-track mind. The media also needs to be analysed critically from this perspective. To what extent has some of the media become a more entertaining form of trolling? How many of our attitudes are conditioned by what the media tells us? Should we not expand the role of the currently marginal media that discourages trolling?

Part of the reason for the anti-intellectualism is that people are not encouraged to think about alternatives to better their lives. Making money and acquiring status is not illegitimate, but surely there are other aspects that need nurturing such as understanding what is meant by creating a humane society and abolishing mob-rule and lawlessness, by insisting on social justice and social equality. These are the basics of a democratic system. The role model of the current middle-class is not of much help since it focuses on money and status alone. So education is also geared to this.

As a historian, how do you see the way history is now being written and taught? How does the teaching or understanding of history impact a society or the present?

History is far more complex than we assume. It is no longer just a narrative about a past event — who won or lost a battle. We are now interested in explaining what were the antecedents to a battle, who actually fought the battle, for what purpose, who constituted the armies and what was the extended result. When the battle at Haldighati is historically investigated, it becomes evident that Rana Pratap did not win the battle and much more than that is also revealed about who fought on which side and what were the politics involved in the confrontation. These are revelations that the myth-makers prefer to keep under wraps. In any case, there are far more important issues in the study of medieval India than the question of who won the battle of Haldighati. The purpose of emphasising this event is not for reasons of improving our historical understanding of what happened but for using it in current politics.

The cultural history of this subcontinent has been deeply entwined in different strands of cultures, some evolving locally and some coming in and getting wrapped around existing cultures. I continue to be amazed and intellectually excited by the sheer cultural forms that have emerged in this process. This is why I feel unhappy when Indian culture is defined in terms of a single source, a single root, a single essence. Given the advances that historical studies have made in the analyses of cultures and societies, to accept such a position in studying history goes against the fundamentals of good historical thinking…

What used to be a single-source study 100 years ago, has become a multiple-source study. This is unacceptable to those who don’t know history or who want their history as a simple narrative, or those who have a single-minded view of the past. Many earlier ideas of a century ago are still propagated in the claim that these are indigenous forms of history. They can be easily recognised as a revival of colonial history.

There are obvious examples of colonial history writing that are often ignored in popular versions of our history. The first person to talk about Hindus and Muslims as a separate nation, inevitably antagonistic to each other was not Savarkar or Jinnah, it was James Mill. Mill, Henry Elliot and John Dowson, and various 19th century colonial writers propagated this idea and this was later picked up by some Indian politicians. This has now come up, in the guise of a new ideology which claims to be ‘indigenous’. So when some of us question this and say this is not ‘indigenous’, because the indigenous sources contradict this, we are abused as being anti-Hindu and therefore anti-national. For example, if one studies Sanskrit inscriptions of the second millennium AD, there is little evidence of the victimisation of Hindus. Yes, there were conflicts and rajas who were defeated by the Sultans were bitter and open in their abuse of the victor. But there were a larger number of Hindus – from artisans to administrators and traders – who worked with the new administrations and did so happily making their wealth as they went along. Royalty married into the families of the incoming royalty, as did the Rajputs who married Mughals. But this aspect of history is unacceptable to those who have a strong ideological position on how to narrate the past.

Does teaching this singular view of history have a detrimental impact on society and present-day life?

It will have, because it builds stereotypes about communities. And that is disastrous. For example, Muslims are invariably associated with being invaders. But most Muslims who come in the early period – from the 8th Century till the 12th — were Arab traders, who settled down on the west coast, from Gujarat to Kerala. They married locally and evolved religious sects that were a mix of Islam and the local religions. But the more lasting impact was that of traders. In northern India, the most lucrative trade going back to the period before the invasions and continuing afterwords was the horse-trade in which Brahmin traders participated and acquired much wealth. The Turks and Afghans and later the Mughals came from Central Asia, invaded, but again settled in India. .

Migrants followed suit, people seeking jobs and opportunities, mercenaries going in both directions. At the same time came the Sufis, mostly from Central Asia. Some Sufi sects mixed in with some local Bhakti sects. This is among the more fascinating aspects of medieval Indian culture, with an emotional and ideological mix of people thinking, relating and behaving in a way that creates new and different cultures. It had a major impact on various forms of Indian music, forms that we all enjoy today sometimes not knowing their origins.

All of this is extremely important to us as historians in tracing the strands of culture but for majoritarian ideologies, only one dominant religion matters and events are coloured by that dimension. All that we historians are saying is that there are other dimensions and these cannot be ignored if we are aiming at a full understanding of the past.

How are other democratic institutions doing in India? How does the future look for Indian democracy?

Well, the other institutions are going through what seems to be a somewhat similar change, to put it mildly, although only a few think of it as a crisis. We don’t seem to express our concern about this seriously enough. Perhaps because we don’t seem to realise that the independence of institutions in a democracy is fundamental to its continuance. Once they loose their independence, there is a slide into a non-democratic society, to use a euphemism. This applies particularly to institutions linked to governance, the basic ones of the executive, legislature and the judiciary. Democracy requires that they remain unassailable to pressures irrespective of the source of the pressure. If one argues, as some do, that there are always pressures, then it is a question of whether these pressures make a dent enough to change the system or are they just an air-brush.

My point is that the more the levels of education are lowered, the less will people be capable of functioning in an intelligent, independent way. Institutional standards will sink further, especially in state-run institutions. This puts democracy at great risk. Once an institution is damaged through a lowering of standards, it takes many years to get it on its feet again. Educational institutions are crucial since they ultimately dictate the levels of professional competence. These have to be carefully observed and continually brought up to date. That does not appear to be happening.

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