Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Politics in Education; Imports and Impacts
Higher education institutions are supposed to acquaint young persons with the roles and responsibilities of all the three pillars of democracy: Legislature; Executive and Judiciary. Even earlier in school days, efforts are made to impart this familiarity at a level and depth that their age and stage demand. Social sciences and for some political Science courses are considered as the main vehicles for imparting this component of learning. In the initial stages after independence, conducting Mock Parliament was considered as one of the very interesting and popular activity in which both the teachers and students participated enthusiastically. In colleges and universities; acquaintance with the legislative functioning was imparted at a more subtle level through the Students’ Union activities. The union activities provided great opportunities to the student community to interact with men and women of eminence and achievements and excellence in different areas of creativity, particularly literature, arts, sciences, music, fine arts, theatre, films and several others. Politicians of all hues were also invited. These invitations were because of their political party affiliations or because of being in power but because of their contribution to the freedom struggle and the sacrifices they had made earlier in life. During my stay in the University of Allahabad, I had the privilege of listening to many luminaries from different walks of life; and this included politicians irrespective of their political party affiliation. In the fifties and early-sixties of the last century, young persons could observe the symphony what was preached was also practiced. The Vice-Chancellors enjoyed tremendous respect, credibility and stature not only amongst students but in public and even amongst the bureaucrats and politicians. Stalwarts like Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Acharya Narendra Dev, Ganga Nath Jha, Amarnath Jha, Ramaswami Mudaliyar, and the like adored these positions. India had decided to continue the system of education that it inherited from the British. The practices prevalent in the traditional British style to give respect to teachers, Vice-Chancellors and academics remained visible for a few years. One could say till the politician of the next generation had not begun locating higher education as the ‘prey-field’ for his political machinations, exploitation and extractions.
And then things changed very fast. India needed to expand its education system at every stage as the literacy rates were just around 20 percent in 1950-51. More schools, more colleges and more universities were the prime requirement. Slowly the government found it impossible to respond to the requirements and Private schools and colleges began to spring up in a big way. It meant prescription of norms and standards by governments or the agencies designated by the government. It meant private entrepreneurs seeking approvals and sanctions from government Babus. In the process, it became evident to every alert and initiated-in-government systems individual how lucrative the business of education was! On the other side, the new generation of the politician was emerging fast. It had seen how power and politics could be exploited to meet the personal and family aspirations. They had already observed cases of men of principles and values falling prey to the allurements of their office and indulging unabashedly in accumulating ‘wealth’ or indulging in practices of favoritism and nepotism.
The erosion of values had begun at a ‘high speed’. The system of education could not remain out of the sight of the economic vultures that just trashed the traditional Indian viewpoint on imparting education: education is not commerce; it is a great adventure of preparing the future generations ahead and hence a pious task and a great opportunity! Politician imposed himself on the system and to gain lasting control intruded in the Unions of students and Associations of teachers and academics. Politicians and political parties; that swear in the name of Mahatma Gandhi and the values he had propounded created their own student wings in colleges and universities and also amongst the teachers in higher education. They extended their direct-approach strategies to school teachers; promised to help them in their simple requirements like transfer and posting etc.; and unscrupulously began to treat them as their political workers. They began public schools and private colleges. Initially, the idea was to begin a school, approach the state government and become a grant-in-aid school. Then one could earn in many ways. Later a more rewarding model was created: no grant-in-aid needed; it is Public School that charges its own fees and only the select few could afford it! This is the current model and is flourishing by the day. There are takers from the upper middle class and there are providers that consider education as the sector that is most secure and promises uninterrupted and ever-increasing dividend!
Even health comes only later! As the up thrust of the expansion in school education created ripples in higher education, the competitions for seats became too tough. The governments at the centre and also in states just were not ready to invest more resources and flood gates for opening more colleges were opened! Not only this, private universities and then deemed universities came on the scene in a big way. The classic example came from Chhattisgarh Government which permitted more than one hundred universities within one year! It should not be tough and difficult for anyone to understand what followed afterwards. The Supreme Court quashed the sanctions but no one was held responsible or penalized. No accountability; no punishments and no evidence of remorse or guilt of any count! The new emerging middle class is willing invest early in education of then children and the private sector with political patronage willing to exploit it thought coading doets and private fighter technical educational institutions.
To make some points on the practical plane, one would like to recall learning experiences that very clearly illustrate the widespread political interference in education. In one of the states, the Chief Minister permitted every MLA to recommend twenty-five transfers of government school teachers by a particular date. It was a very simple-looking administrative action that needed not much public discourse. The real story was indeed revealing and amazing. Teachers were identified on the basis of their capacity to provide ‘inputs’ to get their transfers cancelled. Only such names were recommended. As expected, they all came running helter-skelter to their respective MLA. All of the transfers so recommended were later duly recommended for cancellation. Most of them followed this model. There must be some exceptions. It is an instance of early eighties. There is one in that very period in which a chief minister decided to reward all the elected representatives of his state. Hon’ble MP’s could get approval for a Medical or engineering College. MLA’s could opt for a teacher preparation college or it’s variant. It resulted in a spate of new institutions in that state. The manner in which profiteering was indulged in prompted entrepreneurs and investors to launch ‘private initiatives’ in education by establishing high-fee charging public schools and colleges awarding professional degrees. The rush and the aberrations in granting sanction to ill-equipped institutions became the order of the day! Though no such survey is available, one could safely conclude on the basis of verbal-interaction-inputs that most of such venture was owned partially or fully by the politicians or those who had managed political connections. The sharp decline in the work culture of the National and State level regulatory bodies were the expected outcome. Corruption reigned supreme and it has now reached a stage when people could tell you the ‘national rates’ to get an institution approved. In the last couple of years, nation has witnessed charges of corruption being leveled by state agencies against top functionaries of several national level regulatory bodies by the CBI. Far more disturbing is the fact that in several prominent cases, the CBI after considerable interval of time submits a ‘no substantial evidence available report’ and the storm dies down.
What even an RTI application would not reveal is the fact of gross miss-utilization of the resources of the ‘autonomous bodies’ by the politician in power. It happens both at the centre and in the state and is totally independent of party politics. Ministers, as Chairpersons of organizations squeeze on their resources; vehicles; air conditioners; guest house facilities; Laptops; mobile phones;, staff; attendants and so much more. It has been routinized to such a level that people just avoid talking about it.
The description above may appear ‘we already know it; and much more’ to those who are in the thick of the educational endeavours in the country. Many of the professionals one interacts with invariably lament on how much damage the ‘politician- bureaucrat’ nexus has inflicted on the growth and development of the system of education which is languishing for the want of both infrastructure and human resources. It may be useful to recall some of the earlier developments that may help understand how the present state of affairs has in fact been reached. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) was set up during 2004-05 and so much was made of it towards making great strides in educational expansion and modernization. NKC had its ‘Look USward’ approach as the impact and influence of World Bank and IMF was visible to one and all after the installation of the new government in Delhi in May 2004. The MHRD had already launched its own agenda which was purely and explicitly political to undo what the earlier NDA govt. had done. It was busy in ‘de-saffronizing’ education, taking vindictive action against officers and other senior functionaries who were active during the earlier years. It was all guided by the left wing intellectuals. Then there was Planning Commission that disburses the kitty. MHRD ignored both the NKC and its recommendations. Planning Commission thought that they knew better than NKC and MHRD. The trio could not see eye to eye and the system stagnated except for rise in numbers that is invariably presented as the sole mark of progress.
The conditions within the country and the developing international scenario made it imperative on the part of the government not only to expand the higher education sector but also to initiate action on war footing to plug the gradual decline in its quality. It also has to ensure that higher education prepares young persons with skills and knowledge which projects them as part of a competent and committed work force of young Indians ready to take the challenges of the 21st century world. The present power structure at the central government level provides ample scope to its various wings charting their own course of action. MHRD has, for the last four years, excelled in walking solo and, in the process of politicizing education system, has created more complications than finding solutions. The politicization of education and its exploitation of the system of education for political purposes are not new. However, while the national governments in the initial years after independence were sincerely concerned about the quality of education and institutions and were keen to prevent its decline, the present one appears totally unconcerned about it. At that stage India had the privilege of having stalwarts of the freedom struggle conducting the affairs of the state. The quality of academic leadership, its credibility and acceptance were at the highest level. The decline in the quality of leadership has its impacts and these are now visible in the learning environment in the existing universities and colleges. These need to be understood in perspective, particularly when the numbers of such institutions are to rise sharply both in public and private sectors.
In one of his letters to the chief ministers, published by the then Ministry of Education and Culture of the government of India in 1958, Pandit Nehru expressed his concern on the aspects of indiscipline, fall in standards and general deterioration in educational institutions in the following words: "I would in particular draw your attention to the following proposals: Indiscipline amongst students, the fall of standards and the general deterioration in universities is largely due to the party factions, and political intrigues which disfigure academic life…similarly intrigues and party factions in managing committees are a major factor in the deterioration of school discipline." This considered opinion was expressed fifty years ago. A couple of years ago, the Prime Minister, while addressing the 150 year celebrations of the Bombay University admitted that 2/3rd of now around 630+ universities and 90 per cent of more than 33,000+ colleges are functioning at a below average level! The decline appears unstoppable.
Those who generally follow the way students union elections are conducted in prestigious universities like the Delhi University and the JNU would vouchsafe how prophetic Nehru was in not only assessing the ground level realities but also acknowledging it without any hesitation and warning his top functionaries to take note of it. Needless to say, though Nehru had delineated the steps very clearly, not much effort was put in on these at the implementation level. Several leaders of that period echoed the concerns of Jawaharlal Nehru. Smt. Vijailuxmi Pandit addressing the Calcutta University convocation of 1962 remarked, "Somewhere we have failed the younger generation. Probably both the politician and the students are to be blamed. It must be realized that this is the symptom and preclude to a fatal situation. Everybody interested in the integration of India should seriously think in terms of the friendship towards the younger generation to restore trust and confidence in their hearts and give them the challenge of time." The University Grants Commission, in one of its reports on the problems of Students indiscipline in Indian universities published in 1960 specifically highlighted the presence of ‘far too much of party and personal politics both among teachers and students’ much of which was of ‘self-seeking type and the means used are agitational and disruptive’. It was also observed in the same report that members of various political parties interfered directly in the internal affairs of the university and led students astray. By 1962, the magnitude of the politicians eyeing the young generation for their own vested interests prompted the former speaker of Lok Sabha and later Chancellor of the Bihar universities, A.S. Ayyangar to demand that ‘ministers and politicians should withdraw from the governing bodies and must allow institutions to run smoothly’.
Such an overwhelming realization of the disruptive role of the politician in educational institutions warranted introduction of corrective measures in all seriousness. Unfortunately the situation of the day reflects just the reverse of what was expected to be achieved. The electioneering to the students' unions and councils had to be taken up by the Supreme Court of India. The Report of the Lyngdoh Committee, though approved by the highest court, is yet to create the impact expected at the implementation stage. On the issue of whether to permit elections to University and college unions or not, every succeeding chief minister reverses the stand of his predecessor.
As mentioned earlier, Vice-Chancellors of the caliber of S. Radhakrishnan, Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar, Sir Ganga Nath Jha, Dr. Amar Nath Jha, Sir Ashutosh Mukherji and several others commanded universal respect and regard from all alike because of their academic excellence and intellectual stature which could compare with the best anywhere in the world. These days every one is aware of the role the politics and the politicians play in the process of appointments to such coveted positions. It is not rare to find oneself amongst senior academics and scholars presenting details of the stages through which one passes before getting a letter of appointment as a Vice-Chancellor. Politicians occupying ministerial positions generally make the nominations to the governing bodies of the institutions of higher education and also the regulatory bodies at the national level. They invariably give priority to their party functionaries without caring for their academic suitability or credibility in their area of specialization. One suddenly finds a block level leader of the political party in power being appointed to the Senate of a central university or a district level secretary being put up as the chairman of the governing body of a national institute, thus demoralizing all others. How can Planning Commission or the NKC check these political intrusions, which are mainly responsible for the erosion of whatever was achieved in terms of quality and excellence in the initial years after independence. Even if an overarching regulatory body is put in position, it would meet the same fate as the existing ones till, the political bosses have their say in subverting the much-hyped academic autonomy of institutions. In actual practice, it just reduces to total control of the ministry concerned and then, automatically, the political masters. Who will have the courage to accept these ‘facts of academic functioning’ and ensure that the expansion phase of the higher education is saved from politics and politicians, irrespective of their hues? Apparently politics and education are not compatible bed-fellows. Higher education is requires higher sense of purpose and commitment which is beyond the prevalent political competence and culture. no wonder the declining standards of politics are getting reflected in education, particularly the higher education. A state of affairs for which both the educationists and politicians are responsible.