Saturday, August 27, 2016

Democracy Deficit in the Academia



The right to academic freedom is not a fundamental right but a rationally considered academic right. The right to academic freedom is a right to be free from the interference of the state and governments and function to build an egalitarian nation. However, every right conferred upon an individual or an institution carries with it certain social responsibilities. These responsibilities give universities and institutions a significant opportunity to contribute to the qualitative development, intellectual, cultural and political growth, to interrogate inequities and generate forms of knowledge to shape the society it serves.
A free spirit of enquiry is mandatory for intellectual journeys toward discovery and the absence of hierarchic control reassures the autonomy and dignity of the stakeholders in the process. In over three and a half decades of teaching, I have witnessed a widening gap between what a university is supposed to be and the routine practice. The privileging of the office over the classroom, of administrators over teachers and researchers resulting from market utility, so beloved of the post-WTO education-as-service-industry has alienated higher education from its social obligations in shaping a just, fair and an equitable social order. It is not by accident that a hierarchic bureaucratic order has been set in place for the triumph of market statistics through the exercise of power and control. The nineteenth century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon for surveillance whose material manifestation was the colonial cellular jail in the Andaman Islands. Today many educational centres including colleges in Patna University are contemplating the use of CCTV cameras in public areas of institutions and shockingly in classrooms. The use of cameras in public areas, if used for security purposes rather than administrative espionage is justifiable, though not entirely desirable. In classrooms it is a disgrace to the dignity of the teachers and students, participants in the process of learning and producing knowledge. Teachers are evaluated every day by students and peer reasearchers and students evaluate teachers once a semester for official purposes. These official purposes are ill-defined because in most cases the results are never made public because the system is usually complicit with ideological and often irrational forms of vested interests. The deserving might make the undeserving top occupant of the hierarchic order very uncomfortable although experience teaches that the pachydermatous skills rather than academic and intellectual attributes are among the preferential virtues.
Transparency in evaluation and authorized recording of lectures for the benefit of students would be far more effective than this undignified form of espionage. Again, these covert operations would hardly be of any relevance if the recruitment were to be fair. Its need critiques itself. The academia works best when the best traditions of democracy fertilizes teaching and learning, a true participatory partnership that inspires and motivates the pursuit of excellence.
University campuses, its public spaces: libraries and classrooms; teachers, students and employees constitute the ‘public sphere’, a term popularized by Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School. In the dichotomous positioning of the state and civil society, the public sphere constitutes a site for contested public opinion which functions as moderating agency against ill-conceived exercise of the state’s authority or the violation of civil codes. Thus the public sphere is plurally constituted and engenders diverse views and practices while creating space for dissent against discrimination, injustices and inequities. The growth of true democratic traditions is directly proportional to the development of the public sphere. In India, sadly, its educational systems, unable to produce a ‘critical mass’ because of the suppression of the public sphere has created what Noam Chomsky calls a ‘democratic deficit’. It is the ruinous lack on part of the state institutions to sustain and perpetuate democratic principles. Contrariwise, they obstruct the sharing of opinion and information and actively discourage dialogue and dissent. While India continues to uphold the colonial sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, it fails to appreciate the value of enlightened laws such as Section 43(1) of the British Education Act of 1986 which states ‘ Every individual and body or persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers’.
Are we then surprised when intolerance of diversities and threats to the constitution engender forms of exclusionary knowledge to which unthinking subscription entitles life and citizenship?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Academia at 42 degrees



I have often asked myself this uneasy question: how do I like to invigilate in an afternoon examination at 42 degrees? Most people will probably think that I am a decadent masochist if I say I relish doing it or if I were to turn quixotically philosophical and say temperature is an attitude of the mind. But if I were to be honest, I would look at it from the perspective of examinees that have to study, memorise, assimilate, prepare and beat the anxieties of writing a test in a room that is faintly reminiscent of the barbarous Holocaust. To sit on those bum-hard benches with egotistical authorities assuming criminal intent and issuing diktats that combine moral clichés with legal threats is an assault on common human dignity. But as the axiom goes: what can’t be cured must be endured. That is where an invigilator is advantaged. An invigilator is privy to a show that can be amusing enough to distract the mind from the forty two degrees through the drudgery of three elastic hours. An examination hall is a wonderful place to observe differences and similarities, performance and pretentions, dignity and subservience, community fellow-feeling and individual excellence, empathy for the ignorant  and subterfuges for self-preservation.
The chap in the third row, first bench has an obvious disadvantage as opposed to the person in the sixth row at back of the room. He wears a cream shirt with buttoned down flap pockets over which is embroidered in green and pink thread ‘SELF CONTROL’ He practices it with the perseverance of an ascetic until the last ten minutes of the test when material advantage overwhelms the conscience. Two rows behind, a girl with a yellow kurta and pink dupatta with temple appliqué at the borders, stares at the ceiling waiting for divinity to intervene while chewing the cap of her ball-point pen. Providence usually takes its time and in the next fifteen minutes the top end of the pen looks like the bone given to an energetic puppy. The guy with frazzled hair reminiscent of a two-minute-ago electrocution looks left, then right, sticks his tongue out, scratches his temples, the back of his head and settles down to challenge the question paper. The girl in a pair of Levis indigo jeans bought last night with a loose crepe orange cotton top in the second last row has got into the business of assaulting the paper in real earnest, drawing lines as margins, writing six lines and underlining three, erasing a pencil-drawing, scratching her nose and then continuing to write in a kind of aesthetically pleasing hand that catches my envy through the corner of my eye. Another in a black kurta who remembers very little of physics from school wrestles with her writing equipment, grimacing, snorting and smiling with each moment of disaster or triumph.
Tea comes in a plastic cup that could not have been smaller. Within seconds a serrated layer of cream forms at the top of the earth-brown liquid that bears the authoritative stamp of institutional hospitality. A sample of the river water collected next to the cremation bank may have tasted better. That sounds just a little bit morbid. Shall I erase it? Tea drained in spite of its violence on the taste-buds, its time to focus on the job of a conscientious invigilator.
May I borrow an eraser from her please? - asks a petite wheat-complexioned boy with a chiseled face. I am surprised at the good manners of this young man. This culture-plus moment almost demands the generosity of gratification with something like- Borrow two if you please. I hated to see this young lad sitting in the forty two degrees on that austere seat proving to the world that he had the wherewithal to get a masters degree and embark on a lonely road to success defined by society.
Time for examinees is a haiku, for invigilators an epic. And the hands on my wristwatch continue its painful circumambulation as the incinerating heat eases to a bearable close. Five to five, five minutes to go. That announced, hope renews. A sudden flurry of community consultations begins. Words, digital signals, snarls, whispers, winks, turns, twists are cautioned. It stops briefly, starts again. Resilience in an uneven world is an instrument of survival. End of time, we file out celebrating our freedoms in our own different ways. We are after all children of different gods.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Understanding the Art of Cinema

Understanding the Art of Cinema: a Guide for Beginners by R.N. Dash provides an encyclopedic understanding of films written in a language that is comprehensible and intelligible both for the uninitiated and proficient scholars of this discipline. To be able to inform, enlighten and encourage critical thinking and scholarship in such a vast subject is a significant achievement. What has been most baffling is that Mr. Dash with an immaculate record as a civil servant, an avid reader, a reference index in cultural relations has been a reluctant, self-questioning author and despite being a walking-talking encyclopedia on films his quintessential humility required a great deal of persuasion from his friends, admirers and students before he wrote and published the book in the autumn of 2013. Films constitute a major cultural practice of our times. People see films for various reasons: entertainment, representation of unusual themes, as a narrative and cultural signifier that enables viewers to experience a world different from their own, to experience the practice of the art by the many directors all over the globe and possibly for intellectual and sensory pleasure. Whether one reads a book, watches a theatre performance or views a film, the pleasure is enriched through critical interrogation. It may stem from asking a simple question: why did I like this film? This unobtrusive question has produced a discipline that is commonly known as Film Studies and Understanding the Art of Cinema sets out to explore, inform and analyse the elements that constitute such a scholarship. It begins with the etymology of the word cinema, understanding the constituents of a film, the ambiguity the term ‘movies’ and explains the technology of the cinema in various stages of its development. R.N. Dash’s book conducts the readers through an exploratory journey in cinema covering areas such as growth of world cinema from the silent era to contemporary practice in various countries, development of Indian cinema and the structure and constituents of this art form. Questions of classifications are enumerated in detail drawing succinct distinctions among long and short films, factual films, advertisement films, promotional films, feature films, ducu-feature and docu-drama. It answers some of the fundamental classificatory queries that often trouble those interested in film studies. With candid humour, he speaks of the category of Art films as a paradox since it implies that other categories are not works of art. The author distinguishes Mainstream, Parallel and Art movies while indicating that nomenclatures may have a certain fluidity of definition. The structural components of the cinema including the normative function of producer, director, executive producer, screenplay and dialogue writers, production designer, cinematographer, actors, composers, choreographer, editor and technicians are delineated in authentic detail with illustrations in various sections. The subject is indeed vast but Mr. Dash has been able to provide a comprehensive and detailed insight into a discipline that requires serious scholarship. While I expect that Understanding the Art of Cinema will become a signpost in film studies, I wish to see an early reprint adorning shelves in bookstores and libraries. In it I wish to suggest the inclusion of a glossary for quick reference to film terminology as well as an index. Each scholastic discipline constitutes its own special language which can often be unsettling for the uninitiated. This book is different. It uses words in common use and explains discipline- specific terms simply and with clarity. The invitation to read the book could not be more explicit.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

And peace be upon her soul

It is unlike Aslam, my former research student and good Samaritan, to call at 6:15 in the morning. His body-clock is normally geared to schedules that begin to function when the sun is higher up in the sky. So when I saw his name on my mobile display, I was a little puzzled. When he broke the news, a weighty silence descended upon me. A person I had admired, a woman of high scholarship, of integrity, of rare sensitivity had moved on to the realms of the ethereal. The final truth of being and nothingness had arrived.
She had not been well for many months and had been in and out of hospitals ever since her fall and orthopaedic complications a few years ago. The doctors and nursing staff at Kurji Holy Family Hospital had given her the best of attention and the very affable Fr. D’Mello shared books and prayers, encouraging spiritual resilience for a quick recovery. Months after she left hospital and I had been there to visit another colleague, he remembered to ask about her. Through the months other complications had developed and her condition rode the crests and troughs of uncertainty. Through it all, she kept in touch with us and us with her. She was absolutely delighted when our daughter Tara visited her after making it to St. Stephen’s and her blessings have been her strength. She donated a part of her collection of books to the seminar library of the Department of English hoping that her beloved students would be benefited.
Dr. Chhanda Roy, there will never be another such as you. We have lost a wonderful human being, a very sincere professor whose scholarship touched the many who knew her worth and value. Farewell Chhanda di.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Recasting the cliched theme of corruption: posted on request of friends

Corruption in our Society and how to come out of it through Participatory Vigilance
Prof. (Dr.) Shanker Dutt

When I received an invitation from Mr. Vijay Sharma and a telephonic prod from Mr. Ujjwal Choudhary to speak at this seminar it was impossible to decline the offer on two counts: one that both these gentlemen have set examples of impeccable integrity in their profession and possess a deep social sensitivity toward the disadvantaged. Both these issues are inextricably connected with the deliberations today. As I mentally juggled with the issue of corruption, I recalled the lexical precision of the political philosopher and orator Edmund Burke. It is indeed a topic on which it is difficult to speak and impossible to be silent. Burke was delivering his famous address on the impeachment of Warren Hastings, his own countryman who had ‘violated’ the ‘eternal laws of justice’. ‘I impeach him’, Burke said, ‘in the name of the people of India whose laws, rights and liberties he has subverted, whose properties he has destroyed, whose country he has laid waste and desolate’. This was a British public figure condemning an imperial representative of the Empire on grounds of injustice in 1787. I believe corruption violates the eternal laws of justice and hence these concerns need to be addressed. I wondered if there had been voices so articulate and strong on corruption in postcolonial India from Indians. When in the territory of morality, Gandhi is often the inalienable point of reference. Sadly, he is remembered grudgingly on the 2nd of October, though often cursed because it is a dry day, and occasionally on the 30th of January, the day the politics of hate silenced him. This is what Gandhi had to say in May 1939 when he heard of the pervasive corruption in six Congress ministries formed under 1935 Act in 1937, ‘I would go to the length of giving the whole Congress a decent burial, rather than put up with the corruption that is rampant.’ Gandhi’ disciples however, ignored his concern over corruption in post-Independence India. Again in 1947, Gandhi wrote in the Hindu: ‘It is the duty of all leading men, whatever their persuasion or party, to safeguard the dignity of India. That dignity can’t be saved if misgovernment and corruption flourish. Misgovernment and corruption always go together. I have it from very trustworthy sources that corruption is increasing in our country. Is everyone then going to think only of himself, and not of all of India?’
I shall come back to Gandhi later.
I must confess I was a trifle uneasy with the phrase ‘participatory vigilance’ large on account of the contexts of its usage. Participatory vigilance requires members of civil society to be alert about any suspicious, unlawful activity and to convey such information to the relevant authorities of the state. The strategy to enlist the support of civil society is to make civil society partners in preempting unlawful activity. My unease comes from two sources. Teaching Foucault for a number of years makes me share with the great French thinker the priority of freedom. He has been concerned with how people are classified and individuals are administered and controlled by a panoptic state. The structural model of the state, the panopticon was forwarded by the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham to ensure the moral health of society. The model envisaged each person be isolated in a small room where they can be observed at all times by a single person in the central tower. The building would be lit around the perimeter so that each person would be seen by the central observer while the inmates could neither see the central observer nor other inmates. An example of such architecture is the cellular jail in Andamans where a number of Indian nationalists were imprisoned. Secondly, images of the panoptic state manifested in the Orwellian image of the Big Brother, a haunting image for the coordinated surveillance apparatus of the state, continues to disturb me four decades after I first read Orwell’s dystopia 1984. The protagonist Winston Smith lives in abject terror of the omniscient gaze of Big Brother and his fellow citizens, combining fear and suspicion. The idea of participatory vigilance also contains the idea of mutual suspicion, whistle-blowing and the notion of otherisation. However if the observer in the first case and the Big Brother in the second were also to be observed by those being observed, I would be much happier. I must confess I am also substantially unclear about what the mechanics of the Participatory Vigilance is likely to be. So what is the solution? Would I advocate doing nothing on an issue that we had begun by describing as being impossible to be silent?


I went back to Gandhi. Just the manner in which Gandhi had sought to find equivalence between capital and labour in his theory of trusteeship, I wonder if it were possible to transpose that idea in the strategy to resist corruption. By the non-violent method, Gandhi sought to invite the capitalist to regard himself as a trustee for workers for the making, the consolidation and the increase of his capital. If the capitalist contributed through the deployment of capital, labor provided work. Interdependent, they were co-sharers of a process for mutual gain. The status of the worker was thus transformed from that of a slave to being a co-sharer. What if we became co-sharers of the development of India? How much of space would the state give to the people and what would be the mechanics of this process?

For a start, I recapitulated many of the young voices we gainfully heard on the 22nd when the Department of Income Tax had organized an excellent debate. The tools of vigilance are by and large sufficient to control corruption it was claimed although it needed to be accompanied by a moral overhaul. We ought to be the change we wish to see in the world.

The process begins with the identification of the causes of corruption. There seem to be some good reasons ought to why corrupt practices have flourished hence the necessity to intervene in these areas and work at a sustained overhaul. In a situation where multiple factors are involved there can be no quick-fix solutions, hence sustained efforts at multiple levels are required. Hence I believe that participatory vigilance merely as an administrative partnership will yield limited results whereas long-term participatory social vigilance is likely to be more effective.

1. The inadequacy of Education, little knowledge of rights. There is a lack of awareness about the effects of corruption. As a result, corruption is not visualized as an injustice. The fight against corruption must begin with education when students have begun to understand how dignity is demeaned by corruption. This is a critical area of partnership.
2. Absence of social security and resultant overcompensations. With inadequate institutional support to cater to core human needs particularly in terms of food, shelter, healthcare and education, there is always the desire to insure against misfortune. Insurance often goes beyond one’s known sources of income. This needs to be addressed with the sincerity of humane policies and good governance.
3. Family attachments : a) School and Institutional demands: capitation fees and parents wanting to live their ambitions through their children (outside village, town or state further enhances corrupt practices) b) Dowry System. Again requiring governmental intervention with social reform.
4. Consumerism and peer pressure to advance cultural value as opposed to use or exchange values.
5. The inversion of moral values where individual worth is measured in material terms supported by the stunning mediocrity of the media that gives precedence to lifestyle and celebrity fluff. Here the media must understand its responsibility and not lend a halo to the unscrupulous. I was appalled to watch a news bite wondering which one of the inmates of Tihar incarcerated for corruption would be the best brand ambassador for the sale of spices packed by prisoners before Diwali.
6. The sheer weight of population that slows down the justice system. Alternative justice systems at the local level could alleviate the problem. Also our system of governance which penalizes a wrongdoing ought to acknowledge an honest citizen and an honest official. Public acknowledgement motivates the good.
7. Dual consciousness: moralizing publicly, practicing the opposite privately. Not walking the talk and the absence of credible role models.
8. Overcoming resigned cynicism and inaction that lets corruption go unchallenged.
9. Among the educated: there is a perceived gap between truthfulness on the part of the government and expedience. Eg. The Planning Commission in its wisdom told the Supreme Court on the 21st of September resulting in a national outcry that the basic requirement for survival is Rs. 32 in urban areas and Rs. 26 in rural areas. It offered Re 1 for healthcare per day insufficient even to cure a simple headache. The reason is obvious. If the truthful figure, closer to Rs 100 were to be acknowledged, many more people would sink below the poverty line and India’s identity as a developing nation will be scrutinized under a glare of suspicion. So if there are covert practices on the part of the government, why should private individuals not fudge a few figures? There is also the belief that the revenue collected from individuals is squandered on wasteful expenses of the privileged and given the tardy implementation, money meant for development schemes hardly achieve their noble objectives.
10. The tendency to refrain from partnering the youth in national objectives. On the contrary there is immense sense in harnessing the energy, idealism and enthusiasm of the youth for positive transformative action. Many a parent will remember that they gave up smoking being prodded by their children. It is for filial love that forms of corruption burgeon and it is for the same reasons that it can be combated effectively.


Hence social vigilance should be a combination of a public sharing of responsibility: one that involves prevention and participatory moral transformation: a trusteeship for a common goal.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Lila of Corruption

Two eleven will be remembered for the boundless frontiers of corrupt practices, the people’s initiative to battle it, the government’s recalcitrance, quasi-Gandhian fasts, arrests, releases, tricolor waving urban candlelight marches, emotional responses and unending media debates over the territory where the battle needs to be fought.
To be honest, like many educated Indians, I have been perplexed at its multilayered complexity. More newsprint, visuals and words have been dedicated to scams than on other pressing issues. Hence, civil society is concerned. But India is a parliamentary democracy where elected representatives are given the people’s mandate to make laws of governance. To overrule this constitutional provision by popular street resistance is to challenge the constitution itself. The moral basis of such a resistance is also untenable if we believe in our post-colonial democratic structure. This may seem like a Gandhian argument but I do believe that means must justify the end and our discontent in the times of crisis is because we have privileged the material over the moral. The lawmakers as we know, whether we approve or not, have been democratically elected. The leaders of the civil disobedience have not. There is no democratic mechanism by which I may convey my mandate to someone as worthy as Justice Santosh Hegde or Arvind Kejriwal to negotiate with the government on the Jan Lokpal Bill. The convincing arguments about the Lokpal being another centre of non-democratic, authoritarian centre has already occupied much space as is the hypothesis of double oligarchy. But then is the parliament superior to the people? If the elected representatives are deaf in one ear and cannot hear with the other, do we have the right to recall them? The way out is therefore to work through democratic processes that may need a scrutiny and legislation of appropriate election laws and their implementation.
While the lawmakers are elected representatives of the people, we are aware how elections are fought in this country. Without affiliated support, which include resources such as money, party, caste, religion, criminals and occasionally popular sentiment, a candidate’s security deposit is likely to be forfeited, however upright the candidate may be. So the first thing to do is to amend the election laws. The great urban heartburn about dynastic political heritage may be overcome by promulgating a simple election law: no candidate can represent the people in parliament or the state legislative assemblies for more than two terms. Democracy is after all about creating opportunities for greater people’s participation in governance. If that is the requisite for the President of India, or the most powerful person in the world, the American President, it can be for the rest of our elected representatives. The practice of corruption is licensed with the confidence that one’s political fiefdom can be perpetuated.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Goodbye Braveheart

I can't remember when I had met Vandana Datta for the first time. But I reckon it must have been to do with scholastic matters. It was after her eminent father's demise that she courageously took on the editorial and publication responsibility for Research, a biannual research journal in Literature, Culture and Creativity. Young as she was in a profession where grey hair is equated with wisdom, she balanced writings by acknowledged scholars with space allocated for young researchers without compromising the quality of the journal.

She attended UGC refresher courses in the Department of English, Patna University and impressed resource persons and organizers with her rare commitment, scholastic aptitude and sincerity. It is with the same sincerity that she taught and it is with the same commitment that she concluded her lectures while she had temporary reprieves from the effects of chemotherapy.

A few days ago, one of her dear colleagues who was at the English department on work, had informed us that Vandana was in hospital and not in the best of health. While we wanted to visit her, we were not too sure whether she would have liked us to see her not at her best. As May turned to June, we received the bad news. Vandana after battling cancer with courage and rare dignity was one with the elements of the universe.

I have often asked this question in a more prosaic manner than in Lear: why do the gods toy with good souls? In a world in which human beings transcribe their hopes and fears into a spiritual script, it must be comforting to know that Vandana is in the space of a painless destination. When I look up at the sky on a clear night, may be I will designate a special star to her memory. But as of now the catharsis must stem from the grief that we feel. She was a very good human- being and the world has been greatly impoverished by her absence.
Goodbye Braveheart.