On Decolonization: Scattered Speculations on the Indian University

Atreyee Majumder

I have spent the last two decades almost continuously inside universities – some in North America, some in India. Universities are like good headphones, the noise-cancelling ones that consistently drown out  the turbulent world outside its boundary walls. Universities have taught me to read, think, argue, imagine, and most importantly, write. Universities have also been sites of disappointment, disillusionment, and agony. Universities have also consistently generated employment, horizons of aspiration, a growing collection of books and bookshelves, varied range of intellectual friends and collaborators and nemeses among the dead and the living, and finally, an entry point to a cosmopolitan, bourgeois life for me. The university is now a space that I consider home. In this essay, I will address the university as a site of knowledge production and dissemination, especially the university that grows out of the Indian context. Relatedly, I will address my remarks on the decolonization question and the agenda of resurrecting the knowledge project afresh, this time outside of Euro-America.  I ask in this talk: What kind of life of the mind does the university engender in the current Indian milieu? In keeping with the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s coinage “Thinking the world from Africa”, I further ask: How may we think the world from the Indian university?

Looking Back at the  Indian University

Let me give a bit of background about the nature and history of the Indian university first. Indian universities have had a long history, dating back to the monastic university of Nalanda in the ancient Magadha empire (5th c. CE). These were seats of learning that enmeshed the sciences, the arts, religious/scriptural studies with more practical concerns like law and business. The model of the modern Indian university began with the three Presidency Town universities set up by the Court of Directors of the British East India Company in 1854 – Universities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. These were fashioned after British universities, especially, the University of London. They had colleges – spread across the geographic boundaries of the respective cities – under their affiliation and governing umbrella. They became fundamental conveyors of higher education for an Indian middle class that was training to serve under British rule, especially in the lower and middle levels of bureaucracies of the Empire. An interesting educational experiment combining knowledge systems (especially, in aesthetic traditions) of India and other Asian countries, especially fine arts and music, was the Visva Bharati University and schools set up by Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan (established first as a college in 1921) and the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education at Pondicherry. 

After Independence, a lot of the new nation-state’s hopes in higher education were pinned on the new Jawaharlal Nehru University that was built in 1969 by an Act of the Parliament. The JNU – meant primarily to impart postgraduate graduate education – united many neglected areas of knowledge – like ancient and modern languages (including languages like Persian, Japanese, Sanskrit) – with modern social and political sciences, law and governance, environmental science, biological sciences, as well as defence and security studies. 

With the advent and proliferation of the smaller, single-discipline-focused (or focused on a single area of inquiry) institutes, some with university status, I find that this rich history of university education in India has been obscured. The ambitious foray into the neoliberal world has resulted in the growth of a new urban middle class that privileged technical and financial/business education over other avenues of learning, in order to be well-integrated within the skill demands of the growing market-driven economy. Consequently, we see the emergence of the IIT/IIM model of universities which focussed on technical, technocratic higher education. Such education comes to occupy the centre of the narrative of the aspiring urban middle-class that aim for a place in the global consumer conveyor belt. The NLUs (a tradition of national law universities begun with the NLSIU in Bangalore in 1987) have joined this ecosystem of single-discipline institutes with a somewhat narrowly defined intellectual canvas to cultivate. This canvas is nonetheless cultivated thoroughly and yields routinely, a crop of professionals for the legal system, and indeed, for the thriving market of legal services across the country and beyond. Social sciences and humanities feature in the curriculum of the IITs, IIMs, and NLUs somewhat prominently. But in the non-technical classroom, students are often baffled by the question what to do with all of this knowledge.

This brings me to a moot point. What to do with non-applicable knowledge? How can we protect the life of the mind for the university in this ecosystem of single-discipline universities which offer a deep-dive into a particular intellectual and/or professional concern – which operate through rigid boundaries between what counts and does not count as relevant knowledge? As one walks into the lobby of the academic building of the NLS, the words of Tagore are inscribed on the wall, but not one of a jurist. “Where the mind is without fear…” – words that Tagore wrote in a host of poetic and prosaic writings crying out loud for an agile, autonomous, fearless mind. He crucially warned in Japan and San Francisco lectures, against strong loyalties to nation, state, ethnicity, in his expression of yearnings for such a free mind.

How do we cultivate this mind? How do we build and sustain universities, which must also offer conduits to sustainable livelihoods, that provide incubators for the mind that Tagore imagined? We are embroiled in myriad ego battles in our intellectual lives as academics as also students. There is a tendency to bandy about with various kinds of jargon as markers of intellectual accomplishment at the university. I have noticed students easily proclaim themselves to be “postmodernists” without considering the diverse definitions and genealogies that the word comes to occupy, and without appreciating what a Modernist is and how it may or may not have any bearing upon one’s understanding of postmodernism. One often finds, that there are popular perceptions of philosopher or social/political theorists/ or jurists in the case of the law schools, that are considered appropriately attached to the social capital of the intellect. So one namedrops about Foucault, or Derrida, or Rousseau, or Rawls, but almost never about Huizinga, Dumezil, or Rahul Sankrityayan, or Tagore, or the Buddha. It is in contemplation of these economies of popular intellectual association, that I wish to raise the question of decolonizing the intellect at the Indian university.

Dr Atreyee Majumder is Assistant Professor at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
She is a writer and anthropologist based in Bengaluru. This is part one of the two-part series on University and Decolonization. 
Click here to read part two.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *