Hindu-centric Indian history likely to be non-starter at global level

For India to make global progress in the knowledge sphere it will need to make a concerted attempt to embrace academic ‘method’ as it is understood globally

A key necessity in Indian intellectual life today is for India to understand itself as the rest of the world also understands it. Pic: iStock

It is being alleged that ‘saffronisation’ of higher education is being undertaken and the conspicuous posting of people with right-wing backgrounds to positions of importance in key institutions lends some credence to it.

But critics of the moves have not really seen where they are most likely to lead since their primary concern is only that secular education should not be compromised. To see the likely long-term outcome in top state-run educational institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) being progressively saffronised, we need to first recognise that higher education needs to meet global standards; ‘isolationism’ is a thing of the past and no longer viable.

Students who have passed out of an Indian university, if they are to excel in their fields, need to find acceptance in the global academia to improve their standing.

Globally not competitive

It is a sad fact that in most fields, higher education in India has not been globally competitive. An institution like the JNU produced authorities in the humanities and social sciences, and if they were politically ‘left-oriented’, it was their training that made it so. It is impossible to study history, sociology or political science without some understanding of left-wing thought. Even capitalist countries such as the US have left-leaning liberals in these disciplines.

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Economics, engineering and management are another matter, since there is no direct link between what they study and their political leanings. That is why in the academia, the arts, the humanities and social sciences produce left-wingers while disciplines like management, engineering and economics accommodate right-wing affiliates. One could even propose that a right-wing nationalist in history, the arts or political science might be suspect as a global academic.

The consequence is that if Hindu nationalists head engineering colleges or management institutes, they could carry on their work but not if they head institutions that are known for their social sciences, arts and humanities departments. With the mushrooming of private universities that are snatching the best talent in the humanities and social sciences, the saffronisation of an institution like the JNU would ruin it, but not an IIT or an IIM, in which political slant is not relevant. Pure science is a grey area because if an academic is favoured for eulogising ancient India’s achievements in a field like physics, that could spell trouble, too.

An imperative in higher education is for a researcher’s work to be globally accepted and published in peer-reviewed journals. Regardless of the political opinions the academic holds, unless his or her work passes this test it will be worthless as academic research. To take the example of Indian history – which is a contested site – there is already some knowledge about India’s past accepted and taught in globally respected institutions. To reverse or substantially change that may not be impossible, but it will need rigorous research based on hard evidence.

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Reversing knowledge difficult

Right-wing, Hindu-centric Indian history is likely to be a non-starter at the international level because the task of reversing what knowledge is already held is too difficult; the concerned academic will be shooed out. It is only when India possesses knowledge of itself that is validated internationally according to accepted standards of academic research, that higher education in India can gain respect as authoritative – even about ‘India’. Unless an academic gains international respect at some level, even private Indian institutions will not employ him or her.

At the heart of all this, I believe, is the yawning gap between what is considered ‘knowledge’ globally and in India; I don’t use the term ‘Western knowledge’ here since the Western method has imposed itself universally and in the global scenario one has to acquire what is considered ‘knowledge’ according to that yardstick.

In the global academia, ‘knowledge’ about the world – including human beings and society as studied in curricula – can only be created through empirical evidence and the rational method. In Indian parlance, ‘knowledge’ pertains to how to live life and an ultimate reality that cannot be apprehended through the senses.

Wisdom vs knowledge

There is a strong case to say that ‘wisdom’ rather than knowledge has been the ultimate goal in India. But ‘wisdom’ is worthless in the academia – although it may have value in personal development. For knowledge to be recognised as such in the academia, it must be published and possible to transfer in classrooms to students in the established ways.

My own sense is that for India to make global progress in the knowledge sphere it will need to make a concerted attempt to embrace academic ‘method’ as it is understood globally. It is easiest to do this in the physical and biological sciences (especially experimental science), where traditional modes of thinking will not come into conflict with one’s work.

Engineering and management perhaps pertain more to procedure than basic knowledge while economics is increasingly financial engineering. But when we come to the arts, the humanities and the social sciences, Indian modes of thinking are perhaps more at odds with global methods, especially with regard to what constitutes valid method.

‘Inward looking Hindus’

An aspect noticed about Hindus by travellers – which will be applicable to Indians of all religions since the modes of thinking have spread – is that they were ‘inward looking’. This does not mean ‘introspective’ as much as preoccupied with their way of life rather than with deciphering or ordering the world. To take ethics and law as an illustrative area, while everyone may be personally conscious of his or her ‘dharma’, it has been impossible to expand the notion into an acceptable legal concept. But there is a need to ‘define’ for everyone to understand in the same way and not only to ‘know’ personally.

Being ‘inward looking’ would restrict one to personally ‘knowing’, and not understanding something as others also understand it, which is the first step in isolating oneself intellectually. A key necessity in Indian intellectual life today is for India to understand itself as the rest of the world also understands it. To borrow a concept from psychology, persons who understand themselves differently from the way others understand them are denoted by the term ‘delusional’.

MK Raghavendra is a writer on culture, politics and films.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)