Inequality in School Education: Are we Asking Right Questions

To begin with, I must say that the fact that we are discussing EWS and access in school etc., is a reflection of the way in which discourses get shaped and defined. It would seem politically incorrect in a liberal framework to reject such a provision on the grounds that it does not allow us to address the basic and fundamental conditions that give rise to first inequality in society and then inequality in education. But it tends to make us believe that inequality is normal and given and therefore the way to provide good education to poor children is through some kind of quota. Nobody denies it as a stop gap arrangement but then it must be repeated time and again that it is a temporary arrangement and become comfortable with it as a quota system to tackle inequality.

The situation in education in general and schooling in particular is alarming. It is not only about the content but also the access to it. We are concerned with the question of access here more than the content. However, at some point it would be impossible to delink the two. The idea that there are people who need a terminology for identification, which is Economically Weaker Section here, is in itself a statement about the larger social and economic condition that exists in society. It is this condition which paved way for demands for EWS quotas in private schools. It is difficult to outrightly reject or accept it because it is connected with much more larger questions of how reproduction happens in societies. The demand emerged because

  • it has been considered criminal that private institutions take resources from the state but never give it back to people and that there is an accountability of private capital towards people;
  • it is considered that the mass of population also have the right to be educated the same way as the rich of the society.

However, we do realise that this process does not work that smoothly as some of the reports have indicated. The way schooling system is designed there is a logic of reproduction already inbuilt into it – a logic which would ensure that inequality in education remains because this inequality has its own functions to play in society. This has been much brilliantly explained by likes of Marx, Althusser and Bourdieu.

If the right to hope and dream is not a part of our education system or if idea of alternative possibilities are not to remain an intrinsic part of the knowledge framework it is obvious that we are imagining a world of a particular type. Education is about imparting the diverse possibilities, ways of thinking and looking at the world, not hiding what causes certain things, not denying that there is inequality, hunger, poverty, deprivation and discrimination and there are profound reasons why these things are there.
Hence, it is relevant to think if providing a quota can resolve the problem of access and inequality?

  • Is it not a stop gap arrangement in a larger battle which should ideally about ensuring that each and every child gets education of the highest possible quality?
  • Does the EWS provision really take care of the fundamental causes and conditions that produce inequality in access to schooling?
  • Are we even aware that there is a larger battle which is about ensuring that education ceases to be of two types – an elite education (in all respects – access as well as content and infrastructure) and an education for the poor and marginalised?
  • Is there a realisation that in the fight to ensure that everyone gets best education the simultaneity of short-term gains such as EWS quota and the long-term goal must be maintained.

It is time that we ask these questions to ourselves if we are committed to ensuring that imparting education has to be a non-discriminatory project. EWS has a lot of problems inbuilt into it because it is an imposition on the private schools to become sensitive, caring and have a consciousness of the wide gap in access to education that exists. There might be exceptions among private schools that take it as a mission but that is not the way the real problem at hand will be resolved because problems of inequality historically have not been resolved this way. More thinking needs to go into what can be the way forward.

Note: This is brief text of talk delivered at a panel discussion on EWS at Gargi College, Delhi University in 2018

The Managers Want to Write An Obituary for Higher Education

I remember long long back Avijit Pathak wrote a piece after his interview for promotions in Mainstream and described how the people sitting on the other side of the table behave. He was right and anyone who has appeared in an interview would agree to his observations. The fact is that the two sides of the table in an interview are best instances of how power works within an ‘academic’ realm. Those who have filled up their API forms in Indian universities or other world class places or have filled up Annual Reports to prove their worth would it better today.

It does not matter who knows how much and whether there is a possibility of a dialogic relationship there. Despite all rhetoric of ‘be comfortable’, ‘dont be nervous’, ‘ have some water’ and so on the structure remains that of someone seeking a favour – promotion, job or regularisation – and someone taking a decision whether you should be given that favour or not. It does not matter whether the people on the other side possess even sufficient knowledge on what you are to be tested. (The tragedy is that you are to be ‘tested’; you have to prove your ‘merit’ and ‘ability’ and so on). All this does not begin at the table where many pairs of eyes insatiably await to prove your incompetence with questions like ‘what is sociological about it?; What is the difference between peasant and farmer’; why do you publish from Rawat Publications or Aakar Books because the quality is doubtful and so on? Sometimes they even ask you to explain in a few sentences how Gandhi, Foucault and Marcuse can be critiques of modernity. They might also ask you that ‘why is your article so short in length’? Or ‘ what is the impact factor of the journal you published’? In other words, you can’t escape their predatory nature. They are out there to really ‘test’ you.

It does not start here. It starts with the idea of measuring your capability, which is to be defined by those on the other side of the power hierarchy. It is a different matter they would have been promoted simply because they spent so many years in an institution without any of the measurements that they have introduced to weigh your intellectual capability. It is a different thing that they have no inkling that most of the great works historically in South Asia have not been published by the ‘good quality publishers’ otherwise everyone ranging from Phule, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Maulana Bhasani, D D Kosambi, A R Desai, Yoginder Singh to many more were not published by any of the university presses or corporate houses that denote quality for them. It is a different thing that intellectualism for them meant engagement and dialogue and not insane number crunching of indexes and tables.

The interviews, the process of putting oneself up in the academic labour market is no doubt a compulsion that many academics have to do. However, the interesting part is that we all fall into the trap and reproduce the process which humiliated us, at the cost of killing the intellectual spirit of our work.

As Avijit Pathak quoted Foucault aptly to talk about JNU: “The judges of normality are everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’ judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact of disseminated forms, with its system of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in the normative society, of the normalising power.”

The judges out there are like vultures prepared to shred the idea of education itself in name of merit, quality, capability, marketability and relevance. Their agenda is obvious – to write an obituary for higher education.

The King and his Court gives a new farman: Attendance for JNU teachers

An university where students did not require to register their presence through an attendance system or whether the teaching and examinations will be held in the most unusual manner rather than the mechanised form of examinations and pedagogical transactions prescribed by a centralised examination branch that most universities had. Imagine a class happening not in the typical oppressive, uncreative format but in the most unconventional manner, a teacher asking you to maintain a daily diary of whatever you do in the class and then reflect on each lecture. These nature of assignments , or unusual questions posed to students could happen because there was no centralisation. And guess what – it produced some of the best intellectuals, bureaucrats and politicians proving that such an academic transaction could also be compatible with the dominant social order apart from producing critical, thinking students and human beings.

But look what they have done in a few years towards destroying that model of an university. Obviously, it has not been done a single person who comes as the Vice-Chancellor but with the help of a host of faculty members who are either in positions of power such as Rector’s and Chairpersons and Deans but also without any visible power. The agenda has been very clear: let there be uniformity, let all universities resemble each other – mechanised, uncreative, corporatised places which produces unthinking, subservient citizenry and workers for this auhtorian system to run with public support (!) So they issued another set of rules today after an Academic Council, which does talk much about academics but more about administration : the extremely prim and proper looking intellectual administrator issued th following press note after the Academic Council meeting:

Jawaharlal Nehru University
New Delhi

Press Note 13-07-2018

The 146th Academic Council Meeting held on 13 July 2018 took a series of decisions on a host of critical issues that would bring about major improvements in academic and research activities of the University.

In addition, the AC also adopted certain rules and regulations which will improve governance and accountability of all the stakeholders of the university, such as students, teachers and staff.

While JNU had already implemented the rules of attendance for students and administrative staff, the 146th AC meeting through its resolution has made attendance mandatory for the teaching community as well, JNU faculty need to give attendance at least once in a day. Moreover, the AC also approved a rule that during the registration process at the beginning of every semester, all the incoming and continuing students are required to give an undertaking that they will abide by the attendance rules.

Secondly, an important decision has been taken by the AC to make JNU Entrance Examinations completely computer-based, i.e. online mode. Many members pointed out during an hour long discussion on this issue that the admission process in JNU will now be fairer, efficient, secure and bias-free.

The third important decision of AC was to approve the introduction of a two-year M.Sc. Degree Programme in Mathematics in the School of Physical Sciences.

The fourth decision was related to a University level time-table to be in place which will enable the student community to make choices for taking up courses in various schools and also lead to proper time management, and better utilization of available class room space.

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
Rector I

I am reiterating what I have written earlier the plan is to do away with alternative ways of thinking and working. The Indian state wants every building, to put it figuratively, to be painted in the same colour. One should not be surprised if they implement biometric attendance for faculty members. Next step will be fee hike, which has already started under different pretext. But there will be raise in entrance fee as well admission fee soon.

The student as well as teachers politics will also not remain the same unless serious battles are fought. It seems like a fight to save the institution from it’s death. Will the teachers realise their position as workers and fight as them or do we still think that such serious battles will be won through lobbying and judiciary . Will JNU go back to the same status quo as it was even in 2013? If not, the battle is lost.

HECI: Inevitable Product of the Corporatised Capitalist Education

BJP regime still needs to learn how to frame a document of governance. It messes it up and makes it look unprofessional and infantile. The HECI Act is an example of it, as it is full of contradictions and incomplete facts. Here is an Act, which is clear about the intentions of the government but those intentions are badly expressed. As an example it talks of centralisation as well as self-regulation making it difficult to understand how would it implement the two. Anyhow, the most important part is that its intention is clear – concentrate power in the hands of government.

There is great amount of opposition and concern to the newly proposed Higher Education Council of India (HECI) as a replacement for the University Grants Commission. The concern, as far as it could be seen, emerges on the following grounds:

  1. It seeks centralisation of power with the Ministry of Human Resource Development
  2. It has no imagination for an inclusive higher education, which is otherwise constitutionally guaranteed
  3. It will adversely impact financing of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)
  4. It goes against the idea and spirit of federalism
  5. It professes a misplaced notion of autonomy

The concerns seem genuine and well framed if I look at them experientially as a teacher-worker. But then it also raises, to begin with, a methodological question for the critiques: why is a policy measure like HECI seen in isolation when it should be dialectically located within the larger processes that constitute a system grounded in the way how capitalist ‘development’ determines the forms and content of policy in different arenas. None of the analysis or concerns that I have come across till now point to using such a methodology because of which most of them end doing criticism of current regime, which is flawed. Some analysis have pointed out how this is a continuity of the earlier regimes as well. It is within this framework of analysis that one can encounter answer to many of the concerns pointed above.

At the first instance a lay person like me does get baffled at the proposal to do away with bodies like UGC and asks a basic question of what has been the need.

One pragmatic answer can be that with changing times we need to “upgrade” or “redefine” our institutions. And the proposed act seems to be well aware of it at least the way it makes itself relevant. Its preamble recycles the old rhetoric of how central government is concerned about “determination of standards” in HEI. The same preamble reinforces the idea of authority that central government holds through instruments of “systematic monitoring and promotion”. In the same breath it contradicts its commitment to autonomy (read privatisation) by saying that it would promote “uniform development of quality of education in higher educational institutions” because it not only wants to dismantle state control over HEI through autonomy but it also seeks to create an unequal HE scenario with private HEI for those who can pay and the state run HEI with bad infrastructure for the masses who can’t pay. It redefines itself by saying that the “mandate” of UGC needs redefinition because the “priorities of higher education” have changed. Obviously one would ask what are those changes.

The other answer can be that like the present regime undid all symbols and institutions of the past because it wanted to show a clear break from the past (decaying) welfarism into a new world of outright aggressive corporatised social, economic and political order this move is one among many. A new order has set in, a new imagination and new world needs to be showcased. The recent move is merely that. In this sense it is a continuity of the same process which replaced Planning Commission with Niti Aayog.

The UGC is obsolete because given the needs and requirements of the current situation Indian state needed a body that fully liberates education from its management. It is not that UGC was not doing anything towards liberating it. It had been allowing universities to run on guest and adhoc faculty. It had reduced funds, the infrastructure was being squeezed, the authoritarianism evident in any corporate funding was becoming the order of the day, students, faculty and staff were discouraged to unionise and therefore could not become stakeholders in the university system. Scholarships have been cut and teachers were sent letters early this year that if they needed seventh pay commission they must mobilise funds to run the institution. Nobody seems to be talking of the Gazette Notification that created different category of universities? What more is expected in terms of corporatisation except that all this needs to be formalised and institutionalised. Many of the voices of concern have been, in fact, part of the institutions that talked of redefining the institutions because in the changed situation with private universities etc., new institutional frameworks need to be worked out. If a move like this has to be opposed it cannot be opposed as a stand alone event but the whole process has to be opposed but unfortunately many of us have been part of the process at one point or the other.

Within the given mandate UGC had outlived itself. A new mechanism to facilitate a full-fledged overhaul of education system in interests of private capital to allow rampant and uncontrolled profiteering is required. One way to do this is to centralise the working of the system. Decentralisation, which has been critiqued in the past as messy, is a way to counter the invasion of private capital to some extent, till state does not become fully colonised by private capital and the decentralised governance becomes a facilitator of its rule. That process of colonisation is nearing it’s completion. It was started by the Congress regime in the early 1990s and has been carried forward by every successive regime. What BJP has done is that it has loosened the shackles through changing the nature of all institutions. It has defined and implemented the idea of ‘autonomy’, which is a move towards complete integration of HE in the market as it also talks about how HEI in India could have an education and research “in a competitive global environment.” The moment discourses on linking market and educational institutions came up in past, and even Yashpal committee was concerned about it, it implied that one is moving towards erosion of the idea of education in general, which should not have anything to do with whether one gets a job after completing it or not. Once, that becomes the concern the institutions will end up doing what private capital wants it to do – become direct producers of tailor made labour power for the market. It is not surprising then that the discourses on skilling would come up after that and so would emerge discourses on prioritising the disciplines and reframing the courses that are taught. Linked to these would be prioritisation of expenses with institutions. Some of my colleagues get fascinated by how an institution in West is run by only guest faculty but has a lot of other resources Or how the administration academics still look at UK/USA as model without even thinking about how their HEIs are being destroyed. Sometimes it does not seem like myopia of analysis but a comfortable position of how well we can live within capitalism by becoming its best advisors.

Section 15.3 of the proposed Act and its various sub-sections talk about academic standards and how to ensure it. Many provisions such as 15.3.b talks about laying “down standards of teaching / assessment / research or any aspect that has bearing on outcomes of learning in higher educational institutions including curriculum development, training of teachers and skill development.” This is centrally determining what is required as a knowledge or not. What should be an outcome of higher learning – be a good, servile worker and the institutions must be geared towards it or produced a critical knowledge. This new move will not only determine what kind of courses will be taught but also who will teach them and who will not. Provisions on content will be decided by a group of people, which will not have many academicians (02 out of 12). The question that remains is whether the HECI will be capable of going through the courses etc., of such a mammoth system or will a set of courses approved by it be valid throughout India. The way it is proposing the working of HEI across India will it not change the very fact of education being in the concurrent list?

Section 15.4 makes it amply clear that the HE would look like a market place where different enterprises compete to survive, flourish or perish. It talks of (15.4.c) laying down “standards for grant of autonomy for institutions and provide flexibility and freedom to institutions granted autonomy to develop their own curriculum”, (15.4.d) specifying “norms and standards for Graded Autonomy to Universities and Higher Educational Institutions and accordingly prescribe regulatory mechanisms” and; laying down “norms and standards for performance based incentivization to the faculty and the Higher Educational Institutions and the Universities”. It makes its intention amply clear by proposing that universities will be enabled “to become self-regulatory bodies for the maintenance of academic quality in higher education and research and in colleges affiliated to it” (15.4.m). The self-regulation also means that the institutions will not have to constantly go to the Ministry if it does not want money. Once, it fulfils all the formalities of annual reporting (which we know by now how corporates are experts at manipulating). At the first instance it might appear contradicting to the idea of centralisation it may not in longer run. These provisions if read along 15.3 also indicate at the centralisation aspect of the content of HEI. The Government decides what to teach, how to teach and (in other words) what not to teach.

One is surprised to read scholars argue that UGC with all its lacunae has been good whereas the HECI will be very bad. However, I would see HECI, dismantling of UGC, institutions of eminence, autonomy to HEIs, etc., as moves towards liberating the HEIs from clutches of state funding. It, at the same time, also moves towards making Higher Education more unequal, destroying the possibilities of research and teaching. But there is nothing new in this because this was already happening and the concerned analysts have failed to understand the inevitability of this. This would also mean that if a battle is to be waged against this it has to be enmeshed in the larger battle against the system that produces these policies.

Why a chancellor with RSS links goes against Nalanda University’s international character

The appointment on January 27 of scientist Vijay Bhatkar, the architect of India’s first supercomputer, as chancellor of Nalanda University has given rise to serious doubts about the direction this institute will take. It should not come as a surprise that a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sympathiser or activist now heads the university, or that someone closer to the Right wing could become its vice-chancellor in the near future. After all, that is how political appointments have been made under all kinds of political regimes.

What is of concern is that such an appointment goes against the very idea of a university that calls itself international and aims, as it says on its website, “to be universalist in its outlook, open to currents of thought and practice from around the globe, and it has to respond to the needs of a world”.

The article can be read in detail at Scroll.in

Demonetisation and the Casualty of Social Sector: Lopsided Governance and Lack of Vision

Ravi Kumar

Expenditure on education as percentage of GDP in India is around 3.1% (2014-15 BE) and the same for health has been around 1.2% (2014-15 BE). BJP’s election manifesto (2014) said that it would increase this figure for education to 6% of GDP. The same Manifesto said, “Highest priority would be given to address the acute shortage of teachers and researchers, quality of education and research…” Nothing seems to have moved on that front either. On health BJP in its Manifesto said that it would like to “initiate the ‘National Health Assurance Mission’, with a clear mandate to provide universal healthcare that is not only accessible and affordable, but also effective, and reduces the out of pocket spending for the common man…” These arguments for increasing access to education and health and for improving the quality of education as well as Health should have been paramount priority for the BJP government.

NSSO reports on education published in 2015 point out that in 2014 the Net Attendance Ratio for secondary education has been as low as 52% and 51% for male and female respectively. The same figure at higher secondary level is 38% and 37%. The drop out/discontinuation from formal education system in the age group of 5-15 has been around 60 % in rural areas and 43% in urban areas. While the cost of education for individuals has gone up as indicated by the massive increase in the private expenditure on education the government schooling system is not the most popular one. Only 37.5% of students at secondary and higher secondary education level attended government schools in urban areas. The average annual private expenditure has more than doubled for general as well as technical education from 2007-08 to 2014. If one combines the ‘financial constraints’ and ‘engaged in economic activities’ as the reasons for the drop out one finds that over 50% male and 20% female drop out because of these reasons. Around 30% female drop out because they are engaged in domestic activities.

 

And this is happening in a situation when Economic Survey 2015-16 says that around 91% workers are in informal sector which faces immense insecurity as has become evident in the initial days of demonetisation. A huge chunk of workers are rendered unemployed or underpaid. There are evidences from reports of NSSO as latest as 2014, which indicate that the poor and the marginalised castes and girls are deprived of education in terms of access to start with. The 2014-15 data of MHRD puts drop out rate among Scheduled Castes at secondary level at around 18.6% and among Scheduled Tribes at around 27.2%. Now if a government which wants to launch Digital Literacy Mission it has to consider that providing good quality education and good health services to everybody is the first step in development of a society and nation. No substantial step has been taken in this direction. Instead of directing all attention to this agenda it launches new schemes and rather directs the higher education institutions to ensure that they implement the Vittiya Saksharata Abhiyan through the students and faculty members. Even if the Prime Minister had looked at the statistics by his own ministry (NSSO statistics) which says that only 12.4% of population aged 14 years and above are able to use internet for sending emails he could have made out the need to first address the basic questions of education and health.

 

An August 2016 report by the consultancy firms KPMG and OPPI pointed out the dismal health scenario in the country. There end-argument is obviously that private sector needs to play a greater role but the facts that they gave was startling: Number of hospital beds in India per 1,000 population is 0.9; India has lowest number of physicians per 10,000 population among BRIC nations; infant mortality rate of 38/1000 live births and Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) of 174/100000 live births in 2015 was quite high compared to other BRIC partners; deaths due to non-communicable diseases are nearly 60% of the total deaths annually; around 63 million Indian are in debt trap due to health expenditure whereas a third of population is driven below poverty line due to out of pocket expenditure on health and so on and so forth.

 

Demonetisation has unleashed a huge debate on its impact on economy, one being how the focus of the government has shifted from black money to ‘cashless’ economy. In the initial phases some demonetisation supporters were expressing hopes about possible increase in spending on social sector by Government of India once RBI reclaims all the black money. Though that debate is not to be heard anymore as Government’s claims of black money seem untenable and the intent is more about how to bring every penny stored with an Indian into circulation in market and add to the strengthening of finance capital.

 

Irrespective of what would happen in next few months and may be years it is amply clear that a lot of money is being wasted on this whole process. Initial calculations by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy had put the transaction cost of the Government of India and the RBI at staggering Rs. 16,800 crores. On 15th December the NITI Ayog announced that nearly Rs. 340 crores would be spent on different kinds of awards to be offered through two schemes, namely the Lucky Grahak Yojna, which will be for the consumers, and the Digi-dhan Vyapar Yojna, meant for the merchants. Given that the cost borne to ensure that the demonetisation campaign works would be huge one often wonders if it was really important to prioritise it over the other much serious needs of the society such as education and health. The Government, it is obvious, is not too keen to address the inequality in access to a good education or health system. In a nation with such massive poverty and such immiseration good governance would meant that a system of education and health is created which is at par with the private education and health system and which can address the issues of unequal access, low quality and improvement to meet global standards. As pointed by facts above the current move by the government, which puts all its energy into one programme to ensure that the face and grace of a government is saved, will only lead to aggravation inequality in social sector.

 

The priorities of the government seem lopsided. It seems least bothered that its declining performance in agricultural production, food grains, manufacturing, personal income, exports etc., need much more attention because they affect the everyday lives of individuals and therefore the ability to access basic facilities like education and health. Its intent is also in question here because while it has shown at one level that it can mobilise resources for things that are its priority such as the drive to push demonetisation on the other hand it has shown little or no interest to address the fundamental issues that affect the millions in this country. While talking of education and health the argument is always about lack of resources but nobody questions how in the middle of a budget year without any provision in the budget the NITI Ayog would come with Rs. 340 crores to give awards to people or how does MHRD create budget heads for its Vittiya Saksharata Abhiyan. In order to further the individualised priority of the Prime Minister all sections of state machinery have been put to work to meet his vision which reveal how he is least interested in improving the educational and health condition of masses but more inclined to divert state resources, bend rules and do everything possible for a policy decision that is his ‘own’. In that sense, education and health are not his priorities and close to heart initiatives.

South Asian-ness and Institution Building Across Borders

The recent overtures by India to strengthen neighbourly relations across South Asia have been noted as the hallmark of its foreign relations. Analysts would differ, and not unreasonably, that it is also due to the geopolitics of the region where non-Indian business ‘intrusion’ has been increasing. There is a general hype to this new attitude from India, which is an apparent departure from the patron-client relationship. The Nepali politicians seemed to be hailing Indian Prime Minister’s ‘efforts’ in unison cutting across political lines. But can this building up of a composite and cogent South Asia happen without developing institutional mechanisms that foster deep rooted sharing of intellectual processes across the region? It is only through such a complementing process of institutionalising dialogue across South Asian countries that a more organic evolution of relationships can be imagined. This is a protracted process compared to the signing and conduct of business relations. However, this would contribute to bolstering of business relations in the long run as well if one so wishes.

One way of doing this whole process is to organise an intellectual ambience that encapsulates this organic-ity and functions with the principle kernel that knowledge is non-hierarchical (which will start with the premise that in the process of knowing there is no hierarchy of knowledge) and always contestable. Taking off from this premise it can be a possible project to explore the commonalities, challenges and possibilities across South Asian countries. Once this happens as a common initiative of countries across the region, expressing their willingness to embark on a path that will of revelations narrowed and restricted by the boundaries of nation-state, it will open up possibilities for a dialogic South Asia. This intellectual project, whatever be its history or intention, got initiated in form of one institution – South Asian University. Though diverse institutions of SAARC have existed but an university compared to institutions such as SAARC Cultural Centre etc., involve a completely different process of ethos building – moving beyond bureaucratic detailing into the realm of much open and liberal intellectual sphere. However, amidst the recent emphasis on neighbourliness it does not seem to be occupy the same place of significance as many other issues as the zeal and enthusiasm on this front seem to lack.

Imagine a Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan and Indian sociologist sitting together and deliberating on what should be taught as part of a Sociology post-graduate programme. This exercise takes place even on themes which otherwise seem irreconcilable, for instance, the identity question in Sri Lanka or questions of indigeneity, violence and religion in South Asian context. The same situation might come up while discussing regionalism and nationalism in classroom or in seminar halls. While deciding on curriculum and pedagogy it is also fiercely debated as to how can the courses represent the South Asian context transcending the narrow confines of national sociologies. This was inconceivable four years back and it is a reality in South Asian University, an initiative of the SAARC. Debates within departments such as sociology have seen such moments quite often.

When there are efforts being made to explore the South Asian neighbourliness an institution like SAU provides the platform where the possibilities of a dialogic South Asian ethos can be experimented. The MEA website tells us how unique is this experiment especially as an effort to bring together the different countries concretely – as students and teachers who make the rhetoric of South Asian cooperation a reality in flesh and blood. How far this happens and what can be the conditions to further concretise this, though, remain an issue but as an experiment this has been a major step in re-imagining South Asia in recent past.

The way this university was conceptualised it was kept in mind how the balance of power in administrative matters could be maintained. For instance, it’s rule no. 06 states that “the President will identify up to three Professors working in the University for appointment as Vice-Presidents. Subject to the availability of suitable candidates, the Vice-Presidential candidate should be from SAARC Member States other than that of the President”. Rules mention that the President and the Vice-President of the university should come from different countries. Similarly, the students should ideally come from across South Asia and the Indian students must not dominate the composition because of its sheer physical location in New Delhi. This, as a sociologist, compels one to engage with the challenges of teaching and researching in a situation where the Bangladeshi student brings fresh insights from his location and debates. Even when I think as a pure intellectual endeavour the University opens new possibilities to understand and analyse the South Asian societies, for instance, the identity question with the Afghani, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan students in a classroom becomes a learning experience for any faculty from any part of South Asia who get exposed the complexities of a subject matter.

Commonalities and absence of dialogue

The South Asian societies share great amount of similarities – ranging from their economies to the social structures and the challenges confronting their societies. Whether it is the changes experienced by the social structures over different points of time under influence of variety of factors or the emergence of new forms of mass resistances or the challenges posed by religious sectarianism a dialogue across the region has been absent. Pakistani scholars working on Hindu temples in Pakistan or historians working on evolution of the region or sociologists grappling with similar issues across region are never institutionally brought together by the states. An effort that transcends the frequent political skirmishes between countries and establishes platforms of sharing would add to bringing out the vast amount of knowledge generated in the region.

This requires a concerted effort that transcends the national frontiers and academia is one such space, which can do that easily. It would create a dialogue that is bereft of enmities and sectarian prejudices. While at one level through research it generates tangible possibilities through pedagogical practices It makes the whole process organic. It evolves as a natural process rather than as a forced practice. In a classroom the academic engagement, in fact, does precisely this when it asks students from different countries to share, analyse and debate the issues that confronts their societies. From classrooms to the hostel rooms to cafeterias it creates a context for a dialogic South Asian ethos.

When students from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India share a room in the hostel, when they deal with questions that may have different national interpretations but they discuss it amicably within the classroom or when they celebrate each other’s independence days it ceases to be a mere pedagogical issue. It rather becomes an organic intellectual process that would produce minds engaged with the South Asian realities.

To have an atmosphere of South Asian-ness the states will have to sensitively get into institution buildings of kind that goes beyond the mere bureaucratic sharing of officials and rhetorical cultural exchanges or business cooperations. It can be done only through imagining a situation where national boundaries become porous and insignificant and when people across these borders start to locate themselves as organic constituents of any agenda, dream or programme. These will also be processes that bring together people to share the developments, concerns and hopes within this region.