From where I sit - Strategic limitations

December 2, 2010

What makes some special convocations at the University of Delhi more "special" than others? A few are special because of the occasion they commemorate - as in 1948, when, as part of its silver anniversary celebrations, the university conferred honorary degrees on a galaxy of stalwarts. Others are remembered because of distinguished recipients, such as Helen Keller, who was awarded a Doctor of Letters degree in 1955.

Sundry special convocations, though, are "specially" organised to confer degrees on visiting dignitaries. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs "arranges" that the university does so. In 2008, an honorary degree was bestowed on Gordon Brown, then the UK's prime minister, because of such proactive prompting. And on 4 November this year, Delhi agreed to confer a DLitt on Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi's president.

India's strategic interests influence the choice of recipient. In October, the ministry sought to scupper Jamia Millia Islamia University's plan to confer a DLitt on the Dalai Lama.

When Jamia decided to dig its heels in and go ahead with the convocation, scheduled for 23 November, the mandarins reluctantly gave way just 24 hours before the event. Their actions indicate that humouring China is far more important to the national interest than honouring the exiled Tibetan leader.

Mr Mutharika, on the other hand, was on a state visit to India and is the current chair of the African Union.

What makes the president more special than other similarly honoured dignitaries is that he is an alumnus of Delhi, having studied at the Shri Ram College of Commerce and the Delhi School of Economics in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, Dalip Singh, a former member of the department of African studies who supervised President Mutharika's master's dissertation, attended the event.

Touchingly, Malawi's leader brought the convocation procession to a halt so that he could greet Dr Singh. As Mr Mutharika introduced his wife to his former teacher and insisted they be photographed together, Africans in the audience spontaneously broke into a Chichewa song. It was this moment, when a former student broke protocol to hail his old tutor, that transformed the special convocation into a memorable one.

Some 55 years ago, a historic moment of a different order had marked the inauguration of the department of African studies. As Mohan Ram, a retired professor of botany at Delhi, points out, the event has a special place in university lore, thanks to the vice-chancellor's hilarious speech.

"People ask me, why study Africa?" G.S. Mahajani said. "My simple answer is the same which Sir Edmund Hillary gave when he was asked why he had climbed Mount Everest: because it is there."

Present in the audience was Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, who was not amused. His face apparently turned red in annoyance and in his own speech, he clarified that "we are not studying Africa because it is there. We are deeply concerned about the African nations which should be liberated from colonial rule."

The inauguration marked India's first foray into African studies, and the prime minister hoped for great things from the discipline. He would be disappointed: it has not taken off and there remain few job opportunities for Africa specialists in India.

While strategic interests can create departments and push for honorary degrees, they can never ensure academic excellence.

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