Protest professor says political meddling ‘suicidal’ for research

Indian scholar explains why she thinks guidelines on ensuring PhDs focus on ‘national priorities’ are dangerous and wrong

March 29, 2019
Policeman directing traffic on a street at Puducherry, India
Source: Getty
Firm direction: India’s opposition party leader, Rahul Gandhi, has accused Narendra Modi’s administration of “tell[ing] the intellectuals of the country how they should do their work”

An Indian academic who resigned over a state-led order calling for PhD students to focus only on “national priorities” has claimed that such interference will be “suicidal” for research in the country.

Meena Pillai quit the board of studies of Central University of Kerala after it asked departments to admit PhD candidates only if they chose topics “in accordance with the national priorities” and also warned against pursuing “irrelevant” research. In addition, doctoral candidates would be required to select from a “shelf of project[s]…considering national priorities” that had been compiled by departments, the advice says.

The university’s advice was prompted by a circular sent by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development on 13 March. CUK is the first institution to respond to the new guidance, which follows moves to ban academics at some of India’s central universities from criticising the government.

Professor Pillai’s intervention has been dismissed by the university as a “political stunt” associated with upcoming state elections, but several leading politicians have backed her stance. India’s opposition party leader, Rahul Gandhi – heir to the country’s most revered political dynasty, used her resignation to accuse the administration of Narendra Modi of “tell[ing] the intellectuals of the country how they should do their work”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Pillai, who is director of the University of Kerala’s Centre for Cultural Studies, said she had stepped down because it was “extremely problematic” to involve “jingoistic nationalism” in university research.

“This is a country where you can be branded anti-national because of the food you eat given the attitudes towards beef, so making nationalism part of research is a very dangerous precedent,” she said.

Professor Pillai also objected to plans to discourage “irrelevant research”. “In a country with different languages and different religions, who decides what is irrelevant?” she asked.

“Focusing on the dialect of a small, remote tribal community could be deemed irrelevant by a large proportion of people, but might yield very valuable insights with wider applications.”

The apparent plan to make PhD students choose from a list of topics supplied by departments would “restrict freedom and choice”, Professor Pillai added.

“These rules will be suicidal for India’s research, where we need freedom to critique ideas and ask difficult questions – it must not become part of a political system,” she continued.

Professor Pillai said she was surprised but heartened by the reaction to her resignation, which has also prompted Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, to voice his concern.

“I am a single woman fighting alone, and I thought this might not matter [to others], but people have taken notice and begun to debate this issue,” she said.

Asked if it was a “political stunt” linked to forthcoming elections, Professor Pillai replied: “If standing up for free speech is political, then I am political.”

However, G. Gopa Kumar, CUK’s vice-chancellor, claimed that there were “no limits for research works” and that the government’s circular was issued to ensure that researchers did not pursue outdated topics.

“The usage of ‘national priority’ in the circular means those topics that would benefit the economic, social and technological advancement of the nation and society,” he said.

The vice-chancellor added: “It is sad to note that some of the media distorted and manipulated these points without understanding the reality.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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