BEFORE we start throwing mud at other countries and other alien institutions, it is important that we do some introspection and watch out for bureaucratic arrogance and total incompetence in our own. An excellent example is the manner in which our Chess icon Vishwanathan Anand was insulted.
The Mumbai-based DNA (August 26) pointedly noted that the University of Hyderabad and the International Congress of Mathematics wanted to award Anand an honorary degree. Shockingly the Government sat on this request “for months”. How come? Is this efficiency? Then some petty official decided for himself that Anand was not an Indian national and thus cannot be honoured! That official should be demoted. Acidly noted DNA: “Our love of red tape and our passion for sticking to tiny little rules is especially intriguing when you consider how easily the powerful break the big laws.”
But was the University of Hyderabad breaking any law? As The Telegraph (August 26) noted, “the granting of degrees across the world and even in India is decided by those who are responsible for running universities-the Vice Chancellors and the constituted bodies of every University”. The HRD Minister can have no say in the matter. So, when Shri Kapil Sibal, the Minister in question pompously said that “we are ready” to hand over the degree to Anand “whenever he wishes”, he was, as The Telegraph pointed out, appropriating for himself the power to grant degrees. Said the paper: “This is an unprecedented move and it diminishes the autonomy and dignity of universities all over the country.” The argument probably is that the University of Hyderabad is government-funded. So what? The paper is quite right in saying that “Shri Sibal has an exalted idea of his own importance” and is acting “like a class monitor, a new avatar in the realm of Indian education”. The paper admonished Shri Sibal for viewing education “as part of a labour force” and for “blurring the critical distinction between the government and institutions of higher learning” and added: “He should let the institutions be and also learn to give up the use of the royal ‘we’. ” A well-deserved comment.
Hindustan Times (August 26) brought to Shri Sibal’s attention that in 2001 the University of Calcutta had bestowed an honorary doctorate on Shri Moam Chomsky, that in 2006 Oxford University had bestowed a doctorate on Dr Manmohan Singh and in that same year the De Montfort College in Leicester, Britain had similarly bestowed a doctorate on Amitabh Bachchan. “A truly confident society is one that seeks to honour merit and the meritorious regardless of constricting markers like a person’s national tag or citizenship… Even if Shri Anand had indeed been Spanich citizen he clearly deserved the honour for being at the pinnacle of his chosen field,” the paper added, sarcastically concluding that an honorary degree should be reserved in all Indian institutions of higher learning “for the government, so that it doesn’t ever stop feeling honourable”. Serves Shri Sibal right.
The Asian Age (August 26) said Anand is an Indian “but so what if he’s not”? It damned the “clueless bureaucrat, one who is lazy, sloppy, fuzzy in the head and out of sync with current affairs” for insulting an Indian “who has reached great heights in his chosen field of endeavour”. It further condemned “the astounding stupidity of the file-pushers” and wondered why the University in question “did not sound an alarm within the system”. The paper wanted to know why should government permission be needed to honour foreign nationals of eminence if a university wishes to do just that. “If such regulations actually exist, as has been reported, than it would appear we are living in a police state”, said The Asian Age adding: “The bungling in Anand’s case points to a particularly serious malaise that afflicts our university system, the existence of which “appears singularly incongruous for a country whose Prime Minister is a distinguished man of letters and known to foster the cause of institutions whose business is knowledge creation”. And to sharpen its views further, the paper said: “A country that is pushing to move ahead in life, to build bridges with the future, and to retain its democratic aspirations, is likely to get nowhere, if its universities are made to kowtow to the whims of the government.”
The truth seems to be that the Prime Minister has no hold on individual Ministers and in recent times we have seen too many of such instances. Happily for Shri Sibal he has won a case against him in a Contempt of Court matter. The problem arose out of his comments as a senior Supreme Court lawyer on judges, published in a magazine brought out by the advocates of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 1995. While dismissing the charge, the Supreme Court ruled-and I am quoting this from the Online and Offline column in The Hindu ( August 30)-that a fair and reasonable criticism of a judgement which is a public document or a public act of a judge concerned with the administration of justice, would not constitute a contempt of court. The Bench, consisting of Justices JM Panchal and AK Patnaik said that Shri Sibal had in his article only discussed the malaise that had afflicted the judicial system as well as the legal community. It found that as a senior lawyer, he had only made a fair and balanced assessment.
It was the view of Justice Panchal who wrote the judgement that a fair reading of Shri Sibal’s message to the souvenir showed that it did not scandalise or tend to scandalise the authority of any court. One would not have been aware of this vital judgement had not Shri S Viswanathan who writes the Online column referred to it. It is sad to note that the Courts whether at the Highest or lower levels are seldom covered by our media. This judgement is very important. It clearly lays down that Truth and Fair Criticism do not come under Contempt of Court. Actually Shri Viswanathan drew attention not to one but to two recent judgements of the Supreme Court in cases of contempt of Court which he said, “should have brought cheer to the champions of the fundamental rights of free speech and civil liberties that the Constitution had given to the people”. And he put it, “The two verdicts have made a significant contribution to the jurisprudence on contempt”. If only our media would give a little more attention to our Courts and correspondingly less to parties given by socialites, it would render great service to the country in addition to raising its status as a responsible public institution. But this is crying in the wilderness.