To attain excellence in academics, cherishing multiple views and ideas is a precondition, which dominant Bharateeya academia and intellectuals have always denied, argues Bibek Debroy, eminent economist and member of NITI AAYOG in his conversation with Prafulla Ketkar, Editor, Organiser. Excerpts:
- You have been in the circuit of intellectuals and academicians for a long time now. How do you perceive this whole debate on tolerance and intolerance?
This debate on tolerance and intolerance is being discussed in all kinds of domain from art and culture to research and science. I will not comment on all of them but will stick to intellectual and academic circuit, which is the one I know about.
I do not think that Bharateeya academic has ever been tolerant. There are three instances in the post-independent Bharat that will verify this claim. First of all, why was Prof Jagdish Bhagwati forced to leave Delhi School of Economics (DSE) and had to go abroad. It was because of great deal of intolerance for his kinds of views in the then prevailing climate at DSE.
There is another prominent name, which we do not find in the list of prominent economists, is Dr Shenoy. He was a member of Planning Commission. He questioned the priorities in financing and planning of the first two five years plans. The result was he was systematically ostracised, could not get a job in Bharat and finally he was hired by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. He is not even remembered in the history of economic thinking in Bharat.
Thirdly, there is a book called ‘Heart of India’ written by Alexander Campbell published in 1958. This book continues to be banned in Bharat, why because it has uncharitable remarks about Nehru, socialism and Planning Commission. None of the people who are protesting now have ever asked why the ‘Heart of India’ is still banned.
- What about your personal experience in this field?
I had a job in Presidency College of Kolkata. It was a contractual job in the research centre after completing my higher studies from the same place. There was a separate department where permanent posts to be filled up by the College Service Commission. My head of the department who was also my teacher, Deepak Banerjee advised me that with the Left Front government you will never get a permanent job here so better you go elsewhere. That is how I had to go to the Gokhale Institute in Pune. So this is completely rubbish that academic system is being tolerant.
- Recently, the Rajiv Gandhi Institute organised a conference on intolerance. You were associated with the Institute for a long period. How was your experience there?
This Institute was contemplated by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when he was still alive and was to be set up in the name of Jawahar Lal Nehru. By the time it actually came up, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and it was named after him. When I joined, I was told to make the Institute self-financing over a period of time. My take was if the Institute was regarded as a Congress think tank then independent projects and funding is not possible. So I accepted the mandate of making it an independent think tank during my tenure of around 8 years.
I tried to make it a platform for all sorts of views. So from Sitaram Yenchuri to free market fundamentalists everybody came on the platform. In the year 2002, a conference was organised on Economy, Society and Reforms in Bharat. It was not supposed to be a typical academic conference where written papers are to be submitted but more of sharing ideas and then preparing papers after the conference. I invited Seshadri Chari, the then editor of Organiser, to speak in the conference. It was taken up in the media as Congress think tank invited Editor, Organiser. Even people from Left and other ideological backgrounds were also sharing their views.
I got a phone call from 10, Janpath on the day of conference. Not Mrs Gandhi. “Madam has asked to withdraw this invitation to Seshadri Chari.” I said I have issued the invitation and if Madam wants to talk to me, let her talk to me. Ten minutes later the phone rings again. “Will you please ask Seshadri Chari to give in writing what he is going to speak?” I said I am not going to do that as I did not ask the other speakers to do so. “No, Madam wants to see it.” Again the phone rings. “What happens if Seshadri Chari goes ahead and speaks about Godhra?” I decided to go ahead after getting confirmation from Seshadri Chari. To my surprise some noted Congress leaders dropped out because Seshadri Chari was invited. I held the conference.
- There was also controversy about your report on Economic freedom?
Yes in 2004, I and a colleague Loveesh Bhandari did an economic ratings of states in which Gujarat was number one. It was not noticed in the same year. In August 2005, a newspaper discovers as municipal elections were being held in Gujarat with heading ‘Congress think tank ranks Modi’s Gujarat as number one’, and all hell broke loose. I was asked for all kinds of explanations. I got a note from Mrs Gandhi on a green sheet saying anything that the Rajiv Gandhi Institute publishes henceforth be politically vetted. I said this is not acceptable to me. I resigned. I was asked to continue for next three months to avoid adding fat to the fire. With the condition of not accepting the stipulation even for this period, I continued and left in December.
If this was not enough, I was removed from the National Commission for Unorganised Sector as a member, which was headed by Arjun Sengupta. I was on two task forces of the Planning Commission; I was thrown out of there. Did anyone of these people object to this? None of them. Besides Loveesh who was my colleague and a journalist, Seetha Parthasarathy, nobody even speak about this issue.
There is a dominant intellectual discourse, especially in social science, which is by and large ‘left wing’, whichever way you define it. It has been a monopoly for a long time. It has sidelined and ostracised people who are outsiders. What is now happening is alternative world view is emerging, alternative view about Bharat is getting stronger. Any monopoly resists entry. The same thing is happening in the academic field.
- How do we then nurture the culture of open ideas in intellectual field?
First of all we have to accept that, especially in social sciences, there cannot be only one answer but there has to be multiple answers. The more such views are the better it is. Who funds academic research is real issue. Whether we like it or not, here is a lot of state patronage in academic research, which is not very transparent. All allocations are based on networks and links. This cycle goes on. That is the reason single dominant view goes round and round in circles.
We need to question all state funded institutions and bring transparency in fund allocation whether UGC, ICHR, ICPR, ICSSR etc. To attain excellence in academics, cherishing multiple views and ideas is a precondition.
- Do you see things moving in this direction?
The churn is certainly happening. The other funding sources are emerging. Other views will have to evolve in breadth and depth, which is happening now. The generational change has taken place and there is a wider acceptance of alternative view in the younger generation. It is a matter of time. The alternative point of view will certainly emerge. For that we need to get back to our culture of acceptance. This has to start from the school curriculum level. Then only academic culture will change.