|Cartoon from The Hindu. Used without their permission.
My apologies for being a reactionary.
Mr. Jairam Ramesh – a relatively respected union minister who has given hopes to everyone who are concerned with environment – is an IITB alumnus. He is well known to take u-turns on his statements. He recently made a remark about IIT/IIM which seems to have roused some emotions. His statement is fortified by none other than our HRD minister who once conveniently compared loss of billions of rupee in 2G scam to ‘no-loss to exchequer‘. Given the level of analytical skills of the lawyer and sophomoric wisdom of an ex-IIT’ian, I am surprised that they did not compare IIT with a primary school Nichalpur.
Sarcasm aside, I must admit it was hurtful since I attach IIT with my identity, although much less admiringly than others. After-all I did my M.Tech from there – matka as they are called, a caste lower than B.Techs, yet much superiors to the untouchables Ph.D.’s. Now I am a Ph.D. but it is not a loss of my caste, but rather in accordance of Indian custom of work stratification, it is seen as an oddity or mental problem on my part to show an inclination for work which is not assigned to me by the holy Neo Manu-Sharstra of modern India i.e. to stay or comeback to IIT to get another degree. This is so unthinkable as to qualify you as insane or an ideologue.
Since the sense of an identity is attached here, I am going to be somewhat ‘passionate’ in my arguments. One must keep in mind that ‘passions’ are only a thin veil to hide the lack of reasons. Nonetheless, these comments from Jairam have certain patterns which are ubiquitous and they should not be missed.
I am not sure in what provoked Ramesh to make this comment. But I am pretty confident that somebody must have attacked his identity of an IITian with a tone of sarcasm with some statements like ‘But what worthwhile IIT’ans are doing for society.?” And being a proud IITian, he must defend himself even if it takes shooting from his hip. I have little doubt (or heavily biased) to believe in that IITans are quite reactionary – like of those anchors on news channels. They often transgress that thin line which separates self-congratulation with narcissism. Whether it is pride or narcissism, I am not sure but it is comparable to that of Narendra Modi (read his blogs if you doubt me.). I am not sure whether they have lost all the connections with the real word but hardly anyone have very high opinions about them, save Times of India, they themselves or students who wants to be like them.
The statement made by Ramesh, to put it most politely, is very simplistic and is a sheer act of self-congratulation. Simplification leads to distortions and distortion leads to falsification. Politicians are known to rely on such statements but this case is totally different since there is hardly any political capital in it. It would be hard to know why he would make a such a simplistic and rather offending distinction between the capabilities of students and faculty of an institutes, just to put blame on one? There are other issues related with these kind of comments which will not augur well for the relationships between Prof and students of these institutes. I am no longer on Facebook else it would have been great to know how things are turning up there.
This comment have traces of the common Indian disorder – ‘the desire to prove that they themselves are different from the (rotten) system they are part of‘. This disorder is explicitly seen among civil servants who would not leave a stone unturned to claim that they themselves are great, and all the evil lie in the institute they suppose to serve. Indian armed forces has been an exceptional case in this regard. This might help the individual by putting himself in a good light, but what implication it will have on the institute? Making a devil out of an institute just to make oneself an angel is not only immature but also mischievous. Moreover, when Indians criticize their home institutes they suppose to serve, they tend to forget that an institute is just a reflection of people like him in it.
Ramesh is not the only student with these views. He might be the most famous one among them. There is another case which my guide told me in a tone which had all the signature of hurt. He read in IITB’s magazine ‘Raintree’ what a student wrote when he was about to leave for some big shot university, that ‘he is leaving because IIT faculty does not do any research.’ I am not sure whether the guy was humble enough to say ‘good research’ instead of just research. My guide had no clue why he would say that, “He is a good student. He knows all the faculty very well.’ What this ‘good student’ failed to point out how much he has gained from IIT’s to be in that position. Surely, a good teaching institute may not be a good research institute but it can not be an unworthy institute. It was an interesting downpour of emotions from my supervisor since he also graduated from IIT Bombay.
It all makes sense if a person who is about to leave starts criticizing his parent institute. By doing that he puts himself into a good pose and able to extract the envy and status in a class-conscious society like ours. But the cost is borne by others. The difference between who have left, who stayed and who are about to leave make those students who could not left especially after trying very hard, very conscious of their lowness. One who has stayed in India, only due to the fact that he/she was not able to get the position elsewhere, makes the environment less congenial to research with low self esteem and frustration. IITs are filled with these two kind of people to an unhealthy degree.
Making statement of self-congratulations becomes an natural act of self-defense in an increasingly hostile society. Why one would leave if things are fine with the parent institute? Then people might ask tough and uneasy questions. Are you opportunists? If not, why don’t you take part in improving your own institutes? Do you only care for yourself etc. etc.? If they are to agree to the point that they are only making a dance on their best possible choice and by leaving the shores they are not doing ‘any sort of sacrifice‘; it would make them equal to much hated politicians who are infamous to only care for their own well-being. Professors tend to react in somewhat same ways. To hide their own non-competence as an source of inspiration to those who want to stay, they laments if students are so great and care so much about IITs, why no one stays back? We train them to a point and when we expect them to contribute, they go and serve some other institutes just because they pay in dollars? However most of our faculty, though seem to be deeply concerned about ‘students leaving abroad’ have no problem in sending their own children abroad.
There is no doubt that not all Professors in IIT’s are not up to the mark. There is a lot of dead-weed in academia worldwide but how many to them compare everything with the worst in their institute. Indians have this urge to compare their own institutes with the worst they know in it. At the same time, they will compare outside things — mostly some advanced nation from which they like to borrow all of their ideas — with the best they know about them. I have never seen any Indian asking if such a great man can be at this Indian institute then the institute must, at-least, have the capabilities to provide congenial environment for research. To prove their point, either they will simply ignore him or downplay his achievements or simply call him an odd case. However, they are quite predisposed to assert that, “If such an bad human resource is on this campus, then all of them must be worse or equally bad.” For example, hardly anyone care to point out that the work Amartya Sen did which qualified for Nobel Prize was done at University of Delhi. Browns are very reluctant to believe that any other brown can be better than them.
I have only met a few Indians who can by themselves are able to classify who is great and who is mediocre. At best, they tends to rely of rankings done by ‘someone’ about whom they would never ask a question. They tends to believe that ‘Western scholarship could be the only scholarship’.Well that is expected from someone – to say in Rabbi Shergil derisive phrase – ‘brown wanna be white’. These kind of blind borrowing from an advanced society just because it looks glamorous without any calculation of how much they will be able to absorb it; not only say about their own disregard for their fellow scholar, but also makes a statement about our society’s intellectual health.
The problem of lack of quality research in IIT or any universities (India or abroad) need not lie in lack of money. A cursory look at the history would tell how many of the greatest researches were fond of money or worked on the universities in the first place. Surely we do not have advanced facilities like most of the US university have but that is also true we did never had people like Madam Curie, Adison, Noether, Kron etc. Most of them either worked outside of an Institute of sat on its margins. But in these days, it may almost be impossible to make a mark outside universities since the flow of information and data is guided by well-protected channels which are hard if not impossible to be accessed from outside universities systems. True, that certain fields need a lot of capital investment like chip-fabrication, nano-technology etc but what about theoretical research in sciences?
What matter most for the intellectual health of an Institute is the culture and tradition of research developed in it by its habitats. Western universities are much better because they are able to get equally good talents they loose every year to others. In IIT’s there is a colossal perennial vacuum. What is the point in having more number of scholars and professors if increasing the size of a community does not translate into quality. In consequence, we do grow in size, but ‘could no longer conform to the original concept of a self-governing community of scholars — they are neither self-governing nor do they have a sense of community or scholarship‘. And to its alumni, it seems that donations are better suited that their skills and experiences. In India, green-backs are ranked much higher over gray cells.
I am not sure how increasing salaries and perks for Profs which are already at obscene level – do you know per capita income of an Indian? Compare it with US and their Profs salaries – would help them make existing Profs a better researchers or attract other great researchers. First of all, I am not sure if the best of the researchers are too fond of money to come to the IIT/IIM where culture and tradition of research are less than what one desires. If money really attracts talent then Dubai were suppose to be the capital of World research. The problem may lie somewhere else. Let me quote DD Koshambi which is not exactly related with the topic in hand but it has some insight,
The greatest obstacles to research in any backward, under developed country are often those needlessly created by the scientist’s or scholar’s fellow citizens…The meretricious ability to please the right people, a convincing pose, masterly charlatanism, and a clever press agent are indispensable for success.
The statement of Ramesh as an IITians only shows how much defensive they are getting when tough questions are asked. If people ask uneasy questions about IITians then it is an outcome of their own narcissism (some would say misplaced pride or arrogance) and their own incapabilities in competing in this world. And if there is any threat to IITs or to any institute of religion in this world, it always lies within. Its really crass to see how happily product of IITs map their intellectual superiority to the pay packages they receive which is more of an outcome of Globalization than their own innovations in economy. They seem to be quite happy to pick up any job as long that salary is directly translated from dollars to rupees.
To say that IIT’ians are different from bright students outside it is a white lie. They are from the same social pool and have the same skewed social profile. I am also not sure about the claim of their intellect – even in much hyped analytical skills. There is much more to intellect than being successful in some competitions. We know very well that IAS officers are not the best scholars of Indian society. Quality of their project works done in their degrees program says it all – which is still infinitely better than most of 2nd tier colleges where projects are bought in market. But I must say that this quality has been improving after the new curriculum has been introduced by IITB.
And about ranking in the world. I am still perplexed why almost all of them fail to see that IIT’s/IIM’s would not qualify as universities in the first place. We do not have departments like Arts, History, Anthropology, Economics, Linguistics etc. which would make us an impressive university. Its like comparing an apple with a basket of apples. Comparing unequal quantities to make a statement about their quality does not look like a right methodology. On top of it, We are rather a new institutes still learning and experimenting. We are at best a professional college (or call it an institute) which works and can afford to work in narrow areas of research. On top of it, there is a huge demand on IITs to teach those who somehow do not like to use taught skills despite of their claims of being ‘intellectual’. In one sense we are number one. There are no institutes in this world in which so much is spend to train a student with the guarantee that she is not going to use her training.
What is worse about these kind of comments that it embolden those who take pride in their abilities to find fault with everything (excluding themselves). And it irritates almost all of other Indians who are emotionally depended on their group for their approval to an unusual degree. More importantly, it create unnecessary hurdle in the ways of those who are passionately attached to the idea of IIT as an institute. And the real issue is mostly lost from the debate in which no one seems to be interested. After all, Mr. Ramesh, why no one cares to point out how many institutes in India have stood the test of time?
Mr. Ramesh, reading your articles in EPW has given me an impression that you like to read. I’d seriously recommend that you read Rashdal’s book published in 1990 titled, “The universities of Europe in the middle ages.“. There was a time in Oxford when you could buy a degree just by paying. Universities, like societies, evolves their own pace. Sometimes they are at their worst, sometimes they witness their golden time. I am not sure how can one help in building an institute if one does not ready to give them more time than an individual is allowed to grow.
The lack of appreciation of research on our university can be traced to history. Unlike western universities, at the time of inceptions, who used to grant admission only to a certain class (baronis filius (sons of noblemen), equities filius (sons of knights), armigeri filius (sons of esquires), generosi filius (sons of gentlemen), plebe filius (sons of commoners), and clerici filius (sons of clergymen) and no daughter of anyone, Indian universities were quite open to all. The first Indian universities were stabilized in 1857 in the three presidency capitals of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras and they took the London’s university their model – teaching based rather than research based. Since then due to pressure to teach a large number of students, and given the lack of Renaissance in India, it is not at all surprising that we do not have culture of research in our universities. If education is a tool to make life convenient then it can not be conducive to research. Research is not known to be an outcome of a convenient life.
In last 60 years, IIT’s have done much to the nation by remaining floated as an island of excellence in this sea of mediocrity. It is not in our control if our trained students chose to depart. Institutes or universities are not a place where moral education is taught or should be taught. It is a job of family and society where the child grows up. If government is so concerned about it then they should do something by teaching middle class people that the sucking the system for their benefit is not sustainable.
The most troubling part of the behavior of IIT students in particular and middle class in general, Mr Ramesh, I must tell you, is their coldness towards the idea of (IITs as) an institute. There is no benefit having students, no matter how bright, who do not like to contribute. One of our professors used to say in the class, and now he does not do it any more, that at least 20% of us [students] should come back to IITB. Asking 20% of students to come back to IITB is quite a bold thought on his part and I wonder how he is able to convince himself that this is even remotely possible. If the ‘student community’ of any institute does not care to be a part of its intellectual traditions and culture but somehow shows a tremendous liking in being unsparing in its criticism of it, just to prove that they are superior or some world-class, then I am pretty sure that this is nothing more than the narcissism of the neurotic, no matter how loosely you define the term.