Free thinkers and politics:Words and echoes

2014-04-05

Ekantipur

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It was a nondescript day like any other I have known in my long university career. That day, I was doing my familiar karma with three colleagues at what is supposed to be a zone of peace in academia — the University Service Commission in Kirtipur, which, as one member of the commission said, had remained outside the reach of “bricks and bulls” (title of architect Sudarshan Tiwari’s book). My assignment was simple, the like of which I must have done many times in my 40 years of teaching and related karma at Tribhuvan University (TU). This experience has taught me to believe that a university teacher’s pedagogic works and his or her ideological pursuits are always imbricated. I have felt so about myself, and found that others too realise that.

Teachers have dabbled in politics, some have attempted to show their maverick avatars; and quite a significant number of them have helped to form the elitist texture of the university by working hand in glove with the non-party politics espoused by the Shah kings and Panchayat elite. We went through the rigmarole as demanded by our careers at TU. I do not have illusions about it. I do not swallow the stories of those who project themselves as beleaguered modernist political heroes or living martyrs at the university.

Dreams are often couched in the language of ideologies that do not have clear pictures. Ideology is mutually created hegemony. We at the oldest university found ourselves on the fringe, but so many of us made forays into power structures and used opportunities. To be fair, some academics have made contributions, written good works and published them, opened good institutions, presented some good models of education and served the country by working in various important places. They have become experts, political scientists, economists, trade experts, writers and scientists. Some of them have certainly kept aloft the torch of freedom of both a democratic and communistic nature. But others became instrumental in building up the Panchayat one-party system.

The above stream of consciousness overwhelmed me some 10 days ago in Kirtipur. A member of the commission stepped outside and returned quickly to tell us as if something ominous had happened. We were unmoved. All four of us have lived through such moments of criss-cross ironies and suddenness — sudden attacks, sudden wreckages, sudden fires and sudden reversals of university decisions. The imbrication of ideology and academics has performed miracles at different times in our careers too.

One senior colleague among us asked calmly, “What is the matter? Are people coming to whisk us out and burn the files?” The slightly nervous member reiterated the same language that he must have used on previous occasions too. I said to my colleagues, “It is the same template that we are all familiar with. Let us go.” Outside, a woman who had come for an English lecturer’s interview with a barely one-week-old baby protested. But her feeble voice was drowned in the hullabaloo. I was not moved by the imminent threat of what I did not know. I said, however, you can always talk with the students. Out we came. But what I saw outside the iron railings surprised me to the core.

There were no students. That was a crowd of university teachers including, curiously, former heads of offices inside the building, even the one from where we were emerging. Some were young and others nearly hitting retirement age. I felt a little stupid for failing to update myself about new developments. The commotion was created by no other than so many seniors and a few junior professors and administrators. I knew practically each one of them. I went over to a senior professor of economics, my friend for decades. He is a pukka academician. But what he said did not make much sense to me. He said, “Look, they deceived the parties. The prime minister appointed vice-chancellors without the consent of the major political parties.”

I thought I would do a little survey there. I asked several academics and bureaucrats the same question, and invariably received the same answer from each one of them. They all said that the three major parties, the UCPN (Maoist), the Nepali Congress and the United Marxist Leninist (one faction), had not endorsed the vice-chancellors’ appointments. I could only guess that the criteria for selecting university vice-chancellors were first political party loyalty and then academic merit.

I somehow did not like the partisan method of appointing VCs at universities. I did not like the style of the prime minister who was making appointments everywhere in his very last days in office. He has resigned his post since then. I also strongly dissent from the attempts to revive the old monarchical culture in present times. But that is a different matter. As a free citizen, I am free to oppose or support the appointments. But what shocked me was the total erasure of what could be called a free academic spirit in that milieu. If such are our inclinations, how can we blame the political parties for dividing universities and academics among themselves? It seems we have given the best of ourselves to the political parties. The serious consequence of this decimation of a sense of independence and freedom with one major historical stroke is that we are ceasing to be a free civil society.

Only the other day, I was reading an article written by a Nepali British professor (Surya Subedi, Kantipur, August 11) suggesting that free thinkers be invited to help in the transition process as a way of diminishing the bitter power contestation among political parties and in writing the constitution. We must critically and carefully look at the strength of free thinking in Nepal now. Though one cannot draw a line between free thinking and partisan allegiances, we can at least formulate certain principles regarding free thinking and sense of independence.

We may also question whether we are talking about the creation of an elite class that takes free thinking as an extra feather in its hat. How can we then participate in the political process of transition if we remain aloof from politics? However, I do not want to confuse the role of academics in the political process with total subservience to the already confused and divided partisan demands.

The large crowd of academics was not opposing the increasing method of recruiting party workers to academic positions. Instead, they were showing ire against the chancellor, the outgoing prime minister, for hastily appointing vice-chancellors prior to unanimous decisions of the major political parties in this matter. Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal was not acting with the sense of promoting a free academic culture in the country through his appointments. He was making hay while the sun shone. He has gone now, leaving everything in the same mess he had inherited. And sadly, the university appointments of academics also suffer from the same spectre of indecision that haunts politics in Nepal today. Academic freedom means that the people in this profession should be truly free. Ironically, this is where we need the intervention of free thinking again. 

(Source: The Kathmandu Post)