Posted by: Vikram | March 14, 2009

Where are the scholars ?

As I began my explorations of the views of India in the academic world, I came across a worrying phenomena. The people doing research on India, never seem to be based in India. They were often Indians, who were professors in American universities. Out of the 15 odd papers I have discussed in this blog so far, only 3 have been authored by researchers in India, 2 by the same author. Research on development and political issues, it seems is not a priority in Indian universities. There are many research centres, but these are not educational institutes.

Shouldnt the best people working on India’s problems, be based in India, interacting and training a new generation of Indian students, advising the Indian government and talking to the Indian media ? The absence of these scholars is causing a serious deficit in Indian’s understanding of their country. Without fundamental issues being highlighted and talked about by experts, many young Indians are supporting naive and reactionary solutions to the country’s myriad problems. ‘Military rule’, ‘its because of the Muslims’, ‘its because of reservations’, ‘lets shoot all politicians’ seem to have taken place of rational thought and debate. A biased, irresponsible media further contributes to this naivete.

The Indian government has to take the lead in making Indian universities, institutions that are capable of hosting and nurturing capable researchers. Engineers can build the physical infrastructure of a nation, but someone needs to build and develop the institutions that nurture democracy. Indian parents and their wards have to change their attitude towards the social sciences. When I was growing up, they were the butt of many jokes. Supposedly, studying the society of a country dealing with more problems than possibly all other countries put together was not as important as having the next Intel chip being designed by an Indian1.

India’s billionaires could take the lead in establishing universities that are more comprehensive than the segregated ‘institutes’ we have today2. But many are too busy buying and selling cricketers and partying with Bollywood celebrities to have the foresight.

An academic viewpoint is what it is: ‘academic’. It means very little if what it suggests cannot be implemented. But if the right things are to be done, then someone has to do the hard work and find out what the problems are, suggest solutions. If there is a void there, it can be filled by something much more dangerous than the problem itself.

1: This is not to say that designing chips in India is not important. The middle class needs to be nurtured and developed. But it also has to develop more sophisticated views of India and its problems. And I dont think that NDTV, IBN and Star News will do the job.

2: Whats common about the names Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Rice ? Two things. Great Universities. Very rich businessmen.


  1. Do you think that the relative suppression of freedom of speech is also responsible for this trend? In the US, you can pretty much say anything in a public forum and get away with it. More so if you are an academic working within a university environment. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are valued and furiously protected.

    In India, we are developing a culture of taking offense at every petty thing anyone says. Even within a university environment, saying social or political things may be rife with problems from political parties or other groups.

    I wonder how much the government will want to promote free thinking and scholarship in the social sciences. The present political structure is based on ignorance and irrational thinking. Why would they want to change the status quo? I think the academics themselves have to take lead, develop real universities and protect their academic freedoms.

    Yes, the practical aspects of freedom of speech in India leave a lot to be desired. But I dont think academics have been targeted, atleast publicly. In many of the kind of issues I am talking about (health, nutrition, education), I think you can say what you want, but I am not sure. Of course, things can change very quickly if you say something about a particular community.

    I think the principal reasons are the lack of real universities like you point out and the general low status given to social studies. The best way to know would be to survey the researchers based in the US themselves.

  2. I have done academic work on India sometimes; I have worked in Indian universities at others. I have also taught and done research in universities abroad. There are three striking differences.
    1. I have seen nothing comparable to the libraries of great western universities in India.
    2. I have seldom come across challenging students in India.
    3. I have had almost no colleagues in India who were interested in my work and prepared to challenge it.
    I finally gave up on Indian academic institutions after I was offered a chair in Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. They had a rule under which they would take a third of my outside earnings; I found I would be paying them to work for them. When I pointed this out to them, they said they would exempt the projects I brought with me, but that after that, the 1/3 rule would apply.
    Things have got better after coming of Internet; even then, not enough is available on the net to do decent work on India; in particular, very little of official material is available.
    Indians in universities abroad write about India because that is the slot in which they are placed by those universities. If I were teaching a course on India year after year, I would find it easy to turn out a book once in three years. Or get money for a conference and publish a collection of conference papers.

    Mr. Ashok, thank you for your insight and welcome to my blog. I would imagine that part of the reason you did not find challenging students would be because of the attitudes towards the social sciences ingrained in them from childhood.

    Academia in India is really in a dire situation, as your experience shows.

  3. You have asked questions Vikram, but what about the answers? I too have asked myself this question and have not come up with the answers. So many bright people but no research in universities. One answer could be the kind of culture in educational institutes. It does not encourage research, which is basically original thinking. There are few places in India which encourage original thinking. In fact not even industry encourages it! Often mediocrity is rewarded and at times I feel people cannot recognize originality.

  4. Scholars are just suffering the fall of academic culture and orthodox pattern of doomed universities of India.

  5. There are several reasons. The main one is money, fo course, research academics are highly qualified people and many of them probably wouldn’t be earning a similar salary if they remained academics but they do need a reasonable income to maintain their incentives. Most are middle class/upper middle class people and it would be difficult to maintain their lifestyle on an academic salary in India. Much easier in the US where professors can be reasonably well paid and even here in the UK, it is possible to make a living from academia without too much difficulty. There is also the question of social prestigel; few of my Indian students would want to go into academia and teaching as they somehow see it as second-best or a sign of failure – which is strange because they are extremely respectful of teachers on a personal level. Our culture is a bit too materialistic and amongst many of my colleagues, they do wonder why I would choose a career in rsearch compared to something more lucrative.

    the other thing is an absolute lack of a research culture; one senior IAS officer who was kind enough to read an outline of my thesis was shocked by the bibliography and said he couldn’t beleive that ‘foreigners’ knew so much about India. I told him that the best work on India has been coming from either Indians based abroad or non-Indians there for sometime now.

    Even outstanding Indian scholars like Amrtya Sen, Partha Chatterjee, MN Srinivas tend to gravitate outside India once they have done their initial work within the country. It is rare that we get people like Andre Beteille who effectively spend their instutionational life within India. Given the pettiness and politics therein I don’t blame those who want to leave.

    But you are right it is a problem and it is one reason why our elite is so ill-informed and why there is so little debate. On the other hand the US has one of the best research sectos in the world in the social sciences and the level of public debate there is quite disappointing on a lot of current issues.

    More literacy and education will be an important way to change things imo; more funding would help also. Too often academia is seen simply as a stop-gap or a fallback option for the less successful members of the middle classes rather than as a vocation.

    Conrad, I would highly encourage you to read the The South Asian Idea blog I have blogrolled, in particular the series on governance in Pakistan. It seems the Pakistani elite suffers from the same problem as the Indian elite, a biased, incomplete and naive understanding of the ground realities of their country.

    I dont know if more literacy alone can do the job. It is the type of literacy we provide to our kids, things have changed a little bit with the introduction of the new CBSE curriculum.

    As for universities, as far as I know, the only university set up by a big business house that seems to be doing any kind of social research is the DA-IICT in Ahmedabad, it was set up by the Ambanis.

  6. Vikram, Martha Nussbaum is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago. She has a recent article in the Boston Review on Professor Mushirul Hasan, a leading scholar in India with many outstanding contributions to his credit.

    What is more interesting than the article are the comments by Indians. It is quite clear that they have no training in the social sciences and no clue about how to debate or argue their point of view. It is a frightening picture.

    BTW – We share this concern about what the future portends if this ability to reason and debate continues to decline at its current rate. See the article on education on The South Asian Idea:

  7. Vikram,

    As mentioned by Conrad, the gist of the answer to why academic researchers on Indian society don’t stay in India is “money” or lack of it.

    This might be changing in recent years as Indian GDP grows. But social sciences are bound to be treated as second class subjects for quite some time. This is a trend even in developed nations.

    Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that social sciences are not keeping up with the pace of our societal change, and are increasingly becoming irrelevant. Something akin to religion during the age of enlightenment, when a significant drop is observed in people enrolling in monasteries.

    Academic rigor that has become part and parcel of many disciplines is not being encouraged in social sciences. This is probably due to the fact that people who gravitate to social sciences are usually people who hated mathematics in their schools. But in the current age, social sciences are becoming increasingly entwined with computer science.

    Specifically, economics and computer science are increasingly exchanging ideas. Herbert Simon, an economist, was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence (he later won the Turing award). A similar confluence is bound to occur in other disciplines such as politics, sociology, law etc. as these fields become increasingly seen through a computational perspective.

    Just as Newton bridged the gap between terrestrial and celestial mechanics, we need modern Newtons in social sciences to bridge the gap between computational and human mechanics.

    Nice comment Kiran. You have made some very good points. I agree that social sciences, in general, are treated as second class subjects in the US, but I dont think that this is the case at the very top of the education pyramid. A history or economics graduate from Harvard etc. is highly respected, and has a shot a decent life through academia. Dont forget all the quality journalists America produces, who are generally products of liberal arts programs at elite universities.

    Yes, computation is increasingly pervading all sciences, physical and social. In fact, the combination of computation and physical science is what my PhD program is about. There are some people here who are doing work in computation and health, also computation and economics. Computation and social mechanics might be hard to work on because human behaviour is inherently chaotic and non-linear.

    Bridging computation and physical sciences has been relatively easy because the models for physical science were ready and had been studied for many years. Bridging computation and social sciences might be much more difficult, as the objective of social scientists had never been to create mathematical models of human behaviour.

  8. there are many studies done on india by indians and they are not published in leading western journals that is why we seldom read them! ( i hope you know the network between the editor, the publisher and the professor )
    it is easier to get published here than in india

    when westerners do such studies they are heavily funded and it goes towards framing the policy work – that is mostly the direction it takes and that is why it is done in the first place.

    most indian universities do not have the rigour – publish or perish and such things will lie buried in the department library even if they do research! but there has been a delta change in the last few years. we see more now. some of my friends who work at TISS do some good stuff.

    the publishing industry in india is only begining to take shape.

    how about the studies written in regional languages — it seldom sees the light outside the particular university in india. does the english speaking crowd even bother to read them? there is already a wide gap here.

    Westerners have their own perspective on india. But that does not mean that it is correct. it works for their policy. it does not have to work for india. their history, their background …ditto south asian.

    i recently heard jeffrey sachs at NYU – He said ..
    sitting in the ivory tower and researching is good ..but what is great is getting out there, studying and solving problems and that does not happen at the ivory tower !. ivory tower and ph.d’s does not all. ( physical sciences is a differnt matter altogether and social sciences completely another)
    he may have said that because the west has too much of research and india does not have enough. but that is because dollar is powerful than the ruppee. even UGC has to get funding from foreign countries !

  9. Look,the billioners in India, like every where else,want a definate ROI.Govt’s attitude and the lack of “feel”by the scholars is a reason.When we complain about the Govt, I think we are justified.We put together 534 people to Govern the country.Have they ?That is it.Get the right set of people ,and you will get gold from the scholars in the country.

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