On October 5, India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission, wrote to all universities requesting them to peruse and adopt a “model syllabi for psychology” developed by an expert committee.

It promptly invited complaints of overreach from teachers. Most argued that universities already have departments that are perfectly competent to frame their own syllabi and that a homogenised curriculum is not desirable.

Others feared the change would introduce writings by right-wing ideologues to university classrooms.

In the letter, the University Grants Commission had described the existing syllabi as “neither keeping pace with the recent developments in the discipline nor fulfilling the societal needs”. They are “not rooted in the national ethos”, it said. The syllabi in question were not available on the commission’s website.

The controversy has distressed at least Girishwar Misra, vice-chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Wardha, Maharashtra. Formerly of Delhi University’s Department of Psychology, Misra was a member of the expert committee that wrote the new model syllabus.

“This revision is a step in the direction of creating a synergy between Indian social reality and current disciplinary developments,” he said. “Universities have the freedom to consult it and use as per their need. That has been the past practice and that will continue.”

Misra spoke to Scroll.in about how the model syllabus was developed, why a revision was thought necessary and Indian psychology in general. Edited excerpts:

Why was a revision undertaken and who was involved?
Restructuring of the curriculum is a continuous process and each university is supposed to undertake this exercise. However, very few universities and teaching departments were doing it systematically. In order to update the courses, the University Grants Commission entrusted the task of course revision to a committee of subject experts for each discipline. For psychology, the first such attempt was completed in 2001. A similar effort was initiated again around 2015. A committee of about 10-15 scholars from all over India was formed, chaired by Dr BN Gangadhar of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore.

The revision is within the general framework followed by the universities. The overall structure of the programme was analysed and keeping the developments in the discipline in mind, the model framework was developed. Next, papers were identified and content developed [for each] on the basis of consultations. Efforts were made to get inputs from the faculty. The Bachelor, Master’s, MPhil and PhD courses were drafted, debated and finalised.

The UGC’s letter said existing programmes are not “fulfilling societal needs” and are “not rooted in the national ethos”. Can you explain what those observations meant?
There are vast differences in existing psychology courses across universities as regards the coverage of issues, content, cultural sensibility as well as societal relevance. The need to revamp is felt by most teachers and practitioners.

The social science disciplines, including psychology, were introduced in India as a Euro-American import. The theories, issues and problems were borrowed from a different context.

Most prevailing courses help to learn more about the cultural practices, norms and nuances of the western world.

But human conduct has cultural roots. Our notion of marriage, for instance, is very different from the American one. My own work has been dedicated to understanding poverty and deprivation. In our [the Indian] context, these are connected to social structures such as caste and the rural-urban divide, access to opportunities is distributed differently, and caste and class associations are differently configured.

The reality experienced in [our] society is mapped with the help of alien concepts because the western world has been the reference point. In addition to being misleading, this has resulted in emulation, loss of creativity and poor contribution to the growth of knowledge. The dialogue with society and culture, which is a must, is missing.

Over the years, the need to bring the cultural context to the centre has been repeatedly emphasised in academic discourse. The result [of the revision] has been offering courses in cross cultural psychology, cultural psychology and indigenous psychology. There is an emphasis on the use of Indian material and culturally-contextualised learning.

Where else has there been such a shift?
Several international academic movements have started towards indigenisation of the discipline. There is growing scholarship focusing on culture-specific disciplinary developments. Indian psychology, rooted in the Indian knowledge system and cultural practices, is one example.

Japan, China, South Korea – each has its own notions of self, society and family and scholarship based on them. Philippines saw a movement to establish indigenous theories and practices. Even many Canadian psychologists do not accept American theories.

The International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology was founded in the early 1970s. There is also an Asian Association of Indigenous and Cultural Psychology [which started in 2010] but the first book on the subject came out in the 1990’s. I had written a paper on it in the American Psychologist in 1996.

The debates over these issues form a genuine academic concern. The westernisation and Americanisation of social science is a common issue faced by most disciplines. The recent report on social science research in India edited by Professor Sukahdeo Thorat, former chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and published by Oxford University Press, offers insight into the existing scenario. The ICSSR has already published surveys of research in psychology which document the progress made.

What was your reaction to criticism the UGC’s letter elicited?
There is resistance to change among academics too. Dozens of seminars and symposia are conducted every year to address these issues and several volumes critiquing the situation have been written. The last UGC model course developed in 2001 was a step in the direction of creating a balance in the curriculum.

The current revision is a similar step, which incorporates the contemporary developments in the discipline and broadens the scope for learning and teaching the discipline with the goal of creating cultural and social sensibility. Culture is considered not just in politics but in academics too.

The changes are certainly not revolutionary. They respect the plurality of psychological knowledge traditions. The resulting structure is in tune of international scenario in the discipline.