Research Revamp

Shimla research centre’s proposed collaboration with US-based Hindutva group has scholars worried

Academics are alarmed by changes at the premier Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla is changing and in ways some of its research fellows find troubling.

In the past few months, this premier research institution in the humanities and social sciences has organised several lectures by Hindutva ideologues such as Rajiv Malhotra of the New Jersey-based Infinity Foundation and Ashok G Modak, a former Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Legislative Council in Maharashtra. Malhotra’s organisation promotes Hindutva views on Indian history and culture and counters Western academic research in those fields. The subject of Modak’s lecture was Swami Vivekanand and Veer Savarkar.

The Shimla institution is dedicated mainly to research, and all academic decisions – appointment of fellows, approval of seminars and conferences – are taken by an academic committee, chaired by the director and appointed through a selection committee and ratified by the Central government. At the committee’s last meeting on June 30, a proposal for a collaboration with the Los Angeles-based Dharma Civilisation Foundation was on the agenda. The foundation, with links to Hindutva groups both in America and India, had invited controversy in 2016 by attempting to establish four chairs at the University of California, Irvine. Several academics had resisted the attempt, arguing that these were religious chairs. The foundation’s members have also been involved in an attempt to alter California’s school textbooks to change the way Hindus are represented.

The foundation’s proposal was to “partner with the Indian Institute of Advanced Study to organise a series of workshops, symposia and seminars that will reinvigorate indigenous modes of inquiry and research into the traditions and culture that constitute India’s civilisation”. Its pitch note said the collaboration would also support study of the “ways in which Western frameworks and methods of inquiry limit and distort the understanding of India’s civilisation and culture”, and listed several discourses to be examined – “Enlightenment, Renaissance, Marxist, Freudian, Post-Colonial, Post-Modern, Sub-Altern, Feminist”.

A member of the academic committee said the proposal was added to the agenda by Kapil Kapoor, the chairman of the institute’s governing body who was appointed by the government in February. Kapoor, 78, taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Linguistics and English Studies and established the university’s Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, now called the School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies. The governing body and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study Society, through which the institute was established in the 1960s, were reconstituted by the government as well. Researchers say the centre’s alleged change in direction occurred with this change of guard.

Kapoor, on his part, told Scroll.in that the collaboration has been “only approved in principle” and the committees that will see it through are yet to be formed.

In what some view as a related development, a new director for the institute was appointed in June. Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Makarand Paranjape, a known critic of the Left, is set to replace Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee director Ajit Kumar Chaturvedi, who has held additional charge of the institute since January 2017.

‘Huge loss of autonomy’

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study began operations 1965 in the grand building that had once served as the summer residence of the British viceroys. It was inaugurated by President S Radhakrishnan and planned by him and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The research establishment – known to have one of the best social science and humanities libraries in the country – takes on 12 to 15 fellows every year, each of whom serves two terms. This tenure usually lasts two years but a previous director had introduced short-term fellowship programmes with durations of a week, a month and three months. The fellows, a mix of young and senior academics, are selected from across the country and their projects approved by the academic committee. The fellows organise one or two conferences in a month.

Growing unease among researchers about Kapoor reportedly escalated into conflict when the governing body chaired by him decided on April 30 to keep “in abeyance” approvals for five seminars that had already been cleared by the previous academic committee set up by Chaturvedi. In the case of one seminar, on “The Role of Technology in Democratic Politics in the 21st Century”, invitations had been dispatched and air tickets purchased. Ultimately, the fellow who was organising it managed to make alternative arrangements for funds and held it at the India International Centre in Delhi. The other seminars were later approved, except for one put together by Ashok Vajpeyi, who in 2015 had returned his Sahitya Akademi award in protest against rising intolerance in the country and the Central government’s alleged inaction.

Apart from this decision, a scholar complained that “other activities – the one month and short-term programmes – were all stopped as well”. The researchers also accuse Kapoor of overstepping his mandate and “trying to be both the chair and the director”, weighing in on decisions such as “what should be the criteria for selecting seminars and who should be appointed fellows”. These are typically the province of the director. This led to “a confrontation between the fellows and him in the third week of May”, a scholar said.

Chaturvedi did not respond to the questions posed to him. He promised to answer by Tuesday night. This article will be updated when he does.

Kapoor explained that the reconstitution of the governing body and ensuing administrative delays had disrupted the seminar plans. “These seminars were not cancelled, only held in abeyance,” he said. “The academic committee meeting was supposed to be held on May 3 but because the governing body was reconstituted and our first meeting was on April 30, it had to be postponed. I sent the list of names for the new academic committee in the middle of April but it took two and a half months to get cleared, causing a delay for which I am not responsible. The conferences will be held but they [the fellows] are still continuing with this propaganda.”

But the scholars interpret his actions as interference in the daily business of the institute, where the director – even if he is not based in Shimla, as is the case with Chaturvedi – decides on academic matters. “There is a huge loss of autonomy,” said a fellow. “The day-to-day conferences and seminars are none of the chairman’s business. Unless the governing body sees major procedural issues with a proposal, its job is just to ratify it.”

Another fellow pointed out that the chairman does not attend academic committee meetings.

Problems between researchers at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and its chairman Kapil Kapoor reportedly led to a confrontation in May. (Photo credit: iias.ac.in)
Problems between researchers at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and its chairman Kapil Kapoor reportedly led to a confrontation in May. (Photo credit: iias.ac.in)

‘Are they allergic to Dharma?’

While dismissing the charges of interference, Kapoor does admit to attempting to introduce changes in the culture of the institute. Soon after taking charge, he decreed that all programmes with special-invitee lectures must begin with the lighting of the lamp, a Hindu practice that symbolically dispels darkness or ignorance. “I said the lamp shall be lit by ladies as it is done in our homes,” he said.

The scholars have taken a dim view of these efforts. One described it as a “coercive way in which fellows are made to be party to this takeover”. Another said, “He would turn everything into religious studies if he could.”

Over a month ago, a speaker from Delhi and the scholar organising the event skipped the lamp-lighting. Kapoor, who is based in Delhi and was not present at the programme, is still furious about that. “Had I been there, I would have cancelled the programme – if the first thing cannot happen, what follows cannot either,” he said. “Is it my job to always accommodate others? We have a goddess for knowledge; if they [the West] do not, is that my fault? Do I have to create something for them?”

On the academics’ reservations about the proposed partnership with Dharma Civilisation Foundation, Kapoor asked: “Are they allergic to the word Dharma? Do you know who they are?” He elaborated, “For 10 years they fought the pernicious way in which our Hindu Dharma was written about in the California textbooks and now they have won. They raised $3 million to sponsor chairs in universities but have managed just one. There are Hebrew chairs, Islamic study centres and Jain study centres in the US. But when Hindus propose a Hindu chair, it is opposed. Is that not discrimination? The only alternative to the Western crisis-ridden Abrahamic civilisation is the civilisation they are afraid of.”

But the fellows at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study say they do not spend their days studying only Western culture and practices. “He [Kapoor] shows the same paranoia about others being on the Left or liberal and has a sense of dismissiveness about the present activities of the institute,” said a senior scholar, just a few days shy of completing his fellowship. “He thinks everybody here is working on Marx. They are not. There are scholars here who have worked on Sanskrit, yoga, Odiya literature.”

The director, Ajit Kumar Chaturvedi, did not respond to Scroll.in’s emails seeking his response to the situation at the institution.

Mundane problems

Ideological differences aside, the institute has other, more mundane problems.

“It is a highly privileged place – the fellows get free housing and if someone was working, their salary is also covered,” said one researcher. “But we are also in a very old building that needs constant maintenance.”

The institution hosts 25-30 fellows at a time but also has a large number of young and mid-career academics coming in for short-term programmes. These activities are supported by a staff of about 150, a large chunk of them security staff because parts of the building are open to tourists. According to the scholar, 50% of administrative posts are currently vacant. For instance, the post of secretary, who is in charge of administration, has been vacant since 2014 and the librarian has been given additional charge. “We have no one handling the internet and the computers constantly have virus problems,” said the fellow. “There has been no accountability. We do have many problems and those should be attended to first.”

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