Ashok R. Kelkar





Most people admit, somewhat reluctantly perhaps, that there is something seriously wrong with research in India.  (It is like, say, cinema in India : India has one of the largest film industries in the world, but Indian cinema very rarely comes up to international standards whether one thinks of international film festivals or the international film market.)  Now then, one can ask the question : what is wrong with research in India? A rude answer will be : Nothing wrong, there isn’t any research going on in India.  Students go through the motions of making research because they are looking for a degree; teachers do so as long as they are looking for professional advancement; research officers do so just because they have to put something in the annual report (they even have a term for it, kh¡n¡p£r¢) : R & D departments exist solely to bring in some tax relief.  A sad answer will be: (borrowing the words Tuk¡r¡m the 17th century poet) “mole” gh¡tale” rad¡ya / n¡h¢  ¡”s£”n¡h¢nm¡y¡” (when one hires a mourner one mustn’t expect either actual tears or affectionate attachment).  A polite answer will be : well, those concerned perhaps don’t quite know what research is all about, they know not what they are missing.


            Some people think that this is only a recent phenomenon, but such is not the case. As far back as 1886, Grand Duff (the well known historian’s son) was saying in the Chancellor’s address to the Madras University convocation : “Are you satisfied with what you are doing for your own literature?  How many of you are doing anything or seriously proposing to do anything to ad to the literature?  I do not refer to books of information merely imparting a little of the knowledge of the West but to books containing something that is at once new and striking, books adding at least a paragraph to the things already said that can be acknowledged to be at once new and true.”  There have been generations of Indian professors distinguished in their field writing nothing in their whole career except perhaps some reproductive textbook or survey.  The only thing that has changed in recent years is that writing something that can pass off as research has become more fashionable, thanks to the greater supply of qualified people and closer contact with the western academic or industrial establishment.  Indeed the lag between original Western research and its Indian avatar has been narrowed from 40-50 years to 5-10 years, thanks to quicker transport of Western periodicals and books to India.  India has one of the largest research industries in the world today.


            What passes for research, then, in India?  Indians appear to think that research is searching again for what others have said on the subject rather than searching carefully and systematically for something not yet found.  As R¡md¡s contemporary of Tuk¡ram said, vivaralen ci viuarven” (elucidate the elucidated).  In ancient and medieval India, there certainly was a tradition of determined, systematic search (¡nv¢kÀik¢ as they called it) But over the centuries due to a variety of social, cultural, and economic factors, the  ¡nv¢kÀik¢ tradition lost out to the penchant for reproduction or repetition (abhy¡sa).  In the earlier traditions, a person was not entitled to be called a pa¸·ita unless he satisfied three progressively more exacting criteria.  To begin with, he was supposed to have at hand all the known facts and insights from the subject scattered through the earlier texts (that is, to be capable of upasthiti).  Next, he was expected to be skilled in applying this body of knowledge, (vidy¡) to some fresh problems (prakara¸a) fitting it within the available system (that is to be capable of vyutpatti).  Finally, he was expected to be able to handle a problem that is recalcitrant to known derivations by devising some new mode of derivation to elucidate it (that is, capable of upapatti). Gradually, the insistence on novel discovery or upapatti faded out; later, even routine application of theory to fresh problems or vyutpatti was not demanded, mere storage and retrieval or upasthiti was deemed sufficient for someone to be called a pa¸·ita. Feats of memory were mistaken for learning and intelligence.  The new wine of western learning was largely consigned to the old bottles for storage, English replacing Sanskrit (or Arabic).  Grant Duff could not help noticing this sad fact; like his father he was friendly to India and Indians.  The situation has not changed much since.  Teachers and superiors in the Indian set up positively discourage or even penalize novelty or originality in their students or subordinates.  They feel insecure if not downright jealous.  (I speak here and later in this essay from personal experience or observation).  A research guide will readily impose his own views on the research student.  (In worse cases, they have been known to quietly dictate the thesis to the student, who is expected to be grateful for the teacher’s kindheartedness; this is not regarded as malpractice at all!).


            How do we go about changing this mindset once we freely accept that there is something terribly and radically wrong with research in India?  There are no quick and easy remedies, but let me offer some concrete suggestions.


1.                  Higher education should be taken as seriously as primary education and literacy.  Seed plots are as important as nursery gardens or crop fields.  Government and private agencies should worry about these.  Higher education is no low-priority decorative luxury.


2.                  Good research  can flourish only in a climate of research.  A research worker does not write only for other research workers : there are and should be takers for his work among academics and non-academics that are not research workers some of whom may indeed put his work to practical uses. It will be unrealistic to expect more than a small number of the entrants to an educational system to end up as research students.  The system should provide for all the three phases of knowledge, namely, upasthiti (storage and retrieval of available facts and insights), vyutpatti (routine processing), and upapatti (devising of new routines of processing), that we have already mentioned earlier. Broadly speaking, the school and undergraduate phases build the student’s capacity for upasthiti, the master’s level phase builds the student’s capacity for vyutpatti, and the research degree phase builds thestudent’s capacity for upapatti.  It is important to ensure a continuity between the phases so lat the first phase anticipate vyutpatti in a small way, let the second phase anticipate upapatti and maintain upasthiti, and let the third phase maintain upasthiti and vyutpatti. So a student admitted to the third phase will have had already tasted the excitement of research before he does any research methodology course meaningfully.  Again, those who haven’t gone in for a research degree will this way form a better audience for good research coming from others. 


Now how does one anticipate vyupatti in the first phase?  Teachers and textbook writers should keep linking facts to principles rather than present isolated facts and should present principles in the light of facts so that students should be encouraged to detect familiar principles underlying unfamiliar facts.  There should be a ban on idiotic questions like ‘give the definition of ..’ or ‘what do you know of…’  The present mindset with its emphasis on memorization of facts and principles (so that a student can get along by mugging up theorems and shirking ‘riders’ in geometry) has to be fought centimetre by centimetre.  And how does one anticipate upapatti in the first and second phases?  Teaching, testing, and grading should keep encouraging originality and initiative and presenting learning situations without giving ready-made answers.


How does one maintain upasthiti in the second and third phases?  Teachers should show by percent and example that learning and looking for new inputs in the way of facts and insights never cease.  Any testing should be designed to keep the students on their toes and discourage complacency about their past storage.  Forgetting is as natural as learning. And how does one maintain vyutpatti in the third phase?  Teacher’s should keep reminding the students that any new fact is not worth storing just because it is new and any new claim to insight is not worth adopting just because it is new; sense of relevance should filter new facts and sense of critical scrutiny (par¢kÀa¸a) should filter newly proposed models.  Intellectual models are not car models or fashion models!


It will be seen that the mischief lies now in going in for examinations but rather in for examinations that do not examine.


3.                  A good farmer takes special care in cultivating his seed plot.  The Government did the right thing therefore in exempting the atomic energy and space research agencies from reservation quotas based on caste and tribe, economic status, gender, or correction of regional imbalance.  In future, if any research department or agency shows outstanding performance let us show our appreciation by extending the same exemption to it whether in respect of student admission or staff recruitment.  The respective groups claiming reservations should show an enlightened self-interest and welcome this small gesture towards the eventual long-term discarding of the reservation crutches.  Crutches are crutches whether claimed as a right or offered as charity.


4.                  Our research degrees have become cheap and vested interests have developed for keeping them cheap.  Even modest reforms like making a second class at the Master’s level a prerequisite for a Ph.D. admission or inserting an M.Phil. degree between and Ph.D.have been stoutly resisted and finally defeated.  Our Ph.Ds are actually of four types :


Malpractice PhDs (plagiarism is a relatively mildcase; I have known students getting a Ph.D. without even submitting a thesis!).


            Consolation PhDs (the guide and examiners say : the poor fellow has obviously no research aptitude, but he has spent so many precious years and collected so much raw data; let us award a degree to this student on humanitarian grounds).


            Routine PhDs (that do not go beyond routine processing without any innovation).


                        PhDs proper (that really come up to international standards)


            The present system is obviously highly unfair to the last group.  Now under the pressure of globalization of higher education, brilliant students are going to desert our own universities on a large scale. What do we do?  Let us at lest try and root out malpractice awards; and introduce grades.  If Ph.D. First Class/second Class/Pass Class on the certificate does not look nice, there is another equally honest way out. It is at present open for the University to award Ph.D degree to a candidate for D.Litt. or DSc. If the thesis does not quite come up to the Dlitt/DSc standard.  Why not let the University similarly award a Ph.D. candidate a second MA (by Research) in stead of a consolation Ph.D. and an Mphil in stead of a routine Ph.D.  Let the Ph.D. degree be reserved for a thesis deserving a Ph.D. proper – a new kind of reservation.


5.                  The interdisciplinary approach is a mindset and not an occasional indulgence.  It is a mindset and not an occasional indulgence.  It is also a great motivator for innovative upapatti – level work.  Overspecialization can greatly discourage any going beyond routine processing.  Thus, a philosophy student will concentrate on either Indian or western philosophy and neglect the other : it will not occur to him that a given Indian philosopher may sometimes have more in common with a given Western philosopher than with other Indian philosophers; correspondingly, with a given western philosopher.  (Similar remarks will apply to Mediaeval and Modern poets in Marathi, for example).  Why not have a course in Western literary theory and another in Indian literary theory available to all the literature groups whether Modern Indian or Classical or Modern European languages?  Why not introduce translated Indian or European novels in an English MA course on the novel form or a Marathi MA course on the novel form along with novels within the chosen language group (English or Marathi as the case may be)?  Why not introduce a shared Philosophy of Science course for all natural science groups or a shared Symbolic Logic or Philosophy of Mathematics course for all mathematical science groups?  Composite groups (for example, Sociology – Anthropology) and focus groups (for example, Environment, Development) are also steps in the right direction and students with research aptitude should be encouraged to offer them.  Close association between university departments and R & D departments will also create the right climate.


6.                  Communication skills are needed not only by literature or law students but by all other students, even natural science, medicine, or engineering students.  Information processing skills are needed not only by natural science or engineering students but by all other students, even literature or philosophy or social science students.  A research students seminar will certainly be a good practicing ground for their skills of presentation.


These are only some of the steps that need to be included in any serious and long-term programme for improvement of the quality of research in India.  No eyewash or quick fix measures will accomplish anything other than eyewash and quick fix.


            I am quite aware that I have painted a grim picture and made some harsh observations.  I am also aware that there have been and will be honorable exceptions at various levels, but I am also painfully aware that we make life difficult for these exceptions.  (Don’t forget the sad case of the Nobel laureate Hargobind Khurana.)  If anyone still makes it to the top after crossing the hurdles, we put him or her on a pedestal and quietly forget to emulate the example or derive any inspiration from the example.  Like the English poet Thomas Hardy, who wrote the poem ‘In Tenebris’ about the surrounding darkness, I believe that “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.”  Any shirking to do so will not get us anywhere.



Ashok R. Kelkar





            This was published in Susamvad : souvenir: Golden Jubilee Research Students’ Seminar December 4 & 5, 1998.  University of Pune, Pune, 1998, Vol-I, p.4-7.  A Marathi version appeared in S¡pt ¡hik Sak¡½ (Pune) 1999:04:17, p.4-7.