IN INDIA : RIGHTING A WRONG?
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
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
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.
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
tradition lost out to the penchant for reproduction or repetition
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.
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
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
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.
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!
will be seen that the mischief lies now in going in for examinations
but rather in for examinations that do not examine.
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.
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 :
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.
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.
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.