Address at the Convocation of Kalyani University

Nov 10th 2003, Prabhat Patnaik

Your Excellency the Chancellor of the University, Mr Vice-Chancellor, Assembled Guests, Members of the Faculty, Young Scholars, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a singular honour for me to have been invited as the chief guest at the convocation of this university which, though young in age, has built up for itself an enviable academic reputation. This achievement is due partly no doubt to the ethos of West Bengal: even as the academic ambience over much of the country has deteriorated sharply, West Bengal continues to produce a steady stream of exceptionally fine young scholars who are much in demand at home and abroad. But it also owes much to the dedication and commitment of the faculty members, with many of whom I can claim personal acquaintance. It gives me particular pleasure to be amongst them on this happy occasion.

The importance for our national life of institutions such as this one, indeed of higher education in general, is often not appreciated. Some even argue that institutions of higher education constitute a white elephant, a drain on the nation’s resources which can be better deployed in promoting the spread of elementary education in the country. Instead of the pyramidal structure we should have built up, of a broad base of elementary education supporting a smaller apex of higher education, we have actually built up, they contend, a top-heavy structure where a plethora of colleges and universities has grown up within a vast ocean of illiteracy and ignorance.

This argument, whose proponents include many progressive and sensitive thinkers, is, nonetheless, fundamentally flawed. There can of course be no two views on the urgent need for eradicating illiteracy and enlarging the spread of elementary education. In fact it is a national shame that even after half a century of independence, more than one-third of the population in the country remains illiterate, and around two-fifths of children of school-going age remain outside the ambit of formal schooling at any given time. The mistake consists in believing that an absolute curtailment (or even a curtailment relative to GDP) of expenditure on higher education is necessary for overcoming these failures. The shortage of resources that is usually cited in this context as a constraint is a mere alibi.

I shall discuss what has been happening on the resource front in the more recent period later in the course of my address. But the crucial point is this: at no stage during the entire post-independence period has India spent an adequate amount on education, by any reasonable definition of the term ‘adequate’. In fact the proportion of GDP that the white-supremacist South African state spent on the education of the black majority even during the apartheid period, notwithstanding the massive drain on its exchequer that maintenance of the highly oppressive police, military and intelligence apparatus entailed at the time, was higher than what the Indian state has ever spent throughout its post-independence history. The matter, in short, is one of priorities. Any government that has the political will to eradicate illiteracy and provide universal primary education would always find the resources for doing so without curtailing higher education. And any government that complains of lack of resources and considers it necessary to starve higher education in order to provide for the spread of literacy and primary education simply lacks ipso facto the political will for effecting universal literacy and primary education.

While strengthening higher education does not preclude in any way the expansion of elementary education, such strengthening is essential for the development of the country, indeed for the very survival of the freedom of its people. The realm of higher education is the cradle of ideas; the shrinking or extinction of this realm necessarily makes a society parasitic on others for its ideas, and such a parasitic society cannot remain free.

John Maynard Keynes, the greatest economist of the twentieth century, may have exaggerated a trifle when he wrote: ‘... the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.’ But the exaggeration is no more than a trifle. After all Bertolt Brecht, coming from a very different segment of the political spectrum, also wrote: ‘Hungry man, reach for the book!’ The hungry man, however, must reach for the right book, one that tells him not that his chronic hunger is the result of sins committed in some previous birth but educates him instead on the social conditions that keep him hungry. This presupposes that the right book must be available, that the crowd of hungry men must have their own ‘organic intellectuals’ whose ideas must develop independently of the ideas of those who preside over a social arrangement that keeps the hungry, hungry. Independent institutions of higher education are essential for this. To be sure, having such institutions is not a sufficient condition for the development of independent ideas that are relevant for the life, freedom and progress of a particular society. But it is a necessary condition.

The mass mobilization that constituted our freedom struggle would not have been possible if the intellectual groundwork for it had not been done by pioneering thinkers like Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chandra Dutt, who dared to think independently of the prevailing theoretical constructs in the institutions of higher learning in the metropolitan countries. This tradition of independent thinking is necessary also for defending the gains of our freedom struggle. Since we are now in a position to have our own institutions where the conditions for independent thinking can prevail as a matter of course, we must develop and nurture such institutions.


Implicit in what I have just said is a whole series of rejections. First, there is rejection of the view that different institutions of higher learning belonging to different societies can be ordered as being ‘better’ or ‘worse’ along one particular axis. If these institutions are to be ‘organic’ to their specific societies, then, since the interests of these societies are quite obviously not in harmony, each set of institutions must be different from the others in order to fulfil its legitimate role. I often feel amused when I hear comments like ‘Kalyani University (or Jawaharlal Nehru University, for that matter) should imitate Harvard’; ‘Our institutions should enrich themselves by borrowing ideas and faculty from advanced country institutions’; ‘We have to judge ourselves by how well we are recognized by top institutions in the world’, and so on. This whole approach, to my mind, is wrong. It sees higher education as a homogeneous commodity of which some institutions are better producers than others, and not as a means of producing ‘organic intellectuals’ for a particular society. I referred above to Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C. Dutt, whose contribution to the struggle for the freedom of our society was enormous. But scarcely any one in Harvard or Cambridge doing economics would have heard of them (though those doing ‘India studies’ might have). Modelling our institutions after Harvard or Cambridge, which would entail copying their curricula and syllabi, would therefore necessarily mean sacrificing, to our great cost, the conceptual framework, perspective and insights of a thinker like Naoroji.

Second, my argument rejects the view that professionalization of subjects like ‘economics’ and ‘political science’ is a desirable process. The ‘profession’ in these disciplines, as well as in others, is dominated by the advanced countries; therefore recognition in the ‘profession’ would necessarily mean sacrificing any independent thinking and parroting borrowed concepts. This would not matter if these borrowed concepts were genuinely ‘scientific’ and not imbued with the ideological objective of defending the hegemony of the advanced countries. In the social sciences at least, as I shall illustrate later, such is not the case. This does not mean that everyone engaged in social science research in universities in the advanced countries is a conscious ideological defender of imperialist hegemony, but everyone is entrapped by the need to belong to and be recognized by the ‘profession’, and therefore undertakes research within strictly circumscribed limits which preclude any critical awareness of the role of the handed-down conceptual apparatus in the ideological defence of imperialist hegemony. Stepping out of these limits invites reactions of unease, astonishment, silence, derision and even hostility, resulting in a loss of academic and financial status. Hence even the best-intentioned dare not step beyond the limits. In societies like ours where domination of the western theoretical orthodoxy in the social sciences is far from complete, thanks precisely to our rather recent birth as a nation after a prolonged anti-imperialist struggle, any emphasis on ‘professionalization’ would mean voluntarily surrendering ourselves to this domination, closing the space has been made available to us for independent thought.

Third, my argument entails a rejection of the attitude which places a special value on ‘recognition’ in the advanced countries, and hence on awards and distinctions bestowed from there. In the social sciences, at any rate, all such awards and distinctions are conditional on conformity, on keeping within the ‘limits’ and abjuring the use of concepts that critique imperialist hegemony. Unfortunately, this attitude of prioritizing ‘recognition’ in the west is all too pervasive in our country. Almost all of us, when we sit on Selection Committees, prefer a candidate who has published in a western journal over one who has published within the country, even without looking closely at the quality of the two publications. By doing so, we contribute to a stultification of the tradition of independent thinking.

To say this is not to reject the notion of quality, or to argue that we should not have criteria for judging quality. But these criteria must be our own, and not those employed in the institutions of advanced countries. Developing these criteria, to be sure, is not easy, but there is no escape from the need to do so if we are to preserve a tradition of independent thinking.


Let me give an example, drawn from my own discipline, economics, to underscore the necessity of a tradition of thought independent of the prevailing orthodoxy in the west. One consequence of the policy of ‘liberalization’ has been the relaxation of restrictions on the flow of finance into and out of the country, because of which it so happens that a significant inflow of foreign exchange has taken place of late. To prevent the exchange rate from appreciating, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has intervened to buy up the foreign exchange that has been coming in, and as a result we currently have exchange reserves of nearly $90 billion. Now, holding such large reserves is not a sensible thing to do. Foreign exchange reserves are nothing else but IOUs of other countries; hence holding such IOUs represents a waste of resources that could be more productively used elsewhere. What is more, since the rate of return that those bringing funds into the country earn is higher than the rate earned on these reserves (which is a trivial amount), the country in effect is borrowing from abroad at a higher rate to lend at a lower rate. This is palpably unwise.

In this connection, suggestions have been made by the Bretton Woods institutions, and by independent analysts, including academics, in western financial journals, that India should allow its exchange rate to appreciate, and that towards this end the RBI should stop adding to its reserves but lower them instead. Several Indian academics and financial journalists have also endorsed this idea. Let us look at the implications of such a move.

If the rupee appreciates, the competitiveness of our goods vis-à-vis foreign goods is lowered through a cheapening of foreign goods. Since such an appreciation would not expand the total domestic demand, this relative cheapening of foreign goods would mean that a given volume of domestic demand would be met by foreign goods rather than by domestic goods; likewise, our exports would be supplanted in outside markets by foreign countries’ exports. It follows that an appreciation of the rupee would lead to a closure of domestic producing units and to higher unemployment, together with an increase in our trade (and current account) deficit (which is in fact how the reserves would have got used up). We would have, in short, unleashed a process of ‘debt-financed deindustrialization’, i.e. borrowed to finance the ruination of our own production base. What is more, when the time comes for foreigners (or non-resident Indians) who are now bringing finance into the economy to start taking it out, we would have no funds left to cover the outflow, since these would have been used meanwhile in financing imports at the expense of home production. Thus, frittering away foreign exchange reserves through an appreciation of the rupee would mean ruination of the country twice over: through deindustrialization and unemployment now, and bankruptcy later.

This of course would work to the advantage of foreign, especially metropolitan, countries: they would obtain larger markets now, which, given the prevailing recessionary conditions, they desperately need (it is noteworthy that a similar demand for revaluing the exchange rate upwards is being made with regard to China); and they would be able to impose whatever ‘conditionalities’ they choose in the future, when our country, in order to finance capital outflows, approaches them or agencies like the IMF and the World Bank dominated by them, for loans. It is not surprising then that the western press, the Bretton Woods institutions and many western academics are demanding an appreciation of the rupee. But to oppose this demand, to avoid this double ruin, and to protect our sovereignty and freedom, it is essential that there be people within the country who think independently and have the capacity to see the implications of such moves.


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