A recent circular issued by the vice-chancellor of the Central University of Kerala (CUK), Kasaragod, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Based on a meeting of his peers in Delhi, vice-chancellor G. Gopa Kumar’s circular asks the various departments to “discourage research in irrelevant areas” and to make a shelf of PhD projects “in accordance with the national priorities” from which the students might choose their topics.
In April 2016, the Gujarat government had also issued a similar directive, listing 82 topics of ‘relevance’ for PhD research in state universities.
Kumar’s circular takes me back to the time I joined the CUK as its first full-time faculty member, deputed by the Kerala government’s Department of Collegiate Education. In October 2009, I joined the fledgling university in Kasaragod, the northernmost district of Kerala, known for its paradoxical features: cultural richness, uneven economic development and educational backwardness. At that time, I was teaching at the Government Victoria College in the department of English, in Palakkad.
A few days later, I went back to Palakkad to organise a truck that would transport my belongings to Kasaragod. On November 15, I caught a day train from Palakkad and got down at Kasaragod junction around 5 pm. The sky was dark with heaving clouds, the faces around me sombre and withdrawn. I was told that while I was on the train, a communal riot had broken out and claimed two lives. A bike rally during which flags of opposing political parties had allegedly been damaged had been the trigger.
There were no vehicles on the roads that Sunday evening. There was no way one could cross the central square without risking one’s life. The truck I had hired reached the Kasaragod border at 9 pm and stopped there. I was stranded at the railway station.
In the wee hours of the morning, in an act of extraordinary courage, my colleague Joseph and his cousin picked me up in a jeep and drove me to my newly rented accommodation. The truck followed. We drove in silence on deserted roads covered with splinters of glass. If this was my first learning experience in this land of seven languages, what could I possibly teach my 12 MA students, many of whom were born and brought up here?
Post-graduate admissions across Kerala had already closed by the time the CUK had formed, and it was mostly students in and around Kasaragod who had responded to the university’s call for direct admissions. It was a rare juncture: our circumstances did not allow for hierarchies of any kind. There was not enough furniture, no good eateries around, no place to hang out. You had your students and they had you.
Class differences did not separate my students. They shared a deeper bond, namely the absence of freedom; if one had to work for daily wages to feed their siblings, another could not step out of her house unescorted. For all of them, the university was a place not only for studies but also for comfort.
No learning was irrelevant – either for the teachers or the students. We sat together on the floor for our meals. We read together late into the night at the university premises. We would walk into the office of our vice-chancellor, Jancy James, and exchange ideas with her. My re-registered Maruti 800 was virtually the official vehicle of the CUK, from picking up guests from Mangalore airport to dropping the boys to their hostel at 3 am as a compensation for pushing conversations beyond curricular limits. On days when we watched the big moon from my balcony, the old Muslim lady next door would climb the stairs to bring us piping hot sulaimani.
In January 2010, barely two months after the CUK’s formation, in a place rife with communal conflicts, we invited Paula Richman, a Ramayana scholar, for a day-long seminar. Many teachers from senior secondary schools came and participated in the discussion in the packed hall as we read the Mappila Ramayana, an extraordinary version of the epic rendered in the local Muslim dialect.
In those days, we did not keep closing time at the CUK. We were like the first Buddhist nuns who became “at last free”; the first Christians struck by an epiphanic thunderbolt; or radical Bhakti poets who “constantly rose up”. Such an experiment seems incredible today, but nothing was outside of our purview then.
My student Hameed, who did his BA as an external student, did manual labour to pay his fees. But in one-and-a-half years, he received a junior research fellowship in comparative literature and joined the PhD programme in Jawaharlal Nehru University as a top-ranker.
He is now a permanent faculty member in a University of Delhi college. Hameed’s MA thesis was a full-length translation and study of a 100-year old Arabimalayalam poem, habitually sung in Muslim households in Kasaragod. We received approval from the academic council for a well-researched translation as a thesis. The following year, we even had an original poetic work as a thesis.
Hameed’s external examiners unanimously recommended that his thesis, which did not have a single citation from any theorist, be published by the university, and that became the CUKs’ first independent publication. Does that old Arabimalayalam poem, which built the confidence of a young man, count as a relevant area of research on an issue of national priority?
Another student, Shamah, had to fight daily battles at home to complete her MA. By the end of her MA, her conservative father was pushing her to enrol for a PhD. We changed the community’s attitude towards education, gender and freedom. Most students in that first batch went on to do their PhD. Some got into teaching while others explored different paths. But for the CUK’s imaginative intervention at a critical point in their lives, none would have reached where they are today.
Kumar, the incumbent vice-chancellor, reportedly said, “A 25-year-old student will not know what the country needs. So it is better to give him/her ideas.” What a colossal blunder on the part of our governments to allow 18-year-olds to vote and to invest in IAS officers below 25 to take administrative charge of our districts.
As for the university, it should stop its literature students from studying John Keats who died at 25, leaving behind a repertoire studied around the world for over two centuries. Similarly, mathematicians must stop studying the pioneers of group theory, Niels Henrik Abel and Évariste Galois, who died at 27 and 20 respectively. The chemistry department can ignore the periodic table: Henry Moseley, who established its basis before his early death at 27, had understood the importance of the number of protons in the atomic nucleus at a younger age.
Music students can stop studying Swati Thirunal, Mozart and Jim Morrison, who were prolific at an age when they clearly couldn’t have produced anything of national or international significance! And while we are at it, let the university library dispense with material on Jeanne d’Arc, Stephen Crane, Christopher Marlowe, Egon Schiele, P.B. Shelley, Pat Tilman, even Tutankhamun, who repaired Egypt’s ties with neighbouring kingdoms before dying of malaria at all of 18.
Finally, the authorities might want to remove from the CUK archives the university’s first brochure, which my students and I painstakingly prepared, including a statement from the convocation speech our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered on December 13, 1947, at Allahabad University:
A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for adventure of ideas and for the search for truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people.
Nehru’s next sentence, which we did not reproduce then, is most relevant and of utmost national importance today: “If the temple of learning itself becomes a home of narrow bigotry and petty objectives, how then will a nation prosper or a people grow in stature?”
Rizio, a writer, educationist and founder of the LILA Foundation for trans-local initiatives, is the CEO and publisher of Marg Foundation.