Universities and Research in the Indian Context

By Prof Ramachandra Guha

In an edition anchored on the theme of  research and its critical role In the world of academics and the very act of learning itself,  it only felt right to invite one of the most renowned historians in India and the globe to share his insights on the ‘history of research’ in the context of Indian universities. In an exclusive piece for The Krea Communique, Prof Ramachandra Guha navigates us through the history of research across natural sciences and the social sciences in one-hundred-and-sixty-five years since the first modern universities in India were founded. Prof Guha sheds light on how Indian universities have failed to perform as creditably as might have been expected but not everything is lost as the recent decades witnessed corrective steps taken by the public university system; and how a whole new generation of private universities will further and deepen this process. Prof Guha emphasises, “In the Indian context, the university must be conceived of as a theatre of intellectual innovation as well as of social emancipation”.

In the year 1857, the universities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras were founded. In subsequent decades, these were followed by the founding of the universities  of  Aligarh, Allahabad, Banaras, Osmania, Mysore, Punjab and Delhi. Although established by a colonial regime, these universities helped serve as a crucible of modernity in India. As the sociologist André Béteille has written, these founding universities ‘opened new horizons both intellectually and institutionally in a society that had stood still in a conservative and hierarchical mould for centuries’. Indeed, these universities, says Béteille, were ‘among the first open and secular institutions in a society that was governed largely by the rules of kinship, caste and religion’.  Men and women, upper caste and lower caste, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Parsi, all met and mingled together as colleagues and peers, in a manner previously inconceivable in a segmented and stratified society.

These colonial-era universities were focused on teaching and the awarding of degrees, rather than on research. Nonetheless, some of the first great Indian scientists taught and did their pioneering research in these universities. They included the physicists C. V. Raman, Satyen Bose, K. S. Krishnan and Meghnad Saha, and the chemists T. R. Seshadri and K. Venkataraman. In colonial times, there were also some world-class humanities scholars working in Indian universities, such as the historians Radhakumud Mookerjee and Jadunath Sarkar, the economists Radhakamal Mukherjee and V. K. R. V. Rao, and the sociologists Radhakamal Mukherjee, G. S. Ghurye and Irawati Karve.

After Independence, however, the Government of India chose not to build on this legacy of university-based research. Rather, the state established a chain of laboratories under the rubric of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which operated entirely outside the university system. In subsequent decades, some (but by no means all, and perhaps not even a majority) of these CSIR labs did good work in their designated fields. However, in retrospect perhaps the country would have been better served if scientific research had been more firmly located within the university system, as was the case for example in the United States. In the American system, research was strongly interwoven with teaching, while scholars in a particular scientific discipline always had the opportunity to interact with those in another scientific discipline. Working in the same university structure also encouraged scientists and humanists to understand one another and their work.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Indian universities continued to produce first-rate scholarship in disciplines such as economics, sociology, and history. However, so far as the natural sciences were concerned, Indian universities were largely concerned with teaching alone. In later decades, some belated, and modest, attempts, were made to atone for these missteps. Thus Hyderabad University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, both founded in the 1970s, encouraged original research in the sciences as well as the social sciences. However, both these universities were funded by the Union Government; meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of Indian universities, run by State Governments, had little or no interest in scientific research.

What then of higher education in the private sector? This has thus far been dominated by engineering and medical colleges, run on commercial lines, and with no interest in research at all. Only in the last decade or so have we witnessed the founding of private universities offering a broader range of courses and disciplines, and with larger intellectual ambitions. I have in mind here institutions such as Ahmedabad University, Ashoka University, Azim Premji University, Jindal Global University, Krea University, and Shiv Nadar University. These universities all conceive of themselves as much more than teaching shops. They all hope to become centres of research as well.

It is now one-hundred-and-sixty-five years since the first modern universities in India were founded. As I have argued, they have opened up spaces where people previously segregated by caste, class, gender, language and religion could meet with one another as independent human beings. However, on the intellectual and especially research front the Indian university has not performed as creditably as might have been expected. This was partly the result of conscious government policy, which took scientific research out of the university system into self-enclosed laboratories shut off from society. Some corrective steps have been taken in recent decades in the public university system; and we may hope that the new generation of private universities shall further and deepen this process. In the Indian context, the university must be conceived of as a theatre of intellectual innovation as well as of social emancipation. 

Padma Bhushan awardee Prof Ramachandra Guha Is a renowned historian, biographer and journalist. He Is also a Distinguished University Professor at Krea University.