Saffron As Social Science
Question and Answers

Manohar Lal Sondhi

The Times of India, November 2, 1999

Amidst the controversy regarding the 'saffronisation' of apex research and educational institutions, HRD Minister Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi has appointed Professor Manohar Lal Sondhi, Distinguished Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, as Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). Professor Sondhi, a Rhodes scholar who topped the 1956 IFS exam, was elected to parliament in 1967 on Jana Sangh ticket. In conversation with Mona Mehta, Professor Sondhi discusses his plans for the ICSSR.

What do you make of the controversy regarding your appointment as the ICSSR chairman?

It was all based on one newspaper article. I don't think anybody in the BJP even has a clue to what ICSSR is all about. Besides I was not given any mandate by Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi. If that was the case I would not have accepted the job. In my career, I always resigned from a job I did not like. I even resigned from the IFS.

What is the role of ICSSR today?

ICSSR has to perform three functions. Firstly, to organise social sciences research at regional and national levels by providing funds. Secondly, and more importantly, to advise the government on all matters related to social sciences. Thirdly, to disseminate information to the users of research. ICSSR can become a vehicle leading to democratic exposure.

What steps would you take to ensure efficient functioning of the ICSSR?

We intend to start a dialogue with those in the media, public and private sector companies, and academia and evolve proposals in tune with what is being considered by the government. We are not just a bureaucratic organisation. I would like to encourage an inter-disciplinary approach to study various issues. Social scientists could analyse data and produce studies which will provide better understanding of issues and also have enormous policy implications. Since knowledge is money, these studies can be put on sale and thus generate money. Aiming at excellence, I would like to set up institutions of very high standard by concentrating resources on a select few to produce world class results. Information technology can be used as an important tool to disseminate information.

What are the major problems facing the education system in India?

From ICSSR's point of view, the main problem in India's educational life is its isolated development for which we have to build institutional alliances. Also we must bridge the gap between policy making and the educational system because creative ideas are not born in government files but are generated at the cultural level of the country. The idea of social justice and building of a humane society has to be the main thrust of our educational system.

Who should decide what the thrust of education system should be?

One has to be mindful of the fact that we live in a society where you have to evolve a consensus. Our options are no longer limited to state control versus laissez-faire. Like the scholar Andre Malraux upon receiving a prize in India put it, "India is the land of wisdom, you should define what the world needs in terms of education," and donated his prize money to set up what he called institutes for international methods of action including education. Here is an example of a very fine intellectual turning to India. India has been regarded as the jagat guru by some. Perhaps we should take a cue from him. We should reject intellectual hegemony by any other civilisation, or power.

So what should be the extent of government interference?

In a country like India, government should be around. Market forces alone cannot be left to decide the course of education. Ways have to be found to harmonise private, individual and government initiatives. You cannot have 'either' 'or'.

Should intellectuals be pigeon-holed on the basis of their intellectual leanings and should it be played out in the political arena or just left to be expressed in their works?

The important thing is the dialogic nature of the discourse. Like the philosopher Martin Buber says there are two types of relationships, one is 'I-thou' and the other is 'I-It', while the latter is not a human relationship, the former is a human relationship. This humanising quality should never be taken away. Ideologies if they are expressed in humanistic terms don't hurt so much because they are ways of reaching somewhere and the goal is betterment of society, but ideologies become a problem when used as a vehicle of settling scores or restricting freedom. And there is no harm if the personal ideologies are played out in the political arena with pluralism.

What do you think of the practice by successive governments of changing the institutional heads when they come to power?

Whatever we are experiencing is a result of parochialism which came into our country. At one time our universities were among top academic institutions in the world manned by scholars like Acharya Narendra Dev, CV Raman, Jagdish Bose. Then came a phase when we became parochial. Now as we enter the new millennium, we have an opportunity to once again recover that spirit which is innate in us. Ours is a very outgoing culture. We never fear the outside world.

What do you make of the controversy regarding "nationalist" historians versus "secular" historians?

I can only say that history can be used as either a healer or a trauma. Instead of using history as a trauma, we should use history as a healer.

How do you react to the allegations that the present government has been 'saffronising' apex educational and research institutions.

There are areas where there may have been an over enthusiasm in expressing one's political preferences. It is natural that after being excluded, now you want to be included.

How do you intend to underplay the tag of being a person with BJP-RSS leanings in your functioning as ICSSR chairman?

My political lineage is derived from Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, and Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, vice chancellor of Calcutta University. I have had the opportunity of understanding and contemplating many of their ideas. My code of conduct will be to look upon everything in terms of optimising our resources. To overcome any propensity for bias, we could establish trends like sending the proposals outside the country to for instance, learned professors in Harvard, Princeton or Oxford who could judge the proposals fairly without looking at them from a BJP or anti-BJP point of view.

How would you ensure that Left-style cronyism does not seep into this institution?

Through transparency, creative output, by reaching out to expertise both in India and abroad and by aiming at excellence, cronyism will be moderated and extinguished. We will engage in more debate and discussion and make our headquarters a place where people of all hues and colours can be found interacting to create an edge for India.

<< Back