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
What steps would you take to ensure efficient functioning of
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
What are the major problems facing the education system in
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
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
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
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
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.