Academic freedom and academic responsibility
The recent JNU and Ashoka University controversies have highlighted Indian higher education institutions as the hub of political activities and opinions. After the recent resignations by Ashoka professors, other academicians have affirmed their solidarity and emphasized the need for academic freedom. While academic freedom has been in focus lately, let us ponder upon academic duties and responsibilities. As I began the next phase of my academic career in India as an Indic Studies professor, I sometimes wonder if Indic or Indian heritage is discussed in academic circles in India? What could be some duties and responsibilities of educational institutions in India that can help raise the next generation of students aware and proud of their Indic heritage and potentially help solve some of the global issues and challenges?
By Pankaj Jain
Growing up in a regular middle-class Indian household in a small town of Pali in Rajasthan, in the 1980s, like millions of other students, I also learned the legends of the great gurus and teachers such as Dronacharya and Chanakya that prepared their pupils to face some of the toughest challenges in their lives. As the world is still grappling with the zoonotic pandemic and climate change, it is worth remembering that our endless appetite for natural resources has exacerbated both these challenges. However, as one of the world’s largest populated countries, India remains an interesting case study that points to sustainable solutions. For instance, from 2008 to 2012, National Geographic’s Greendex Survey measured the carbon footprints of several countries of the world. Almost every time, India showed the lowest carbon footprint. Indians continue to have the lowest per capita carbon footprint in the world based on their low consumption of natural resources. It is common to see two or three generations living under one roof in India, minimizing resource consumption. Per capita, meat consumption is still much less among Indians compared to other countries. The usage of public transport and sharing of other similar resources is also high in India.
Despite being the most densely populated country globally, India can still boast of being one of the biodiversity hotspots with so many flora and fauna species, including lion, tiger, elephant, and rhinoceros. The communities such as Maldhari and Bishnoi, living harmoniously with some of these animals, have played their role in preserving our natural resources. Even today, with almost four times the American population and almost less than one-fourth of the American land and other natural resources, it is mind-boggling how we continue to sustain our economy and ecology. As an example, one of our holiest rivers, Ganga, supports almost 300 million, approximately the population of just one country of the United States, for a comparative perspective. This comparison becomes more interesting when we look at the national highways of these two biggest democracies. Indian roads in the Himalayas are dotted with signs to respect the wildlife allowed to cross them. American national highways do not allow pedestrians, and wild animals are actively hunted to avoid traffic nuisance. Since ecology is sometimes seen in competition with the economy, let me hasten to add that India remained the 2nd largest economy of the world for centuries until the British Raj emptied its wealth from the 18th century onwards. One can only sincerely hope that academicians discuss and share some of these ecological lessons with our students.
Another set of global pandemics that we have been struggling with is communal, ethnic, racial, and religious conflicts and discords. We have seen some Indian glimpses that can help save global ecological issues so far but does India provide any similar potential solutions for this other set of challenges? The last two millennia of Indian history indeed has several inspiring case studies worth sharing with our students far and wide. Jews, the practitioners of Judaism, were persecuted and discriminated against in many parts of the world except India, where they could freely practice their faith for the last two millennia. Christians have a similarly long history in India. India can also cite the examples of one of the oldest mosques and Muslim communities in the world. Zoroastrians were provided shelter here, and today some of the leading industrial and business leaders are from that community. Even in the 20th century, India embraced Buddhists fleeing after the Chinese attack in Tibet and Muslims after the Pakistani aggression in Bangladesh. These are some of the most glorious examples of accepting and living with diverse ethnic and religious people from different parts of the world, long before the advent of the word ‘secularism’ into India.
However, the more significant questions that I am trying to raise here are as follows. If Indians have been such open and tolerant people over millennia, why are the examples mentioned above not often shared by our teachers with our students? Why must only secularism, a foreign-term must, be forced upon our young minds when we already have glorious traditions of harmony and acceptance for millennia? Similarly, if India continues to be a rare island of biodiversity with some of the rarest species of flora and fauna, why must our students be deprived of such ecological traditions? How many of our students have done the research, for instance, one of the oldest Indian mosques or oldest Jewish communities in Kerala? How many students have visited Ajanta-Ellora caves or Hampi? Why did I never learned about the Bishnoi community, which was right there in my backyard where I was growing up in Rajasthan? Why do students not learn how Zoroastrians were allowed to enter, settle, and flourish in India? Why do teachers not send their students to Gwalior Fort with the world’s oldest zero inscribed there? Why are students not visiting Ashoka’s edicts in Gujarat, Odisha, and elsewhere in India?
We, teachers, have to be the change that we want to see in the world. We have to take our heritage more seriously and share it more actively with our students if we are serious about academic responsibility in addition to our academic freedom.
Professor Pankaj Jain is an internationally recognized academic leader in Sustainability, Jain Studies, Film Studies, and Diaspora Studies.
Courtesy : TOI