19 May 2013


Delhi University’s vice chancellor, Dinesh Singh, was once a well-reputed mathematician. His career suggests that there was a time when he knew things add up, that there are good and bad ways of getting things done. When he was a teacher of mathematics he listened to people, or at least managed a decent impression of possessing the capacity for hearing. So, when he became vice chancellor, even people who know that power corrupts were cautiously optimistic. Dinesh Singh, it was felt, might buck the trend. He seemed interested in wielding a sensible broom to improve things on the ground for students and teachers. There was no hint, at the time, of what was to ensue—that the broom in his hand would go between his legs and become a witch’s. Now, in the opinion of virtually every respected academic and teacher at the University of Delhi, and close by at JNU and Jamia as well—see the opinion HERE of the economist Jayati Ghosh at JNU, and HERE of the historian Mukul Kesavan at Jamia (incidentally, Mukul Kesavan, Jayati Ghosh, and Dinesh Singh were exact contemporaries as Inlaks scholars in Britain thirty years ago)—the clear consensus it that all it takes to destroy an entire institution is the missionary zeal of one fanatic mathematician who seems to listen to no one except those to whom he is beholden for his authority—or, to say it straighter, authoritarianism.

It would be difficult at the moment for bookies to offer decent odds on which of Delhi University’s teaching departments loathes the vice chancellor most. The likelihood is that if they offered the best odds for, say, the English Department—where the soundest faculty members will soon hate him enough to write papers comparing him to that earlier fallen angel, Milton’s Satan—the History Department would immediately be up in arms at having been insulted for insufficiency of venom. And they would have a point. 

One of the most academically dispiriting things to have happened to history teaching at Delhi University is the removal from the course of A.K. Ramanujan's classic essay on the multiplicity of Ramayana tellings in South and South East Asia, an event this vice chancellor supervised, disavowed responsibility for, and did nothing to reverse. We keenly await the papers on Milton’s Satan vis-a-vis Dinesh Singh, staking a claim for the English Department's supremacy in the loathing stakes; but the record suggests it is the History Department that, as Wodehouse may have said, gets the biscuit. 

This is very far from being only our opinion; it is much more clearly HERE that of Nayanjot Lahiri, she being a professor of history who, alongside her colleagues, has watched the spectacular emergence of Dinesh Singh’s fascist inclinations with dismay. Professor Lahiri’s outstanding colleagues include Professor Upinder Singh, Manmohan Singh’s daughter, whose integrity is manifest from her keeping clear of attempts to stop Dinesh Singh in his tracks despite the strength of her agreement with the History Department. Public intellectuals who have expressed much the same hostility to Dinesh Singh's seeming contempt for history and calculated obliviousness to the functions of a university include Ramachandra Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, alongside the very many who have blogged this subject and written about it in various fora.

In order not to mimic Dinesh Singh, it is important for the repositories of sanity in the teaching community to listen to the vice chancellor’s views and arrive at their opinion of him after carefully considering them. His argument is that the times have changed, students need to learn different things in new ways, and since teachers resist change there is no option except for him to wield his broom as an axe. This message has been heard and digested by the best within the university, there being no shortage of fine teachers who have themselves argued the need for improving and modernizing old courses. Instead, the VC has handed them new ‘foundation courses’, framed by conspicuously ignoring all opinions that reputed and respected teachers may have wanted to give on what ought to constitute these courses.

It takes two to listen. When it is apparent that the party asserting power is deaf and cannot be bridled, the time has arrived for open and all-out war. This seems to be the state of affairs in Delhi University. It is, unluckily for the best minds at the university, a war they will lose. A little Constantinople will crumble; in 1453 it caused an exodus. In 2013 it may lead to early retirements and the movement of teachers to other universities. Having created all the conditions conducive to this, the VC is perhaps keeping his fingers crossed that this is what will happen next. The difficulty, both for him and the teachers, is the sheer number of teachers in Delhi University: there is nowhere for so many to go, or they'd go.

Writing on the value of T.S. Eliot's poetry in the larger context of the Great War and its aftermath, E.M. Forster said: "For what, in that world of gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?" The battle lost, it becomes even more important for the scholars affected to record the fact that they dissented and were swept aside, rendered subaltern. At some point, these slighter gestures of dissent, this voicing of alternative visions at the approach of insanity, will, if nothing else, show up precisely what kind of vice chancellor Dinesh Singh has been. To be scrupulously fair-minded, it is necessary to concede that, first, not everyone who teaches at the university is opposed to the vice chancellor's vision of the university's future: he has a claque of substantial proportions; second, it is reasonable to argue that as no course is cast in stone, each will with the accumulation of experience be improved; and third that, however unlikely it may now seem, at a time distant from the present the university may conceivably take a turn for the better, making this mathematician look very far from satanic. However, there are times when one's inclination is to say to the scrupulously fair-minded, 'Up Yours', and this seems one of those times.

So here, in the end, is a little homework exercise for future students of the new history foundation course at Delhi University, specially prepared by Permanent Black. It may be somewhat tough for university students, in which case the vice chancellor will, naturally, step in and dumb it down further:

1.    Using your own words, compare and contrast the career of your vice chancellor, Professor Dinesh Singh, with that of the Indian mathematician who became a famous historian, D.D. Kosambi. What lessons, if any, can you draw from the comparison? Try to find out why D.D. Kosambi failed to become a vice chancellor and why he failed to ruin the teaching of history. Does his failure in these respects suggest he must also have been a useless mathematician? (Remember to use your own words and for God's sake don't reproduce straight from Google.)

2.    Who was A.K. Ramanujan? Was he same guy as Srinivas Ramanujan? Or was he some different Ramanujan? In your own words, compare and contrast the two Ramanujans. After that, try to visit the Indian and foreign cities where these two Ramanujans were born and educated. There, please do your best to trace their descendants, if possible. Then interview all descendants which you encounter (one by one). Then, in their own words (since it is interview, you are allowed to use other people words), you write down all the interviews. Carry your phone with you and try to take picture of all descendants. Finally, try to explain in your own words why it is important for Indian vice chancellors to distinguish between Many Ramanujans.

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