Conditional autonomy

The government’s resolve to grant the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) autonomy is turning out to be skin-deep. Barely had the controversy faded over the decision by some IIMs to offer a one-year degree course for MBAs against the University Grants Commission regulations for a two-year course when another raises its head. This time, the pretext is a doctoral dissertation on electoral democracy at IIM Ahmedabad.

The controversy has arisen from a complaint by Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April last year, objecting to two references in the thesis. One was a description of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party as “ethnically constituted parties” and a further reference to the BJP as a “pro-Hindu upper caste party”. Following Dr Swamy’s letter, the Ministry of Education (MoE) asked IIM-A Director Errol D’Souza for a copy of the thesis. In reply, Dr D’Souza correctly pointed out that the MoE was not the arbiter of complaints regarding a thesis.

Given Dr Swamy’s education and teaching experience at Harvard, it is strange that he should have thought fit to insist on academic conformity to a prescribed doctrine or to one person’s opinion. Indeed, as Dr D’Souza pointed out, any objections to the content of the thesis could be raised with IIM-A’s Thesis Advisory and Examination Committee. But the fact that the MoE responded to a ruling party member of parliament’s objections suggested that it, too, has not fully absorbed the implications of the sweeping autonomy that was granted to the IIMs by legislation in 2017. The matter might have rested there had the MoE not recently sent a “reminder” — to which no reply has been sent yet.

It is significant that this reminder comes soon after the law ministry had vetoed last month a December 2020 move by the MoE to give itself powers to initiate an inquiry under Article 38 of the IIM Act and dismiss the board of governors of an IIM if it is found acting in contravention of the Act. The MoE’s move was a fallout of the “one-year MBA” controversy but taken together with the recent directive — since scrapped — requiring prior permission to host foreign academics in virtual seminars organised by educational institutes under its purview, it shows that the government is unwilling to relinquish the powers its wields in higher education, despite the promises embedded in the New Economic Policy.

Dr D’Souza’s factual riposte to the MoE also underlines the role that IIM administrations must play in defending this autonomy too. The current face-off between the director of IIM-Calcutta and a section of the faculty is a case in point. Both parties have written letters of complaints to the government. The letter from the 75 per cent of IIM-C’s faculty complained of Director Anju Seth’s inefficiency and arbitrary style of functioning. In her turn, Dr Seth, IIM-C’s first woman director, sent the government a letter of complaint against the faculty and the IIM-C board chairman for excluding her from various committees.

It is unclear why the faculty and director involved the government, since it can potentially severely weaken the IIMs’ hard-won bid for autonomy. In the latest development, the board has hired a legal firm to interpret the IIM Act rules in connection with the autonomy of the institute, but the government must be credited for not formally intervening in this turf war so far.

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