Government directive to educational institutions to execute the digital financial literacy mission subverts the idea of the university.
Cultural revolution, feared by this writer and promised by a minister of the Modi government in these pages, has begun in India. As in the Cultural Revolution in China, universities, schools and educational institutions are being harnessed to unleash it on the country.
In an unprecedented and outrageous move, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has asked institutions of higher education to deploy their students, faculty and other resources to implement this government’s scheme of turning India into a cashless society. A high-sounding name has been found for this drive: The Digital Financial Literacy Mission. All central universities, IITs, AISERs and other institutions have been asked to rope in students and train them to be digital finance educators. They will fan out in the bazaars, like Sadar Bazar and Azadpur Sabzi Mandi in Delhi, to teach street vendors and shopkeepers the technicalities of cashless transactions.
They are expected to train traders in using the machines and apprise them of the benefits of moving towards a cashless society.
The MHRD has issued a four-page circular, where it calls the scheme a transformational mission. The ministry has asked the directors/heads of institutions to ensure that the mission is undertaken earnestly. Not only are organisations like the NCC and the NSS to be used, but to ensure the participation of students, the ministry has asked the institutions to make it an academic programme and award credits. The language of the circular is one of command, not of suggestion.
The merit of the government’s intention to make India a fully digitised or cashless economy apart, we need to ask how the drive against black money morphed into a mission to make a cashless society. That will happen once we regain our senses and have the right information. But we know that not all economists and financial experts are in agreement with the government’s claims. Sociologists and psychologists are supposed to study the impact of the shift on societal behaviour and tell the society about its long-term implication.
In short, students would expect their teachers to lead them to a process of analysing and criticising the government’s move. What is the other way of creating knowledge about this situation and creating an ethos where informed discussion becomes possible, instead of being forced to choose between the competing claims?
If the Centre is right in using the universities to change the financial habits of the people, why should the government of Bihar not ask students and teachers in that state to work as prohibition volunteers? After all both governments seek legitimacy in the language of morality.
Universities are neither cheerleaders nor footsoldiers of the government of the day. Universities are also not the implementation agency of governments. Forget the government, which in a democracy is supposed to be temporary, even the state and society do not bind the universities to them in a utilitarian relationship. Universities, though created and supported by the state and society, are meant to maintain a respectable distance from the two institutions. There are different theories of knowledge creation, but we can be sure about one thing. If the university merges its interests and being with the centre of power, it loses the ability to talk about it in a language of knowledge. The university is not a spokesperson of the government.
We also know that, from time to time, governments feel tempted to make use of the youth in the campuses to implement their policies. The cover of national interest is used for the purpose. Fight against terrorism is a national mission in many countries. But when the UK government sought to turn the faculty and students into informers and informants, it faced strong opposition. The government was forced to retreat.
What is noble and urgent and universal in the eyes of the government need to be questioned if we are to be true inheritors of the shastras, Plato, Socrates, Gandhi and Foucault. The claims of the government need to put to the severest test. Who will do it if not universities, for they alone have the necessary tools.
The government’s order does two things: It discourages, rather disallows, the faculty and student, to study and examine the state’s move, and uses an unpaid youth population to force people to accept its plan. Involvement of the universities will give the scheme a veneer of respectability.
This was coming. In the last two-and-half years, universities have been receiving circulars directly from the Centre. The UGC has been reduced to a post office that routes government orders. Universities have been ordered to observe days like Swachhata Divas, Ekta Divas, Samvidhan Divas, etc. They are asked to submit proof of implementation of the government order. These orders infantilise and trivialise the nature of the university. But unfortunately, heads of our institutions lack the courage to stand up to the government and say the faculty decides the agenda for the campus.
An innocuous sounding word like divyang coined by the prime minister has entered the administrative vocabulary of academic institutions without any debate. When power becomes the source of wisdom, and when knowledge seekers and creaters reduce themselves to the state of followers, we need to worry.