Thursday, May 27, 2004

new education minister in india wins praise from academics

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2004).

Academics in India breathed a sigh of relief this week as the country's new minister in charge of education, Arjun Singh, reassured them that he had no intention of continuing the previous government's controversial higher-education policies.

"The future of higher education lies in autonomy," said Mr. Singh, a member of the Congress Party, at a news conference on Monday.

In an election this month, the Congress Party shocked pollsters when, with the support of India's other liberal parties, it ousted a coalition government led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BJP, as it is known, has enraged academics over the years with what many call its heavy-handed attempts to promote Hindu supremacy and denigrate other religions, particularly Islam. Among other things, government officials altered high-school textbooks to cast Hindu history in a positive light and removed members of the prestigious Indian Council of Historical Research in order to replace them with proponents of Hindu superiority (The Chronicle, February 5, 2002).

Mr. Singh, who is considered a secular liberal, has been appointed minister of human-resource development, and in that role he will oversee the Department of Education. It is a familiar position: He held the same job when the Congress Party led India in the early 1990s.

Although he did not lay out a specific agenda during his news conference, Mr. Singh alluded to the previous government's ideologically driven policies by stating that he is "not starting with prejudice" and that "we want detoxification without a witch hunt." He also said that he is "trying to understand why priorities in education have changed in the last five years."

Prabhat Patnaik, an economics professor at the Center for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Mr. Singh is well suited for the post. "In the past, he has shown he is above petty party politics," Mr. Patnaik said. "He lets institutions function on their own, like they should."

Administrators at the Indian Institutes of Management, India's most prestigious business schools, also praised Mr. Singh. Earlier this year, government officials ordered the institutes to lower their tuition and fees, which they said were too costly for most Indian students (The Chronicle, February 20).

But administrators saw the move as a way for the government to gain more control over the institutes, by making them more dependent on government funds. In 1993, when he was minister of human-resource development, Mr. Singh approved an independent committee's recommendations that the institutes be more financially independent.

At the news conference, Mr. Singh said he plans to meet with the institutes' directors this week.