'New Education Policy Must Ensure Safety Of Dalit Students On Campuses'

In an interview with BW Businessworld’s Sreerupa Sil, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor says India would certainly have modernised and democratised -- without having to go through the ordeal that was colonial rule.

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Awarded by Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, Shashi Tharoor is one of the bestselling author of fifteen thought provoking books. A former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and a former Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs in the Government of India. He is a two-time member of the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram and chairs Parliament’s External Affairs Committee. His presence in the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet granted the opportunity for a conversation with this celebrated author-thinker.

If I am not wrong, you wrote your first book ‘Reasons of State’ at the age of 25-26. What made you start writing a book on political ideas and philosophy?
Reasons of State is an overview of the making of Indian foreign policy, with a comprehensive focus on Indira Gandhi's work during her first administration between 1966 and 1977. It began as my doctoral thesis at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, and it was excellent for me in terms of timing because the government had just fallen in 1977. This meant I could meet, at length, and record interviews with and obtain opinions from some of the leading architects of our foreign policy at the time, ranging from Mrs Gandhi herself to her foreign minister and a series of key advisers, senior officials and other decision makers of the day. It was this richness of information, which went beyond ordinary thesis material, that enabled the publication of my research as a volume that has gone on to become prescribed reading in India and abroad for students of foreign policy.

Please share with us two favourites among your self-written books and why do you specifically like them.
I don’t have favourites among my own books – that is like asking a parent which of his children are his favourites! I put myself into all my books very fully and they are all equally my favourites. Still, if I were to mention two in the spirit of your question, The Great Indian Novel is, among my works of fiction, the book of which I am perhaps proudest because it was my first novel and when I wrote it, I had no reason to assume I could pull it off nor that it would be publishable. It is a broad sweep of twentieth century Indian political history wedded, through satire, to that truly great Indian novel-- the Mahabharata-- and its unforgettable characters and episodes. The fact that the book is now in its 44th printing and is today deemed a classic is, at the risk of sounding immodest, testament to its continued popularity among readers. Among works of non-fiction, my newest book, An Era of Darkness, is an indictment of the British in India and a record of their depredations that have left enduring traumas in our land. Whether it is through the solidification of caste and all the social and psychological violence this very sophisticated tool of "divide and rule" entails, or those specific moments of barbarity that became painful milestones in the colonial experience of India, the book is a rejoinder to apologists of the Raj and an effort to set history right from an Indian perspective. It serves to help Indians to remember what it was that we resisted and prevailed over, and why therefore we must continue to protect and preserve India-- and the idea of India-- as we shape our destiny in the 21st century.

Please share two of your favourite books you were inspired by when you started writing in your twenties. What in those books inspired you?
The Mahabharata, obviously – what a great compendium of stories and ideas it contains! Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India, which is a profound expression of all that India is made of and of all that shaped our first prime minister and his unparalleled vision for the nation. One work of fiction that was unforgettable is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez-- a truly magical and extraordinary reinvention of the Latin American experience in exquisite language and style, brilliantly translated.

Please tell us an interesting fact/event you faced while writing your current book ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’. Any plans for your upcoming book?
I have already referred to caste above and before I wrote the book, I had very little knowledge of the sheer extent of British culpability in deepening caste divisions. We have all grown up thinking of caste as something timeless and ingrained in our society. Our people certainly internalised caste but scholarship is almost unanimous in pointing out that caste divisions were much fuzzier before the British arrived. It was they who cast it in stone, creating what one scholar has called "castes of the mind", colonising us not only politically but also in our very conception of who we were as a people.

Another striking bit of forgotten historical fact is how good we were at steel-making. Indian ukku (wrongly transliterated as wootz) became the gold standard for steel manufacturing and the Arabs took Indian technology to make what became Damascus Steel. In fact, British soldiers would dismount after killing Indian soldiers and steal their swords because Indian blades were much better than anything made in Europe! There are a number of such facts I came across, which reinforced my belief that India would certainly have modernised and indeed become democratised-- without having to go through the ordeal that was colonial rule.

Reading has been a serious challenge in today’s life. Apart from a specific group of people, reading is not a popular culture. What do you think organisations or government should do to promote reading?
I must confess I am not one to write obituaries to the habit of reading. What we are witnessing is largely a phase with transformations in technology and How we read-- in terms of plain numbers, I'm quite certain more people are reading today than were thirty or forty years ago. Of course the question then is what kind of books we read today, but there will always be an audience for literature and the beauty of good writing. It is for our education system to inculcate a culture of reading among our children and for parents to set a good example to their children by reading at home. Of course governments can provide tax breaks to publishers, support public libraries and set up reading rooms.

What is your idea of the New Education Policy and the new measures taken up by MHRD of the present government to address education needs?
One thing I have repeatedly stressed-- including two successive HRD Ministers -- is that Indian education is over-regulated and under-governed. The Licence Raj continues to hinder and indeed damage this one sector where we must, on the contrary, proactively create flexible institutions and spaces instead of imposing rigidity and more bureaucratic avenues for interference. There are also several other areas that the NEP must take into account-- ensuring the safety of Dalit and minority communities on campus, ensuring last mile connectivity in all institutions, making salaries for faculty positions in central universities comparable with private education sector salaries, and so on. I have already submitted a detailed list of suggestions to the HRD Minister for consideration.

What kind of measures are you taking for Thiruvananthapuram for overall educational development?
Kerala's literacy levels have for generations been among the best in India and comparable to those in developed countries of the West. My constituency has some of India's oldest schools and colleges and I have been involved at various levels -- from contributing computers for students to use to campaigning for institutions of higher learning such as the IIT and IIIT to come to Thiruvananthapuram. While devoting MPLADS funds to create smart classrooms or plug leaky roofs in government schools is essential, I am also seeking to support initiatives to make Thiruvananthapuram a centre of higher research. I have therefore devoted some time and energy to lobbying the Union Government for financial and other support to such institutions in Thiruvananthapuram as the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences, the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, and the Centre for the Development of Telematics, as well as for ongoing research in institutions like the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute. By ensuring these institutions flourish, I am hoping to create a research ecosystem in Thiruvananthapuram that will attract more such institutions here, contributing to making Kerala’s capital truly a Knowledge City.

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