by Pranab Bardhan
I enjoyed my days in Delhi School of Economics, but some aspects of the university’s policy in recruitment and promotion of teachers used to trouble me. Let me just give two examples. One is from DSE itself, but illustrative of a much more general problem in university life. We had a middle-aged colleague who had long wanted to be promoted to Readership (Associate Professorship), but failed in the usual process, because he had not done any serious research to speak of in many years. He was full of leftist clichés, and was popular with some sections of leftist students. He first started complaining that he was being passed over in promotion because his ‘right-wing’ colleagues (the term used in Economics those days was ‘neo-classical’—in the same pejorative way the term ‘neo-liberal’ is used nowadays) were biased in undervaluing his work. This after a time did not work, as even some leftist scholars in the Department shared views similar to those of the ‘right-wing’ colleagues on this matter. Then he tried a different tack.
The university recruitment and promotion process was quite arbitrary. Decisions were taken by a selection committee chosen entirely by the Vice-Chancellor, and in the committee meeting the only other people who could take part in the decision were the Chairperson of the Department and the Vice-Chancellor. Thus the Vice-Chancellor played a crucial role in the process. So this leftist colleague became noisily active in the campus-wide teachers’ union, and soon was influential particularly with the leftists there. On various campus-wide issues he made it obvious to the Vice-Chancellor that he could make his life difficult. The Vice-Chancellor, a shrewd man, tried to pre-empt him, and knowing fully well his ulterior motive, soon carefully chose a selection committee stacked to select this man. The Department Chairman, representing the faculty opinion, was in a hopeless minority in this selection process, and the man got what he wanted all these years.
The second example relates to appointments at a somewhat lower level; this was about the way teachers were selected in the undergraduate colleges affiliated with the university. As a DSE Professor one of my arduous duties was to act as an ‘expert’ in the numerous interviews of candidates for appointment in some of these colleges. My colleagues had warned me that this duty could be tiresome as the colleges might keep on pressing for their favorite candidates, but they assured me that under the rules no one could be appointed if I, as the ‘expert’ from DSE, decided to withhold my signature. The interviews went for long hours; in some colleges the selection process was relatively smooth, but in some others it was not.
I remember once in one college the Principal had a special candidate in mind, but I found him quite mediocre, and there was a whole slew of other candidates in my judgment much superior, and the best of them, both in interview and in paper qualifications, was a woman, who was quite low in the ranking of this macho man of a Principal. After the interviews were over (around 6 PM) the war of attrition started, over endless cups of tea and repetitive arguments. The Principal would keep on pushing his candidate and I kept on saying no. He thought he’d wear me down but did not succeed. One of his arguments was that the woman candidate would not be able to discipline the classes which, according to him, contained some rowdy boys. Then around 9 PM or so he yielded, but with a threat: “Ok, Professor,” he said, “Go ahead, and appoint this female, but if she gets assaulted in class, it’s your responsibility”. I said, while finally signing the paper, “No, it’s the college’s responsibility to look after the safety of all faculty, male or female”. But this incident left a bad taste in my mouth. (I faced similar problems in a couple of other colleges where they had a preference, for candidates from a particular region or community).
Outside academia, Delhi was a good place for some aspects of pan-Indian culture, say classical music and dance. It was also a great delight to walk through places where all the major state governments had their emporia, and you could see displayed the fascinating diversity and richness of local arts and crafts in different parts of India. But in my life-long search for interesting films Delhi was bit of a disappointment (even compared to Kolkata or Mumbai). I used to wait for the once-a-year international film festival which brought not merely some new international non-blockbuster or art films, but also a ‘panorama’ section for films from different Indian regions. But getting tickets was not easy. Delhi being a bureaucratic city, many of the seats were allocated to bureaucrats (with free passes), and for the rest of the seats sold in movie halls you had to jostle with long lines of people. As with my episode of milk ‘tokens’ before, I did not want to use my ‘connections’ to procure free passes, and mostly stood for hours in lines for advance tickets in different movie halls in different corners of this large spread-out city. In particular, if any film was marked ‘A’ (for ‘mature’ audience only), many people took it as a signal for profusion of steamy scenes in the film, which was an attraction in a sex-repressed society, and the crowds in the lines were desperate. Let me relate two incidents in this connection.
Once I got a ticket for a foreign ‘A’ film for the matinee show. I had some engagement for which I’d rush immediately after the movie was to end. Toward the end I had already positioned myself near the gate, so that I could beat the crowd at the exit. Suddenly I was roughly pushed aside by a sturdy fellow, who rushed out of the hall and started shouting to a couple of people outside: “Give up the tickets, there’s nothing in it, only 2 buttons opened….” I realized these were touts, one of them was in the matinee show to check how steamy the film really was, he was now instructing his fellow ticket-scalpers to quickly sell off their hoarded tickets, as their black-market prices were going to collapse as soon as the news about the movie spread to the viewers of the next show.
Another time I went to see a well-known Argentinian documentary film on neo-colonialism and violence, titled “Hour of the Furnaces”. I think probably by some clerical mistake the film-festival people marked it ‘A’. As the movie went on, the crowds were disappointed and getting increasingly restless by what they saw—the very few women in it were fully clothed in guerilla fatigues fighting in the jungles. At one point sections of the viewers started shouting and demanding their money back. The chaos and mayhem reached a point when the panicked authorities stopped the projector. I’ll never forget the screen with the frozen scene—Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle had just been killed by the CIA-assisted Bolivian forces, and some of them were dancing and spitting on his dead body. And in front of me there were these people jumping on their seats, demanding their money back for the lack of sex-scenes in the film.