A nation can only be as great as its institutions. That is why the latter must be preserved, protected, and promoted.
After becoming the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, I have often pondered on the symbolic significance of the former Viceregal Lodge where the Institute is located. This historic building in Scottish ‘Jacobethan’ style, brimming with crenellated garrets and cupolas, tower and weathervane, not to mention endless dank corridors, resembles something straight out of a Harry Potter film.
It was completed in 1888 under Lord Dufferin’s tenure, after what can only be described as an engineering feat. A mountaintop was shaved and scraped off, concrete poured into the cracks of exposed shale, and a strangely magnificent building was raised on this beetling brow of the lower Himalayas. Vistas descending to the valleys and plains below give the building a commanding aspect. Already set up cantonments in Solan, Dagshai, Kasauli, and Jutogh gave the extra strategic advantage to ward off possible threats.
The Observatory Hill on which the building stands was chosen because it looks over two important watersheds of the Indian sub-continent – from these heights, on the one side, waters roll down to the Arabian Sea, while on the other, many smaller streams merge to form the Yamuna and Ganga, going all the way down to the Bay of Bengal.
A noble cause
When I first visited the Institute in the mid-1990s, several parts of the building, already distressed and dilapidated, seem to call out for help. After I became Director, the very walls and stones looked at me as if accusingly demanding to know why they were in such a state of sad neglect. Among the several thousand visitors from abroad, especially the UK, some would wryly, if politely, comment on the neglect of an important part of our shared heritage.
Indeed, this building, which housed the imperial British government during the summer months from 1888 to 1947, was the site of several historic events and decisions that shaped the history of our subcontinent. It was here that the blood-soaked lines were drawn in the maps of the region: the Durand Line, between British India and Afghanistan, the McMahon Line between India and Tibet, and, most notoriously, the Radcliffe Line, which partitioned India.
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After the British left India, the Viceregal Lodge, re-christened Rashtrapati Niwas, became the summer home of the President of India. In 1965, our second president, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, made a bold and noble sacrifice. Finding that the building had been occupied for just a few days of the year in the 17 years after Independence, he decided that it would be more beneficial to the nation to turn it into India’s version of All Souls in Oxford or the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study.
The entire estate was made over for this purpose to a new entity with then education minister M.C. Chagla as the Chairman of the governing body. However, despite its noble founding impulse, its checkered history has witnessed many an attempt at institutional grab. Unfortunately, for us in India, barring a few elite and scientific institutions, most of our other centres of higher learning and research are beset by unremitting and internecine power struggles, rather than being driven by true excellence and service to the nation.
What plagues our institutions
This systemic fault in our major institutions has persisted regardless of changes in governments and their ideological leanings. The reason is apathy and indifference by the government, coupled with unscrupulous and selfish elements on the ground, holding our institutions to ransom. It would seem sometimes that all good efforts at reform are designed to fail, political patronage often being merely the cloak of a dangerous power-lust.
A former fellow and German Tagore scholar satirised this quite aptly. The rats of the Institute fight over who should control it. The head of one gang, claiming to be the descendent of the rats of the Raj, claims he has precedence. Another post-colonial competitor contests this by saying, “Your days are over, now we nationalists are in charge.” Similarly, the monkeys who roam the campus fight among themselves over who owns it. The langurs and the rhesus represent, it would seem, two parties with opposing ideologies. They stage pitched battles for ascendancy, often scratching and biting their rivals, and marking their territories with excreta. I would have liked to add a third imaginary struggle between the menacingly large, upside-down nocturnal creatures that haunt the corridors of this venerable monument. I think of them as the ghosts of the dead and departed who back home in ‘Old Blighty’ never, if Rudyard Kipling is to be believed, had it as good as when they lorded it over in Shimla.
I am, therefore, glad and grateful to the powers that be that we were able to flag off the comprehensive restoration of the building, starting with the five-story Kitchen Wing, on 13 August. It has been a long struggle, but the governmental sanction has finally come through. Yet, so much more needs to be done, not just in IIAS, but also our other institutions of excellence, if they are to be saved from internal squabbles for power and control.
Destiny of the republic
The National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 lays a great deal of stress on ‘institutional restructuring and consolidation’. It also re-affirms ‘the integrity of faculty and institutional leadership positions through a comprehensive institutional development plan (IDP).’ Article 13.7 of the NEP boldly proclaims that ‘the presence of outstanding and enthusiastic leaders that cultivate excellence and innovation is the need of the hour.’
But for these lofty ideas to amount to more than pious platitudes or pretty prattle, political will and bureaucratic follow-through must be exercised. Else institutions like the IIAS, which are prized national assets, will be overrun by vested interests for furthering their selfish designs. In my more despairing or desperate moments, I sometimes look to the flagpole atop the tower of our building. In aforementioned satire, it is the stout Deodar trunk, turned into a flagpole, which looks calmly over the vagaries of fortune, having seen, empires come and go, nations rise and fall.
This morning, on Independence Day, when I hoisted the flag of India on the front lawns of this once imperial building, I prayed that the future of this great Institute would remain shielded from the negative forces that plague it. I hope that it too can play its destined role in the rise of our great republic.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.
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