You belong to the second generation of post-imperial historians. Britain was blamed for India being a very backward economy. Now, within two or three generations of independence it is on a very different path. Is there a change in perception about India among British social scientists and historians?
To go back to those two or three generations, there was a time when the imperial record was wiped clean in Britain. We were told we were all Europeans. I was never taught anything in school about the Empire. It was something that was, as it were, forgotten about. That has changed. There has been a recognition, now much more, of the imperial record, [which] partly reflects the fact that [approximately] three, four million Britons are from origins in the colonies and now very much part of British society. [They] have demanded to know much more about their own history. Post-empire imperial history has a much larger role in syllabi and also in the social sciences.
With regard to how the social sciences treat India now, there is still a schizophrenic attitude and good deal of conflict. One branch has very much responded to the new India, the modern India. It concerns the development of links of technology and business with India. On the other hand, there are very significant parts of the social sciences establishment in Britain initially tied up with development studies. You have a great deal of studies on Indian poverty and [sections of the British social science establishment] who still have not recognised the changing context.
Still, their essential concern with the country is the traditional bread basket, the famine hit areas. They still want to address very, very basic issues such as poverty. It does have a place, a very important place, but sometimes it looks very odd that the weight of research that is going on in India in the social sciences seems to be placed on that side – tackling the poverty and hardship of minority groups - without appreciating the changing context in which that is operating, and [the fact] that India itself now has the wealth, the means and the technology for resolving the problems for itself without necessarily depending on external intervention. Some branches of social sciences have not yet fully appreciated the extent to which India has grown up and is now able to take responsibility for its own problems.
You have taught for 40 years in the best universities both in the U.K., and the U.S. To somebody from outside, it seems that British higher education is in a deep crisis. If this continues, will it be able to produce scholars like you who have invested so much in non-British societies? In India the business of higher education seems to be in a boom. Is there something we can learn from British higher education administration, both positively and negatively?
Well, don’t do it like the British are doing it is the first thing. The university situation is very, very problematic in Britain, especially if you’re British. I’ll take that up later. The fee structure now means that people who go to university from ordinary backgrounds graduate with debts that will take them more than their lifetime to pay off, and, that’s at the undergraduate level!
What we’re seeing, certainly in the league universities is that a lot of bright students, who in the past might have well gone on to an academic career, of what one hopes considerable achievement but of very modest pay, thinking about that very seriously. I am concerned about the quality at the top-end of students going on to research. That being said, there are some relative bright spots.
At the upper end, places like Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Edinburgh, have opened up as international schools, particularly at the post-graduate level, and are able to bring together extremely interested young scholars from all over the world. I think that interaction – studying India with Indians, with Americans, with Canadians – does create a liveliness and a diversity in perspective, which makes me, at that level, hopeful of the global academic community and history, even while recognising the ability of Britons themselves to participate in this is relatively limited.
We have several funds in Cambridge University, quite considerable funds involving several millions of Pounds, which are available for students from all over the world, except Britain. The government funding of graduate research, especially in the arts, and soft social sciences has been cut, and cut and cutting again. It’s very difficult. One almost expects a notice on the History faculty in Cambridge soon saying ‘No Dogs. No British’ on it. So, from a British point of view I am very, very pessimistic, but from the point of view of academic research, I think the last 20 years have had some very encouraging signs as regards internationalisation of research and the exchange of ideas.
(A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, and a member of the Board of Advisers of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. He is a historian and Tamil writer and has published widely on the social, cultural and intellectual history of colonial and post-colonial Tamil Nadu.)