Sometime in the year 2000 or 2001, the Patna High Court had directed me to enquire in the matter of the award of a fraudulent MA degree by the Magadha University – with a first class to boot - to an influential person.

In a report to the Hon’ble High Court - which is the basis of this short piece - outlining the dimension of the problem and the challenges in calling the perpetrators to account, I had observed "what W H Auden had said about literature - “News that stays news”, can be said of the state of Higher education in Bihar”.

Disclosures about irregularities continue to shock us even though they keep breaking with monotonous regularity.

I am posting a copy of my guest editorial piece for the Times of India captioned "Burning the Book" published around that time. It may be found topical in the context of the “topper controversy.

Burning the Book
Clue to Bihar's Decay is in its Universities

Alexis de Tocqueville ascribed the success of democratic institutions in the US to abundant opportunities for education. Can the roots of Bihar’s decay be located in the decline of its once vibrant academic life?

Till the early sixties, the system of higher education in Bihar was not exactly avante garde but was nevertheless not lagging far behind its time. Colleges of Patna University, whether dedicated to arts, science or engineering and medicine still commanded recognition all over the country. Even moffussil districts could boast of at least one college which produced an IAS once in a while, and sent many more in other services and professions.

The IAS has been mentioned advisedly because this was the benchmark of quality in those days. But the surface calm was deceptive and the ubiquitous incursion of politics, which in Bihar often means the struggle for supremacy of castes, and the tendency of the civil service to have a say in everything was beginning to be felt. The perceptive could see the writing on the wall. Death of any organism is not a sudden all out affair. Cells go down in sequence and determined intervention even at the very last moment can avert the catastrophe. But not much notice was taken of and the progressive deterioration gathered momentum.

In the year 1983 however it became a matter of official knowledge that the higher education was in a terminal state of crisis. The corpse that had been planted much earlier had begun to sprout. The VS Jha committee - set up by the government to investigate the malaise - concluded that those education administrators, political elite civil servants who were responsible for shoring the fortunes were the very people who were digging its grave.

The report is a compendium of the peccadilloes of chancellors, vice chancellors and other dignitaries. The Jha committee made the stern recommendation

In the year 1975 the education administrators of Bihar discovered the wisdom of financing higher education primarily out of the exchequer grants in aid. The takeover of the colleges became a regular phenomenon. Between 1947 and 1975, 17 colleges were taken over by the government; between 1975 and 1978 the number was 286. Many of these colleges would fall in the category of colleges of which the VS Jha committee report says, “Starting a college is a gainful business, provided you are a political boss or a public nuisance.”

In his famous Lindsey memorial lecture Professor Herbert Butterfield had warned the universities to be aware of the creeping bureaucracy. Bihar was in the throes of galloping bureaucracy. Henceforth universities became intimately bound up in a complex set of reciprocal relations. It was now a very sought after source of employment for the mediocre wives and loitering heirs of illustrious people, but proved to be a great de-motivator for those who had deliberately opted for teaching as a career.

It also led to the bending of every rule, of sacrosanct academic rituals to accommodate the VIP protégé. Parasitism, patronage and sycophancy – never totally absent from the campuses – became established as the academic decorum. It also killed the private initiative and led to the retreat of community from an area, which properly belonged to it. All that one had to do was to establish an institute. Never mind if it was grossly violative of rules etc.

Given the great demand for education, admission seekers would flock in great numbers. Thus hundreds, maybe thousands, are co-opted in a venture that was ab initio null and void and citing the predicament of so many duped or knowing victims would always create some slight locus of legitimacy. Sooner or later the wily entrepreneur was bound to have his way validating the unstated assumption that ruling elites and power cliques have the right to appropriate public funds for serving their narrow constituencies. But above all campuses now became fully and comprehensively enmeshed in the game of politicking, which is confused for politics, just as moralizing, is confused for morality. Politics led to the induction of its closest ally crime. But yes! They also continued to provide academic degrees. Deserved, genuine, in absentia, or downright fake ones.

The division bench of the Hon’ble Patna High Court asked me to look into the award of one such fraudulent award of an MA degree to an influential person. The investigation led one straight away to the academic underworld where vice chancellors, senior all India service officers, and academic “don” or don” academicians were on easy terms of commerce. The everyday epic of irregularities, chicanery and every mode of moneymaking activity were revolting to say the least. But the saddest part was that this unfortunate lady got caught doing what many of the tribe do all the time.

The VS Jha committee report, which I had the occasion to read during this investigation, gave a curious sense of déjà vu. The investigation only amassed more of the same evidence – as if evidence was needed – to buttress the conclusions. (The pruriently inclined may refer to my report submitted to the Hon’ble High Court in the matter of CWJC7164/98)

The investigation also revealed the fact that the government had been very generous in funding higher education. From 1995 to 2000 (the investigation was conducted in the year 2000) there was a hefty increase in allocation both in absolute terms as well as percentage terms. In fact the allocation for a particular year is 5.83 % which is just marginally short of the NEP recommendation of 6% of the GDP and it is much higher than many of the progressive states. So paucity of resources is not the problem.

Seminal to the issue is the flight of capital to elitist groups. Like the microbes that makes a living in the blood, tissues, lymph nodes of the human host may not be even aware that in seeking its self realization leads to the destruction of the human host which for the microbe is its world, similarly the colossal apathy of the Bihari elite hide bound through extensive system of casteist alliances and vested interests, to such a vital area of our concern, has led to the destruction of higher education in Bihar altogether.

Educated in Bihar is gradually acquiring the status of a statutory warning. In the month of July every year the children of the upper crust of Bihari population flock to educational centres of Delhi, Poona, Bangalore and even smaller places like Kota and Bhopal seeking admission. Their fathers having destroyed their own academic environment must see their children roam like refugees throughout the country for some foothold somewhere.

(P.S.: My copy which was saved on my computer is slightly different from the published one.)

India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Patiliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.