I woke up rather early for a Sunday morning to participate in an online event to felicitate eminent Indian academics and educationists in the United States who were also recipients of the “Padma” or highest civilian awards conferred by the Government of India. The programme was scheduled for Saturday, April 24, 8:30 PM, Eastern Standard Time in the US, which translated to 5:30 AM in India.
One reason I made the effort was that some of the awardees were personally known to me. But another motivation was the attractive and relevant title of the event, “Academic institutions for a new India: The role of Indian-American academics.”
As a US-returnee, having a Masters and PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I have been keen to improve Indo-US intellectual and academic partnerships for decades.
The US is special in this respect because if Indians have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling anywhere in the world, reaching unprecedented heights of achievement, wealth, and prestige, it is undoubtedly in the US.
Excelling in all walks of life
From winning Nobel Prizes, to leading the world’s biggest corporations, to occupying the highest offices of the land such as the Vice-Presidency, Indians in the US have demonstrated that they have come of age in their host country, excelling in nearly all walks of life.
Of course, the huge Indian diaspora, numbering over 30 million, has generally done well all over the world, in countries of great political, cultural, and ethnic diversity, ranging from Surinam to Australia, and from Canada to Fiji. In the Gulf region, especially, they form a sizeable and powerful community, occupying practically every strata of society from the must humble to the most privileged.
It would not be an exaggeration to boast that in all continents of human habitation, high-achievers of Indian origin may be found. What is more, they all have an unusual attachment for and interest in their home country.
Arguably, however, no other regime has been as effective and committed to leveraging this relationship than the present one, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi’s own support abroad is legendary. His rock-star like return to the US after years of facing visa bans is memorable.
A crowd of nearly 20,000 at Madison Square gardens on September 28, 2014 greeted him after his election as India’s PM. His re-election in 2019 was marked by a summit meeting with then US President Donald Trump on September 22, 2019 in Houston. Billed as “Howdy Modi,” the event attracted even larger crowds exceeding 50,000 at the immense multi-purpose NRG stadium.
The recognition accorded to professors of Indian origin in the US was, thus, of special interest to me. The organisers of the event, a not-for-profit called “Bharatiyam,” aspired to leverage Indo-US cooperation “to create a platform where innovation, research and wealth generation thrive.”
Highly qualified and talented leaders
What could be better than to network highly qualified and talented leaders in the US knowledge economy with their counterparts in India, especially those who were also committed to national progress and socially causes too?
The Padma Awardees felicitated were Padma Bhushan Professor Ved Nanda, University of Denver, Padma Bhushan Professor Jagdish Seth, Emory University, and Padma Shris Professors Rattan Lal, Ohio State University, Professor Srikant Datar, Dean Harvard Business School, Professor Subhash Kak, Oklahoma State University, and Professor S.P. Kothari, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The programme was ably compeered by Professor Lavanya Vemsani of Shawnee State University, Ohio.
Listening to their success stories very early on a Sunday morning was well worth it. Undoubtedly, there is so much to learn from them, so much to emulate. What was common to the inspiring journeys of these high-achievers? The shared denominators of their success included humble beginnings, persistent struggles, support received from parents, teachers, and mentors, and unexpected opportunities.
Also implicit to their success was the robust institutional framework of US higher education. The protection afforded to freedom of thought, encouragement given to innovation, excellence, and competence, and, finally, a transparent and accountable system of governance. These are the prerequisites of excellence in the field of higher education.
Indian value systems
What was equally noteworthy was the depth and persistence of Indian value systems, often derived from childhood religious and spiritual teachings. Respect for elders and teachers, non-injury to living beings, non-hoarding but giving back, working for the good of all, not just oneself or one’s families — these were some of the codes to live by.
Reflecting on the situation in India, many of these values are still intact, but the institutional set-up to safeguard them is woefully inadequate. India suffers from a competence deficit coupled with a competence phobia.
The systems in place need a significant overhaul so that good people in a variety of fields do not have to the leave the land of their birth but can live up to their fullest potential, even excel to be world-beaters right where they are.
But to accomplish this, tremendous political will in addition to far-reaching reforms in the education sector are needed. Unfortunately, however, we have more pious intentions, policy announcements, and slogans than real change on the ground.
Right now, with institution after institution displaying varying degrees of disorder and dysfunctionality, it would not be unfair to say that higher education is in a state of crisis in India.
But every crisis is also an opportunity. Whether an influential Indo-US group of academics and professionals can actually do something to rectify the situation remains to be seen. This is certainly a good beginning.