The Ken Follet spy thriller Triple has a fascinating story of the race by Israel to acquire much-needed uranium ore, and the Arabs and Russia trying to stop the Mossad. A side story to the main plot is life in the then Soviet Union seen through the prism of personal trials and tribulations of the main antagonist in the plot -- a KGB agent.
I read Triple at an early age and one particular anecdote from the novel that struck me was how the KGB agent's son fails to make it to the USSR's top Phys-Mat school -- while his boss's less-gifted son makes it. Over the years as I went on to prepare for the IIT-JEE, the parallel with the Soviet-era Phys-Mat school would frequently come to mind.
HRD Minister Kapil Sibal's comments alleging that the IIT-JEE had become a system for the "rich and the powerful" once again brought back memories from that episode in Triple of pelf, privilege and special schools for the gifted.
As an alumnus of the IIT system it is troubling that the IIT-JEE has today become a matter of such deep political intrigue. The morality of the elitism associated with IIT-JEE was always conflicting back when I went to IIT Powai, and the undergraduate programme cost a pittance thanks to government subsidy. On the one hand was the world's most competitive entrance system that filtered out the best of the best when it came to math and science talent. On the other hand was how deeply disconnected the IIT system of undergraduate education was from the socio-economic realities of India.
Back then the dominant debate was about brain drain and the huge subsidy bill. Over the years the fee structure changed, the subsidy was not what it used to be. The examination structure changed as well, with a different kind of test sophistication displacing the ability to attract raw talent.
Sibal may be partially right from the point of view of affordability of the pre-JEE techno-school phenomenon that was unheard of till a decade ago. But it would a stretch to suggest that only the "rich and the powerful" make it through the JEE. Space in this column would not be enough to recount a number of anecdotes from personal experience of fellow students from remote corners of India and of ordinary background who had made it through the JEE system out of sheer raw talent, many of who did not even get an English medium education.
The IIT system was not without its paradoxes. There was a brutally harsh side to the competitiveness within the IITs that engendered its own version of elitism, sometimes with tragically fatal consequences. Then there was the on-campus value system that was distinctly different from any other Institute of higher education in India. When I went to IIT Mumbai, India was in the throes of some of the most contentious political agitations, having barely come out of the Mandal fires to be thrown right back into the communal cauldron of the Mumbai riots followed by the Mumbai blasts. During those politically charged years, campus student activism never crossed the line between civil and robust debate and the kind of disobedience/violence that is routine in most university campuses.
At a macro level the massive subsidy and the significant brain drain were morally hard to justify in a country like India. But it would be a mistake to judge the IIT system from the macro prism of social justice. We often forget the role Institutions like IITs play in individual building through excessive emphasis on merit and excellence. The rigour within the IIT system and the values within the campus system prepared so many of us for life outside the bubble with a lot of self-confidence and respect and tolerance for dissent and diversity of opinion.
This is not to deny the dark side to the rigour and exclusion by default within the hostels that turned some for the worse. But, on balance, the IITs did produce in an institutionalised manner a whole generation of individuals with significant, non-linear impact in different walks of life spreading that ethic of excellence and those values of tolerance along the way.
Back then, affirmative action was limited to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Some, including a few close personal friends, quickly got over the hump and assimilated within the melting pot while many others struggled to fit, becoming outcastes literally and figuratively. In recent years, the OBC quota and most recently a Muslim sub-quota may have made the exclusion problem worse. But this social exclusion has to be dealt with socially and culturally. Repeated government interventions are undermining the IIT system sinking perilously from islands of excellence into a sea of indistinguishable talent.
Brain drain is not as much an issue as it was in the past. An aspirational India is learning to pay for quality education and the subsidy issue is not paramount for the IITs. There is an air of self-confidence within the IITs as institutions that are visible in this standoff with the government. The IITs are ready for and deserving of the autonomy they seek, being the only remaining institutions of excellence in India that are relatively untainted by the general institutional decay we see all around.
There are many legitimate questions on whether the JEE must test for an aptitude for engineering or test sophistication skill. There are also legitimate questions on whether the curriculum must prepare individuals for abstract research or for all-round excellence with greater emphasis on applied knowledge, innovation, social consciousness and entrepreneurship. There are serious questions on inclusivity within the campus life and the dark side to the rigour and competitiveness. All of these are questions individual IITs must resolve for themselves as mature Institutions capable of introspection and continuous course correction to outlast all of our lifetimes.
The government must leave the IITs alone. India still needs its islands of excellence perhaps with a bit more inclusivity and a bit less elitism. If we have nothing great left to aspire for, we will regress into that bottomless pit where excellence is reduced to an exercise in achieving the least common academic denominator.
Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at http://blog.offstumped.in