Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In all likelihood it is Mr. Kapil Sibal, our Union Human Resource Development Minister, who, for the first time, brought Nobel Prize into a discourse, at least public, on IITs. When the IIT faculty went on a day’s protest against certain recommendations of the Pay Committee (constituted for the IITs, IIMs, etc.), the minister said (among other things, of course) that it was improper for the prospective Nobel laureates to resort to such methods to voice their protest. We do not know whether a prospective Nobel Prize winner refrains or should refrain from acts of protest, but we do know that there are indeed Nobel laureates who participated in various acts of protest. Bertrand Russell’s is a shining example of it. That apart, it is difficult to agree with the proposition that there is something unacceptable, if not downright demeaning, about registering a protest in a peaceful manner, or participating in a non-violent agitation.

There is almost nothing in the public domain about how the IIT faculty responded to the Minister’s statement. We heard that some sought to inform the minister that IITs were institutes of technology, and there are no Nobel Prizes for work in technology. If there is any truth in it, it is disappointing, because at one stroke, they almost disowned disciplines such as Physics, Chemistry and Economics at their Institutes. In any case, the Minister’s remark did evoke some media discussion. It had to! At least one television channel organized a short discussion on IIT faculty’s failure to win a Nobel, and among the experts was a former member of the faculty of an IIT. They blamed the lack of infrastructure, proper research environment, etc. at these Institutes. Anyway, as for us, we are unconcerned about why IIT faculty has not yet won a Nobel or who all have missed it, and how narrowly, and for what reasons, what conspiracies!

We view the Minister’s remarks as an instance of the language of power. The language that power uses has many forms. Albert Camus’s play Caligula provides an excellent example of one: foul, abusive, rude, cynical, and violent. Power has not ceased to use such language, but the contexts and the targets are different. The civil society in many parts of the world has almost ensured that distinctly unpleasant language is not used in a public platform.

Power now tends to use a different language; call it “indirect language”, that makes use of irony, satire, sarcasm, and metaphor, among other rhetorical devices. Indirect language is essentially about saying one thing in terms of another, and also about both concealing and revealing the meaning of one’s say. The obvious advantage it has over direct language is that whereas one commits oneself by using direct language, one escapes commitment and possible criticism by using indirect language. When the purpose is to hurt, it is served with the advantages of a smile. Such an expressive device can be very useful for power.

The Minister, the intelligent and efficient person that he is, surely knew that the achievements and contributions of an educational institution such as an IIT could not be meaningfully measured in terms of whether it had a Nobel on its faculty, and that a member of the faculty who is not a Nobel laureate could not be seriously thought of as mediocre for that reason. Mr. Al Gore, the US Vice-President during Mr. Clinton’s presidency, took just eight years to get the Nobel Peace Prize after staying away from active politics. Now does it constitute a serious argument that the politicians who have not got a Nobel after their retirement from public office are just no good? It took President Obama just a few months to win the Nobel Prize, after assuming Presidency; is it really a comment on those Heads of State who have not won a Nobel months or years after assuming office?

But when does power care for logic. It knows it can get away with whatever it says. Logic is for the powerless, if it wishes to engage with power. The Minister wanted the IIT faculty to know that he didn’t think much of them, and the country to note that the members of the IIT faculty think too much of themselves. He just did not say these in so many words. As for the Nobel Prize, it was just rhetoric.

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