BENGALURU : A Sanskrit hymn from the distant past may not be the caller ringback tone you expect while dialling a professor who has hit out against forcing ‘national priorities’ into academic research. But if you’re calling Meena T. Pillai, prepare for Yaami Yaami Bhaimi from Kathakali, featuring a romantic couple in Mahabharata.

On 21 March, Pillai, a literature professor and a familiar face on the state’s cultural scene, quit the board of studies of Central University of Kerala (CUK), after it urged departments to admit Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) students only if their topics are related to “national priorities" and discourage “irrelevant" areas.

“The clauses are all problematic. One is national priority; who decides national priority? Second is irrelevant research, how do you say that something is irrelevant? What is irrelevant to a national audience may be very relevant for a Malayalee. The third reason is that you have to choose from the shelf of projects which are selected by the faculty. We actually underestimate the next generation, saying that they cannot think and we will think for you," Pillai said over the phone.

“It is closing the right to free thought, the right to dissent and the right of choice. Higher education would then mean a sense of culture where you listen and pamper your supervisors, the people in power, and that is how research would be done," said Pillai, who authored the 2010 book Women in Malayalam Cinema.

The university later said its communication was “misinterpreted" and ‘national priority’ means topics that would benefit the economic, social and technological advancement of the nation and society, news channel NDTV reported.

When asked if her decision would be seen as politically motivated against the central government, she said: “The CUK accused me of being political. Yes, I am extremely political in my resignation. It doesn’t matter to me who comes to power. But whoever comes to power, should not use education as a tool where the future generation should be subjugated to an ideology, whichever be the ideology."

“Right now, it is only CUK that has come with this circular. But gradually, others will come up, because the funding agencies are all the same," added Pillai, who frequently attends Kerala’s literary festivals, movie discussions and academic seminars.

She has received support from other writers and politicians, including Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and writer and MP from her Thiruvananthapuram constituency Shashi Tharoor.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, Gandhi attacked Union human resource department minister Prakash Javadekar, who runs India’s central universities. “Now, self-attested wise minister (Javadekar) of over intelligent Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) will tell the intellectuals of the country how should they do their work. It is perfectly said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," Gandhi said.

Audrey Truschke, historian and writer who had earlier courted attack by the Hindu right for her book on Aurangzeb, also defended Pillai. “Another move in the ongoing restriction of knowledge by the Indian State and the decimation of Indian higher education. It is a heartbreaking but increasingly real possibility that, a few decades from now, we won’t find academic colleagues in India anymore," she wrote on Twitter.

Tharoor, who is seeking another term as the local MP in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, urged people to join Pillai in protests against the centre. “Disgraceful HRD instruction that researchers can pursue PhDs only on topics of ‘national interest’ prompts Kerala professor to quit. The rest of us can join her protest by voting the troglodytes out!" he tweeted. 

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