I had heard about papers on Islamic science policy being picked as best papers and given prominence over conventional social science papers at an international conference organized by a Malaysian university. But my first direct experience of this indigenization trend came at the international conference I spoke at last week at Manipal University. A faculty member from a university in Nepal presented a paper that sought to position communication policy within some kind of Hindu scriptural framework. I thought it was just a harmless oddity and tuned out, until I heard the professors in the audience make earnest attempts to respectfully engage with the reformulation of communication policy according to scriptures.
The questions were about the nation state, which is the necessary context of policy, which was the theme of the conference. The rambling answer was in the form of an ahistorical comparison of the post Westphalian state and what is in the scriptures. No one burst out laughing. Then I realized we were in trouble. My decision to tune out was as wrong as the question that equated reason-based thinking and faith-based reformulations. The students in the audience were being given a very wrong message.
Then comes this insightful column from Pratap Bhanu Mehta, which centrally addresses the indigenization debate:
There is unbridled resentment in Hindutva circles that the current hierarchies of knowledge privilege the Oxfords and the Harvards. Some scepticism about them would be healthy. But the resentment betrays something deeper. They fail to ask: What prevented the emergence of worthy rivals and alternatives in India, particularly after the 19th century?
The answer is in plain sight. Many European and American universities were religious institutions that transformed into the producers of modern knowledge. Imagine a counterfactual. Imagine if the wealthiest of our religious endowments, from the Sringeri Math to the Tirupati Trust, had over the last two centuries transformed themselves into such hybrid centres of openness and excellence: Where traditional learning was not limited to reproducing the same truisms over and over again, where outsiders were welcome, where modern currents of knowledge woke them out of their socially conservative, dogmatic slumber. Perhaps the history of Indian knowledge production would have been different.
We can no longer tune out from the conflation of science and scripture.