The 42nd Indian Social Science Congress (ISSC) was organized in association with Banaras Hindu University (BHU), between December 15-19, 2018, at Varanasi, with the focal theme of “Human future in the digital era”. With experience of 41 earlier events, it was planned with considerable advance spadework of organizing programs, sessions, etc., and inviting papers for its various sessions across multiple academic disciplines, involving several Indian universities. The announcement brochure for the event included a warm welcome from Dr.Rakesh Bhatnagar, Vice-Chancellor of BHU.

However, a mere six weeks before the commencement of the Congress, BHU, which was to host the national event, reportedly withdrew from the event, forcing its cancellation. This eleventh-hour cancellation of a national event, has its inevitable repercussions on the academic standing and credibility of both the hosting university, on the organizing body, namely, the Indian Academy of Social Sciences, and indeed on Indian universities in general.

The Indian Academy of Social Sciences (ISSA, when abbreviated) is the first National Science Academy of independent India. Other Academies of national stature, namely the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS) and National Science Academy of India (NSAI) were formed in pre-Independence times.

ISSA was formed on August 15, 1974 at the University of Allahabad. It symbolized the beginning of a new scientific approach, and heralded the beginning of a movement to organically link the natural sciences, social sciences and technology, especially in the Indian context. It is a broad-spectrum academic endeavour to include teachers, research students, scientists, social activists, policy planners and independent thinkers/philosophers of multiple and diverse disciplines.

ISSA membership is open to scientists, social workers and policy planners, and to universities, colleges and research institutes, national and regional laboratories, associations of scientific disciplines and other institutions / organizations including industrial organizations.

ISSA organizes annual Congresses in Indian university campuses which support the national event, especially in terms of the involvement of academicians and the logistics of auditoria and venues, etc. involved. The ISS Congresses, usually held over 5 days, are events at which there are national and international participants and eminent invited speakers of international repute.

BHU’s withdrawal from the planned event is more than strange. A reputed national university like BHU, which has experience in hosting academic conferences would not have agreed to hosting the 42nd ISS Congress in its campus, if its logistics were otherwise committed for the planned period.

There are inevitable raised eyebrows at cancellation (“postponement” according to ISSA, but amounting to cancellation for the announced dates) of the Varanasi ISS Congress, due to BHU expressing logistic inability for eleventh-hour withdrawal from its commitment. The cordial initial welcome from BHU’s VC is clearly at odds with the expressed logistic inability to conduct the national event. It leaves one to wonder if there is more to the withdrawal than meets the eye.

Without speculating on the behind-the-scenes pressure to scotch the 42nd ISS Congress at such a late stage, cancellation of the national event leads to the question of whether the VC’s writ really runs in BHU.

In Asia, the top universities are in Japan, Singapore and China, and in international ranking, no Indian university stands in the top 200.

The cancellation of the 42nd Indian Social Science Congress at BHU, Varanasi, will reflect on the credibility of Indian universities and indeed on India’s institutions of higher learning. The road to institutional recovery even to the 200 to 800 range of international ranking is sure to be long and hard. The Department of Higher Education under the Union Ministry of HRD would do well to investigate the body blow to the credibility of Indian universities due to the unprecedented cancellation of a national academic event.

(S.G.Vombatkere holds a PhD in civil structural dynamics from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras).