Carry on, Doctors!

Why ‘Doctor’? Why not ‘Engineer’ or ‘Lawyer’? or at the worst, ‘Journalist’? If Engineer Sonia or Lawyer Manmohan does not evoke the same ring of eminence as, say, Doctor Karunanidhi does, blame it on a historic habit. In Latin, the usual suspect that has fathered most English words, docere means ‘to teach’, an honourable pursuit, no doubt and ‘doctorate’ apparently evolved from it. How that word got attached to the medical profession remains a mystery and warrants a doctoral research. But since it somehow did, for we only go to a doctor for sure when we have a cough, and given the exalted status of that life saving vocation, a Doctor has always stood a notch above other professionals. It’s therfore understandable that a Doctorate is the ‘highest university degree in any faculty’.

So, we will take the basic question as being settled and Doctor it shall be, not Engineer or Lawyer, even if an Engineer or Lawyer gets a ‘Doctorate’. We are also not presently interested in the medical doctors, though that fraternity besides spreading well-being has also been generous in sharing its hard earned prefix with those who can’t tell a thermometer from a ball-point pen. Therefore, while it is obvious that the sum total of doctors in circulation would be higher than the total number that passes out of medical colleges, what’s of concern is the widening gap. Here too, if the swell is owing to those who get their doctorates by dint of academic research, the country can be proud, for it indicates an explosion of enlightenment. But alas, the alarming rise in doctor populace is rather due to explosive egos; by current trends, the country would soon be swarming with honorary doctors -HDs – with nary an increase in either well-being or knowledge, that Doctors are supposed to foster. Clearly many dummies pass off as doctors with nil accretion to society.

Back to some more history. Conferment of HDs, or for that matter, most degrees or awards by Universities, has always been controversial. In fact the practice had a very inauspicious beginning: The first conferred Doctor was Lionel Woodwille. In 1478, the Oxford university made him a Doctor of Canon Law because he was the influential brother-in-Law of Edward IV, the British monarch. Since then multitudes of HDs, recognised by multitudes of universities, have straddled the centuries in every known land. Of course, there have been quite a number of worthy individuals, but the dubious characters far outnumber them. And the exercise becomes murkier when politicians, particularly the ruling ones, turn doctors. Propriety and public opinion become terminal patients in the hands of these honorary doctors, honorary quacks, really.

George Bush was conferred an honorary degree by the Yale University in 2001 amid vociferous protests from students and faculty. Karunanidhi’s coronation as a doctor in the seventies was preceded by a floating corpse of a student protestor on the campus swimming pool. MGR and J, got their doctorates from Madras University as CMs just as K has got his second, now, making him a double doctor. One has to wrack one’s rational brain to find out which Dr, the Dr in Dr Kalaingar M Karunanidhi refers to. Yet, it certainly is one more double to his credit. But credits apart, what is the credibility of such doctorates for someone who is the final authority of the land? There’s supposed to be a screening process in every varsity. But pray, how many would dare, protest the candidature of the CM or PM or the super PM? Rather, much happens behind the screens. In any case, the robe is large enough to conceal all the viles and political vices that they might have accumulated.

But what if some sins come back to roost? Doctorates to politicians give them a cloak of respectability, in the eyes of the gullible, but suppose the cloak is torn by a quirk of political fate? The Edinburgh University had conferred a doctorate on the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe sometime in the eighties. After over twenty years, faced with protests against the President’s corrupt ways and human rights violations, the Varsity has now withdrawn the doctorate. Do we have such a recourse? What if the Bofors guns backfire? Should one wait for yet another renunciation? In Sonia’s case, particularly, she had misrepresented her educational qualifications in the Parliamentary records and then changed it after being found out. The nation has now made amends to the much sinned-against saint by granting her a higher degree, irrespective of her pedigree. But incidentally, Italy’s Education Ministry has recently prohibited its 66 Universities from granting honorary degrees. Aah, but Sonia is truly and wholly Indian now.

While Government controlled Universities routinely indulge their political bosses, so-called independent varsities too err. Many dole out doctorates to donors or to curry favours. Sometimes, even credible candidates are honoured for political reasons. In a pervert case, the Oxford University rejected a doctorate to Margaret Thatcher, because she as PM meddled with the grants to the University. In conferring a doctorate, the varsity is the sole decider; there are no laws governing it. And with the mushrooming of universities there’s a rush for distributing doctorates and musicians, actors, sportspersons et al are all in the reckoning. Conferring a doctorate is now a privilege for the giver rather than for the awardee. A doctorate to A.Bindra brings limelight though it adds little value to him. His olympic acheivement stands him in good stead, Dr or no Dr. Rather, Dr Abhinav Bindra does not rest as comfortably on his shoulders as his rifle does. Really, it’s time those who value their own worth or eminence shun or even surrender the degree.

In most countries, the title is not used. But in India, it’s a passion for the VIPs. Yes, it’s a nice feeling when you are addressed as Dr So and So, with a stress on the prefix. The ego bloats. But when you look around to find so many answering to that call, the bloated ego is punctured. All the same I would not want to deny anyone their share of one-second-fame and the momentary ego-kick. So, Dear Dr Reader, enjoy it while it lasts. And here’s signing off, yours truly, Dr. You-Know-Who. Aah, it’s that easy!

e-mail the writer at [email protected]

Jawahar T R