Covid reality, Hindutva and the state of academic freedom
"The situation is alarming, ghastly and uncertain. Deaths all around and institutions seem to be collapsing fast. More seriously, there is no able political head who can lead the nation at this stage of serious crisis". These were the introductory lines of a private message from a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor, an academic of international repute who served in a number of national committees during his distinguished tenure.
The reality of misplaced national priorities shaped by religious bigotry and corporate interests led him to add, "What an irony! We now have a living example of 'the priority to national security in the most orthodox sense and near total negligence and collapse of human security' in the same nation state". The gigantic crevices in national priorities are obvious when "this nuclear power fails to provide cylinders of oxygen for the gasping Covid patients". He goes on to state that in nearby Aligarh Muslim University, 16 serving faculty members succumbed to Covid-19 within a course of 20 days, and dead bodies are floating in the Ganges in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as people are not able to cope with the pain, anxiety and expenses of funerals.
He informs that his own institution, the JNU, has remained closed for almost 20 months, initially because of "the high-handedness and repression of the University administration" and subsequently due to the pandemic. University authorities have stubbornly shunned the demand for establishing a quarantine centre on campus.
Turning to the situation of an institution that once rivalled any top academic institution in the West, the JNU professor bemoans that the last five years have been the worst period for the university. The extreme rightist forces have taken over the entire administration and have engaged in rampant recruitment of under- and unqualified faculty. Any attempt to resist such moves "are met with vilification and public humiliation by the deputed and hired machinery both of campus and in the social media, that has no lower limits". "If you speak you are sure (to) get knocked out as there is no distinction between a referee and a player", he concludes.
The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 of India states that academic freedom is based on principles that include creativity and critical thinking, constitutional values, a respect for diversity and the local context, a positive working environment for students and faculty, and substantial investment in a strong vibrant public education system. It also promises "merit-based appointment of leadership" in higher education institutions, and "freedom from political or external interference." Unfortunately, there is a major chasm between these acknowledged principles and lived experiences of academics and those of academic institutions, particularly at the tertiary level.
The relationship between those in command of the state and the academia has never been a smooth one. It became particularly tense during the 1975-1978 Emergency. However, a Status Report on Academic Freedom of India, prepared for the UN special rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, notes that "the period since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power… has seen an unprecedented assault on academic freedom as well as on academics".
In the past, the universities enjoyed a high degree of self-governance as decision-making on content of syllabi, or qualifications and procedures for recruitment of students and faculty, were matters of statutory faculty meetings and representative academic councils. In the last decade or so, the University Grants Commission of India "has seen a steady accretion of power and displayed a heightened propensity to function as an instrument of the [education] ministry", according to academic NJ Gopal in Reforming India. Since 2016, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association has been forced to repeatedly go to court against violations by their vice chancellor and in defence of existing statutory rules and conventions.
The dependence of universities on government funding and appointment of key functionaries provide the latter leverage to exercise control over those institutions, a propensity that has registered a substantial increase in recent years. The Status Report observes that "since 2014, the government has systematically filled academic leadership positions with right-wing ideologues or pro-government sympathisers, many with no proper academic publications" and furnishes evidence of how some of them had openly advocated anti-Muslim sentiments in the guise of scholarship, while others promoted religious agenda such as banning of consumption of meat in women's hostel.
Students holding dissenting views were alleged to "have been routinely subjected to rustication, expulsion, and withholding of scholarships". The suicide of a Dalit student of Hyderabad Central University in January 2016 brought into the open the extent of caste discrimination in universities, triggering nationwide calls for legislation to address campus discrimination. Actions against Dalit students by the union education ministry ostensibly acting on behalf of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP's parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, led "not only to their rustication from hostels and withholding of fellowships, it resulted in their institutional ostracisation".
Highhandedness of university administration has given rise to cases in which service rules that are applicable to central government employees are imposed on faculty members, banning them from writing for the press, appearing on TV programmes and participating in demonstrations. In other instances, faculty members are denied leave, stalled or refused promotions, or their retirement benefits are withheld.
University teachers with independent views often become targets. The Magsaysay awardee Sadeep Pandey of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Venaras was branded as "anti-national", charged for showing banned films and his services were terminated. Likewise, the contract of an IIT Kharagpur professor was terminated for whistleblowing on corruption. Although these two victims of wrongful termination and a few others secured relief from the courts on grounds of academic freedom, such recourse is time consuming, expensive and uncertain, and is no substitute for academic freedom.
In March 2021, two eminent professors, Pratap Mehta and Arvind Subramanian, stepped down from Ashoka University, the Indian version of an Ivy League institution, as the institution failed to provide them academic freedom. The Economist reported that the founders of Ashoka had told Mehta in a meeting that his criticism of the Modi government was threatening the planned expansion of the institute. Mehta and Subramanian's exit was viewed by former Reserve Bank of India governor and economist Raghuram Rajan as a "grievous blow" to free speech and liberalism in India.
Political interference in academic matters reached a new low when Ramchandra Guha, one of India's leading historians and biographer of Gandhi, was barred from taking up a chair and directorship of the Gandhi winter school of Ahmedabad University (a private university) at the prodding of ABVP, which branded him as a "so-called historian" contributing to "national disintegration".
On top of this, new subjects are being introduced or massive funds are being diverted to research (such as cow protection) that are overtly geared to RSS's ideological preferences. In 2017, some 12,000 scientists marched across India to protest against funding cuts and demanded an end to the "propagation of unscientific, obscurantist ideas and religious intolerance … patronised by persons in high positions", noting that "untested and unscientific ideas are being introduced into the school textbooks and curricula."
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the authority of ABVP "to veto campus events". In January 2020, masked ABVP students attacked the JNU campus and beat students and faculty protesting against fee hikes. Earlier, in December 2019, students in Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University were brutalised for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019. The JMI library was also vandalised by the police.
The Status Report provides a plethora of examples in which university authorities have denied students and faculty the right to hold public meetings, discussions, or film screenings on issues they deem "controversial", and which are covered under the scope of the right to free speech upheld by the Supreme Court. Provisions pertaining to hurting of religious sentiment and sedition of the Indian Penal Code come in handy to suppress dissent. Since 2014, student leaders have been charged with sedition, and other sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act—India's anti-terror legislation—under which it is difficult to even get bail.
The rising trends of authoritarianism and Hindutva ideology, and the concomitant restrictive environment for academic freedom, has taken a severe toll on India's international standing. In March 2020, the Academic Freedom Index, a near global data on academic indices, accorded the country a poor score, at par with Saudi Arabia and Libya, and lower than Somalia, Pakistan and Malaysia. In his letter, the JNU professor underscores that Indians are used to tough and trying times. Surely, the proud nation will transcend this aberration, and reason and rationality will again be the dominant discourse of Indian academia.
C R Abrar is an academic with interest on human rights and migration.