Debate: Boycott the Ministers and Officials Attacking Academic Freedom

Scholars of South Asia unite – we have nothing to lose but our visa restrictions.

As an India-based scholar, as someone who is not a member of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), which is primarily located in the US though it has 7,000 members worldwide, and someone who had no plans of attending the AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi (July 4-8, 2018), the boycott call against the AAS-in-Asia is not something that would ordinarily bother me.

The boycott call arose out of the government of India’s refusal to allow Pakistani scholars to attend the AAS meeting; and the AAS’s failure to take a strong public stand against this and inform its members in a timely fashion so that they could make their own choices about whether to attend while Pakistani scholars were being denied. 649 scholars protested against what appeared to be the AAS’s and the local host, Ashoka University’s quiescence in an unacceptable restriction on academic freedom. I was one of them, even though my primary anger was with the government of India, and not with the AAS. However, feeling that this was not enough, over 200 of the signatories have also decided to boycott the conference, arguing that the AAS should have had the courage to cancel the conference altogether rather than submit to the ban.

Those boycotting the conference insist,

“(T)he Government of India is not the target of the boycott. The boycott is of the AAS. Our purpose is to make clear that the academic community will not accept as legitimate an arrangement in which a section of our colleagues are categorically excluded. The goal is to establish a precedent so that other professional associations will also refuse to accept such terms, and to send a clear message that this violates the basic condition of the scholarly enterprise, free interchange.”

No one can deny scholars the right to hold their own associations to account. As far as its effect on the Indian government goes, the vociferous protest by humanist members of the AAS may even inspire other less politically conscious professional associations – of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and even yoga practitioners, to keep out of India for fear that their members – especially of Pakistani or Chinese origin – may be arbitrarily denied visas at the last minute.

It is also possible that had the AAS and Ashoka University protested more visibly and in time, visas might well have been granted to the Pakistani scholars. In an authoritarian regime, “back channel diplomacy” as Ashoka and AAS claim they were doing usually benefits those in power – because they can then withhold or graciously grant visas as a favour. Visas for international academic conferences should be globally seen as the norm rather than the exception, a right rather than a favour.

There are many scholars on the list of signatories to the boycott whose work and political acumen I respect greatly; some are close friends. It is also true that many American scholars have been debating whether to hold their associational meetings in the US following the US travel ban on seven primarily Muslim countries.

However, as AAS president Anne Feldhaus has pointed out, this particular boycott raises all kinds of questions, including how international associations should deal with national sovereignty. The biggest problem, however, is the whiff of imperial double standards. Most of the signatories to the boycott come from universities in the US with a sprinkling of European scholars. It may well be that the AAS-in-Asia is just the beginning and the scholars concerned will boycott other association meetings in the US itself, but the ‘answers’ to their own ‘FAQs’ that accompany the boycott call is not reassuring on this score:

“The fact that the AAS has its home base in the United States, where similar visa restrictions apply is a separate issue: the organization has no choice but to operate in its domestic environment; it has plenty of choices about how to operate elsewhere, including refusing to cooperate with governments who censor in a priori fashion. The AAS does not control visas. It does control how it operates in the world (italics mine).”

In response to a specific FAQ on the comparison with the US travel ban, this is the answer the scholars boycotting AAS-in-Asia provide:

“First, with respect to the travel ban in the US, we would definitely support any organization that decides to hold its meetings in Canada or Mexico or somewhere else, so long as the US travel ban is in effect. This may be especially urgent in the case of MESA (Middle East Studies Association), given that the ban specifically targets countries within MESA’s subject area. In an ideal world, perhaps, all professional associations would shift their meetings out of the US until the travel ban is repealed. In the event that international scholars choose to boycott meetings held in the US, we would fully support their decision to do so.”

This sounds very much like saying that in an ideal world, perhaps, I would get rid of my dictator, but since I can’t, I will help to get rid of yours. Whether one likes the comparison or not, this was pretty much the logic used by those who supported the US war on Iraq and Syria, wars which destroyed their education systems from primary school to university. How are US restrictions a ‘separate issue’? To my mind, they are part of the same global problem of authoritarian governments imposing bans on academic exchange, and only solidarity can be the basis of academic exchange, not a patronising boycott of one country alone.

An image from 1947 showing the partition of books from India and Pakistan, at the Calcutta National Library.

But it is the statement about supporting international scholars who choose to boycott the US that is particularly disingenuous in its wilful blindness to scholarly hierarchies and the political economy of academic life. The concentration of academic resources in the US means that any academic who boycotts a US conference loses out much more than one who boycotts an Indian or Iranian one. Students, in particular, often have no choice.

Most problematic of all is the fact that many of these signatories come from universities that are actively engaged with Indian politicians, bureaucrats, journalists (including those who actively promote anti-Muslim hate) and businessmen. Not only do these universities benefit from the largesse of Indian corporates like the Ambanis or Mittals but their hubris encourages them to hold conferences with influential Indians in the belief that they are shaping national politics. Some of these events are held on university campuses while others are held in various five-star venues in India, like the MIT-India conference, the Harvard US India Initiative, the LSE-India Summit and so on.

An Ashoka-Harvard US India student conference held at the Oberoi Trident Mumbai in 2017 had this to say about its agenda: “Holding dialogue between Indian scholars, professionals and political leaders to identify solutions in multiple paradigms in India’s development.” The speakers included Chanda Kochhar, Sunil Mittal, Amitabh Bachhan etc. While students from these universities who already have an enormous sense of privilege are parachuted in to ‘identify solutions’ and get to know Indian celebrities, Indian students are struggling for non-net scholarships, for qualified teachers, for the right to eat non-vegetarian food in their messes and so on. There is also no sense that ‘solutions’ to India’s problems will come from India’s farmers, fishers and foresters, and not from bankers, bureaucrats or Harvard students.

Finally, under a government of India scheme with overseas universities, Harvard, Duke, Chicago, Singapore, LSE, Cambridge, Sussex etc. are also actively engaged in offering short- and long-term training to Indian bureaucrats in specially tailored courses like public policy, public finance, leadership and decision making. The bureaucrats get to go abroad while the universities make money and claim they are contributing to India’s ‘development’. Smriti Irani gets to claim she has a Yale degree. This is the same (former) HRD minister and the same bureaucracy which has no problem keeping Pakistani (and Chinese) scholars out, and indeed making life difficult for Indian scholars on a day-to-day basis. While one recognises that anthropologists, historians, or linguists are relatively powerless within university hierarchies, putting pressure on their own universities to disengage with India’s politicians and bureaucrats would have much more effect than a boycott of the AAS. That is, assuming the ultimate goal is the lifting of visa restrictions, and allowing for academic exchange, and not simply showing up the AAS or Ashoka University for their pusillanimity.

To come back to the AAS-in-Asia, the AAS conference fees for SAARC/LDC students while not cheap, are no more than what societies like the Indian Sociological Society charge. Presumably a boycott by eminent scholars would mean denying many students and young scholars the opportunity to interact with them. Participating and protesting, on the other hand, would make even apolitical scholars think, and fortunately such protests are being planned by the organisers themselves as well as others.

What Indians should do

As an Indian my primary concern is, of course, with the Government of India’s idiotic and unwarranted assault on academic freedom and intellectual life. While businessmen in Modi’s India come and go as they please, invest as they please and take money out as they please, academics are bound by a thousand ropes. Leave alone Pakistanis – whose presence in India has long been a hit and miss affair – Indian scholars are now being prevented from speaking on Indian soil. From 2016-18, at least 15-20 seminars or events to be addressed by Indian scholars – at places as varied as TISS, Allahabad University, Baroda University, Delhi University – have been cancelled by university authorities after the ABVP threatened to disrupt the events.

Many of these cancelled talks have been on subjects like casteism, the constitution or democracy. In 2017, Pami Dua, director of the Delhi School of Economics, refused space to faculty and students for a seminar on the Supreme Court judgment on the Right to Privacy. In all such cases, the faculty should have protested far more than they did.

It would be foolish to claim, as some are doing, that Ashoka as a private university has succumbed to governmental pressure whereas public universities would have served the cause better. Of course, private universities are politically circumspect but the record of India’s public universities, including many progressive academics, when faced with the spate of organised attacks on academic freedom, has hardly been anything to write home about. Students are a different matter – and indeed, much of the protest against academic unfreedom has come from students.

At this moment, whatever one’s opinions about private vs. public universities, about the AAS and its office bearers, one needs to see the denial of visas to Pakistani scholars as yet another hit on academic freedom, where the primary culprit is the Government of India. Wherever we are, in private or public institutions, we need to protest whenever the government or university authorities interfere with academic freedom.

Beyond the politics of protest and boycott, however, it is time for South Asia-based academics to start thinking about how to make the subcontinent a serious scholarly space. We need to set up many more collaborations, even if at the moment these are possible only by email and Skype, design courses which truly take account of the environment, politics and histories of all the South Asian countries (not just Pakistan and India), co-teach courses if possible (why not a joint MOOC?), and do comparative research. It is quite shocking, for instance, that the public discussion around triple talaq in India was not informed by the rich debates and histories of legal reform in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Scholars of South Asia unite – we have nothing to lose but our visa restrictions.

Nandini Sundar teaches sociology in Delhi University and is the co-editor, along with Aparna Sundar, of Civil Wars in South Asia: State, Sovereignty and Development (Sage 2014).