Scholars at Risk Report Details Bleak State of Academic Freedom in India

The SAR urged authorities to repeal the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act "to ensure compliance with obligations under its constitution and international human rights law".

New Delhi: Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network of higher education institutions that aims to defend academic freedom, in its Free to Think 2020 report, has called on authorities in India to “ensure the autonomy and functioning of higher education institutions”.

The report, which analysed 341 attacks on higher education communities in 58 countries between September 1, 2019, and August 31, 2020, called on the international community to protect academic freedom and said that in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, there was a “persistent threats to scholars, students, and universities” and a need to “protect higher education”.

“Over the past two years, an apparent surge in incidents reported by SAR alongside heightened nationalistic rhetoric by Prime Minister Modi underscore fears that the space for ideas and dialogue in India is being constricted, and dissent punished, endangering scholars and students whose views are disfavoured by the ruling government. This pattern has the potential to shrink the space for academic inquiry and impede the development of a national higher education sector that benefits and is inclusive of all members of Indian society,” the report said.

The SAR also specifically urged state authorities in India to ensure the autonomy of education institutions in J&K “by fully restoring telecommunications systems and removing security forces from higher education campuses” and asked them to refrain from using force in response to student expressions.

It also urged authorities to refrain from detentions and prosecutions that retaliate against, restrict, or otherwise frustrate peaceful academic conduct, expression, or associations and repeal the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act “to ensure compliance with obligations under its constitution and international human rights law”.

The report drew from the SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and monitored trends related to violent attacks on higher education communities and on campuses, wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions of scholars, restrictions on academic travel, pressures on student expression and legislative and administrative threats to university autonomy.

Also read: World Over, a Spate of Students Protests Over Campus Violence in India

“Attacks on the university space impact all of us. Within the COVID-19 crisis we see persistent threats to scholars, students, and universities—even to truth itself,” SAR’s Executive Director, Robert Quinn, said.

In addition to a clampdown on student dissent in India, the report also provided a detailed analysis of the extensive damage to the higher education sector in Yemen, the ongoing struggle for freedom in Hong Kong and China, a four-year crackdown on the academic community and a purge of scholars in Turkey and the impact of an economic crisis on the higher education system in Venezuela.

Regarding the impact of COVID-19 on higher education, the report said that virtual meetings had replaced in-person classes, narrowing access to those with internet connectivity. “Communities without internet access, including in geographically remote settings or where governments curtailed internet connectivity, such as in the Jammu and Kashmir region of India, were effectively cut off from continuing research or studies,” it noted.

In India, the Free to Think 2020 report, the arrest of activists, including students and scholars, amidst nationwide lockdowns raised concerns that the government was “taking advantage of the crisis in order to crack down on dissent”. The arrest of prominent student and scholar-activists like Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita, and Natasha Narwal, Anand Teltumbde and Hany Babu came at a time when courts were operating at a significantly reduced capacity, detainees were unlikely to be able to make bail, and that prison conditions heightened the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Regarding violent attacks on campus and against higher education communities, the Scholars at Risk report said that it had document 124 violent attacks in 42 countries. In India, the report said that in an incident on November 26, an unidentified assailant had detonated a grenade outside the University of Kashmir, leaving two people injured. It also noted that “a politically motivated attack” had been carried out on students and professors at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5, 2020.

In another incident of violence on campus, the report cited the attack on Jadavpur University (JU) professor Doyeeta Majumder on December 30. “The assailants beat her shortly after she protested a speaker’s remarks about JU at a BJP meeting that occurred just outside the campus. BJP supporters also reportedly attacked two students who tried to help the professor,” the report said.

Regarding the wrongful prosecution of scholars, the report noted the arrest of Tenzin Norbu, a Tibetan assistant professor at Hindustan College, on October 8, 2019, in “an apparent attempt to prevent protests while Chinese president Xi Xinping was visiting India” and said that in the days leading up to the summit, several Tibetan activists and students were arrested “to preemptively quash any potential protests”.

Also read: Who’s Afraid of the University?

Among other scholars in prison, the report made special mention of G.N. Saibaba, “who has engaged in human rights activism on behalf of vulnerable groups in India” and was “wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison” on March 7, 2017.

Regarding the communications blackout imposed after the Indian government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status, the report noted that, on September 18, a group of scholars had issued a public statement commenting that “teaching and activities there have been dealt a devastating blow” while scholars stated that scientists were “unreachable” and that the University of Kashmir’s domain had disappeared from Google search results.

In addition to the impact of campus closures, the report said that Kashmiri students and scholars often suffered on account of their identity. “One scholar of political theory and gender studies told SAR that Kashmiri students in India are regularly assaulted by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),” the report said.

Protests against the divisive Citizenship Amendment Act, the report said that it had recorded 44 attacks in connection with the anti- CAA protest movement, which highlighted “the extent to which state and non-state actors have sought to silence ideas that run against the Hindu nationalist views of Prime Minister Modi and the BJP”.

The report also made reference to the incident on December 13 when police beat and fired tear gas at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) students and faculty participating in a protest march against the CAA and said that on December 15, police had raided the JMI campus, fired red tear gas canisters at the university’s library and had beaten students, staff, and journalists on the campus.

The report also made note of the arrests of Osmania University professor Chintakindi Kaseem, Anand Teltumbde, of the Goa Institute of Management, Delhi University’s Hany Babu, Shoma Sen, Roma Wilson, Varavara Rao and JNU student Sharjeel Imam.

Also read: India Registers Low ‘Academic Freedom Index’ Score in New International Report

“Incidents reported in recent years suggest that India’s UAPA and its application in cases targeting scholars and students for nonviolent activity run counter to international human rights norms and responsibilities, risk criminalizing legitimate discourse and nonviolent dissent, and undermining scholars’ and students’ exercise of academic freedom, ” the report said.

The Free to Think 2020 report also pointed out that India had witnessed a significant drop in national respect for academic freedom since 2014. “In 2014, India had an AFi score of 0.68. In 2019, India’s AFi score dropped to 0.35, lower than that of neighboring Nepal (0.73), Pakistan (0.55), and Sri Lanka (0.51),” it said

Earlier this year, it was reported that India had a low score in a global index of academic freedom called the academic freedom index (AFI), which proposes a score for each country to help determine the level of academic freedom its universities and academic centres really enjoy.

According to its analysis, India has an AFI of 0.352, comparable to the scores of Saudi Arabia and Libya. Curiously, countries that scored higher than India include Pakistan (0.554), Brazil (0.466), Ukraine (0.422), Somalia (0.436) and Malaysia (0.582). Uruguay and Portugal top the list with scores of 0.971 each, followed closely by Latvia and Germany. At the bottom are North Korea (0.011), Eritrea (0.015), Bahrain (0.039) and Iran (0.116).