Democracy Needs Dissenters, Critical Thinkers. But IISc Row Reveals Eroding Academic Freedom.

In recent years, we have seen many such examples of the government intimidating the scholars working in the knowledge sector into silence. While academic freedom is being challenged, defamation lawsuits are becoming tools of harassment.

In 2022, India’s academic freedom index was in the bottom 30% among 179 countries, according to analysis by the V-Dem Institute. It flagged 22 countries, including India, China, the US and Mexico, where institutes recorded a slide in academic freedom over the past decade.

The assessments was based on feedback from more than 2,000 experts from various parts of the world.

As part of the assessment, five indicators were used by the institutes. These include the freedom to research and teach, freedom to disseminate information, and the freedom of academic and cultural expression. The indicators also included encouraging a tradition of provocative thinking, controversial views, and non-conformity – which are conditions for sustaining a diverse and inclusive society.

Academic freedom refers to the principle that scholars and researchers should have the freedom to pursue their research and express their findings without interference, censorship, or retaliation from the government, private institutions, or other external entities.

However, as mentioned earlier, the report flagged 22 countries, including India, where, over the past decade, academic institutes faced a decline in freedom.

Academic freedom impacts democracy

Less discussed is how the decline in academic freedom impacts democracy itself. Democracy is not merely about protecting voting rights and conducting elections or maintaining the rule of law. While these are an important part of functioning democratic systems, the bedrock of democracy is a vibrant civic society.

In his book, Power Politics: Trump and Assault on American Democracy, Darrell M. West lists a number of threats to democratic systems from the US’s perspective. The requirements for a functioning democracy include free flow of factual information and a meaningful civic discourse. Many of these features are under attack in the academic sector, with ‘ominous consequences for universities, non-profits, and think tanks.’

No wonder, V-Dem lists the US – which used to be considered as a country that celebrates freedom of thought – as among the low-ranking countries along with India in their report on academic freedom.

We need independent writers, educators and civic organisations, who would be able to question those who are in power. But if these academics and organisations are threatened with prosecution, the system’s ability to challenge the political leaders would be curtailed.

Civic discussion prevents democracies from sliding into an illiberal political regime or an autocracy. The recent events help us understand why the report finds India among the countries with the lowest academic freedom.

Several independent non-profit organisations like Oxfam India, Amnesty International India and the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) have been raided, while Oxfam and Amnesty’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licences have been cancelled. CPR’s licence has been suspended. While Oxfam and Amnesty’s bank accounts were frozen, CPR’s tax exemption status was cancelled by the income tax department.

In recent years, we have seen many such examples of the government intimidating the scholars working in the knowledge sector into silence. Information flow and civic discourses that encourage creativity are vital for a participatory democracy to thrive. While academic freedom is being challenged, defamation lawsuits are becoming tools of of harassment.

Also read: As Three More NGOs Lose FCRA Licence, a Relook at the Govt’s Funding Restrictions

The space for academic freedom is shrinking in the universities and educational centres, too.

In March, the authorities of the Jawaharlal Nehru University had decided to impose fines to the tune of Rs 20,000 for protesting in the campus. The decision was withdrawn later.

Recently, some of the universities, including the Delhi University, took disciplinary action against students who screened the BBC documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In addition, the authorities of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) – the country’s top-ranking institute – cancelled a discussion on the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA. The discussion was organised by IISc’s students and its faculty.

The discussion, titled “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Prisons and the Criminal Justice System”, was to be led by Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita on June 28. Narwal and Kalita are student activists who were accused by the Delhi police in the Delhi riots “conspiracy” case and booked under UAPA.

The event was to be held at the institute’s Centre for Continuing Education (CCE).

When the permission to convene the meeting at the CCE was withdrawn, the student organisers arranged an informal gathering in the open near a campus cafeteria. The authorities dispatched a team of security personnel to disperse the assembly of students, only to be backtracked after members of the faculty intervened.

Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Photo: @iiscbangalore

Undermining the ability to hold leaders accountable

These cases of intimidation serve to remind us that such actions erode the basis of civil society and the knowledge sector that is essential to the functioning of the Indian democracy. These actions further undermine their ability to hold the leaders accountable.

Democracy needs dissenters and critical thinkers. Why does the establishment prefer homogenisation and regimentation of thought?

The higher study centres are a refuge for those who challenge orthodox thinking, and work towards generating new ideas. This is what is expected of the university campuses. And democracies will be revitalised by such encounters, even if it means questioning the majority opinion. Institutes like the IISc have a special responsibility in maintaining such spaces for dissent.

More than 500 scholars, including some faculty members from the IISc, signed a letter addressed to the institute director saying that “regardless of one’s perspective, such discussions are crucial in a functioning democracy and the IISc, as an academic institution, is ideally positioned to host them.”

“Conversely, if the institute is unwilling to permit peaceful discussions on constitutional questions, it is hard to see how it can foster a spirit of critical inquiry that is necessary for scientific work,” they said.

Also read: Six Tables That Tell the Story of Academic Unfreedom in India

With such incidents gaining momentum, the universities and higher educational centres should think of formulating system-wide protections against limiting the academic autonomy and freedom of expression.

The prime minister himself has proudly proclaimed in his recent visit to the US that democracy is in our DNA – a phrase previously used by President Biden to qualify the democratic traditions of both India and the US. It is an expression with apparent socio-biological connotation, meaning the democratic practices are part of our genetic inheritance. But that is only one part of the story.

‘Nature versus nurture’ or ‘genetics versus environment’ refers to the two competing elements that finally determine the final human behavioural development.

Science tells us that what our genes are doing is influenced by the ever-changing external environment they are in. For democracy to thrive, an origin legacy is not just enough. What is needed is a facilitating environment of intellectual freedom and that needs to be maintained.

History provides ample evidence to show how authoritarianism sprang up from democracies, indicating that humans could be conditioned by external factors. There is a message here not just for India, but for all other democracies that are under duress, including the US.

C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.