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New Delhi: The annual report ‘Free to Think 2021’ released today, December 9, by Scholars at Risk (SAR), urges educationalists, governments and civil society to safeguard academic freedom in order to reverse the recently observed global trend of its suppression. It examines 332 attacks on scholars, students and universities in 65 countries (including India) between September 1, 2020 and August 31, 2021.
The report is based on information gathered by SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, which reports attacks on higher education to hold perpetrators accountable. SAR is an international network of over 550 higher education institutions in more than 40 countries, dedicated to preserving academic freedom and expanding the space for reason in society.
According to the report, severe violent attacks including assassinations, police raids on campuses, use of coercive force (sometimes even lethal) against students and faculty members during protests, wrongful imprisonment and prosecutions of scholars and other such incidents have occurred globally in the last year.
“Attacks on higher education are devastating scholars, students, and institutions around the world with life and career-ending consequences. We are at a crisis moment with a surge of Afghan scholars seeking refuge from the Taliban, while lawmakers’ efforts even in more open societies, including the United States (U.S), seek to restrict what can be taught in lecture halls,” said Robert Quinn, SAR’s founding executive director.
The report aims to expose the nuances and trends found in these attacks in various countries and demands to protect academic freedom, quality higher education and democracy itself. As per the report, authorities in India have wrongfully detained and prosecuted scholars and students under anti-terrorism laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for simply expressing contradicting views to the current ruling party.
Similarly, the state in Hong Kong has used its national security law to stifle expression, leading to prosecutions, dismantling of student unions from various universities and promoting government-mandated courses, consistent with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda.
Faculty members, scholars and university officials are being suspended or otherwise punished for their academic work or critical views or actions, says the report. In Brazil, the Attorney General and a judge of the Supreme Court have filed complaints against a scholar for delivering a critical public speech about their work. Meanwhile, in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has suspended academicians and students who protested his controversial declaration as winner of the 2020 presidential elections.
According to the report, governments of different countries have curtailed the freedom of movement of scholars, academicians and ideas through targeted policies. The Chinese government, for instance, has imposed travel bans against specific international scholars, researchers and institutions. Meanwhile, Israel continues to severely restrict the movement of Palestinian scholars and students.
Indian climate activist Disha Ravi, who was charged with sedition for supporting farm protests, has accused the Union government of purposefully failing to process her passport and thus denying her an opportunity to attend the recently held COP26 summit in Glasgow.
Several countries have misused their legislative and executive powers to undermine the autonomy and academic freedom of the entire higher education communities, says the SAR report. In Turkey, the president has appointed a political ally as the rector of Bogazici University, considered amongst the country’s top universities. Meanwhile, the powerful state legislatures in the US have passed bills regulating and banning areas of academic discussion such as the critical race theory.
Similarly, in India, university matters pertaining to syllabus, appointments and resignations of vice-chancellors, professors in different universities have been accused of being done under political influence in recent years, says a report. The University Grants Commission’s (UGC) new syllabus for history also faced charges of saffronisation and distortion by historians, as per a report.
According to the report, the students of South Asia particularly in Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as in South Africa, Thailand, Palestine and Zimbabwe has faced the brunt of this recent phenomenon with roughly half of the total reported incidents accounting for stifling non-violent student’s expression through violent attacks, arrests, disciplinary measures and prosecutions by the state.
In Myanmar and Afghanistan, entire university campus communities have been targeted and subjected to state repression, as per the report, after the military and Taliban took over the respective countries in February and August 2021, respectively. The Nigerian government, in an attempt to abduct students and faculty members, conducted armed raids in different universities.
In the wake of the anti-CAA-NRC movement in India, the students, teachers and officials of Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jadavpur University, University of Delhi and other higher education institutions were similarly attacked, either by the police or by the political outfits affiliated with the current ruling party.
“The frequency and global reach of these attacks should be alarming, not only to those in higher education but to society at large. These attacks demonstrate a shrinking of the space for free inquiry and discourse…We must reject violence aimed at punishing ideas, protect threatened scholars and students, and champion the freedom to think,” said Clare Robinson, SAR’s advocacy director.