Many Instances of Academic Un-Freedom in India Stem From Rising Hindu Nationalism: Report

The academic freedom organisation ‘Scholars at Risk’ has profiled instances of declining academic freedom in India over the past year, including the detention of university students and syllabus changes that were viewed as efforts to promote the BJP's ideology.

New Delhi: Violence and academic penalties against student expression are prevalent in India and many such incidents seemingly stemmed from an authoritarian environment related to Hindu nationalism, a report released today by the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network found.

SAR is an international organisation that works to protect scholars and promote academic freedom.

Every year since 2015, it has published reports on trends in attacks on academic freedom around the world titled ‘Free to Think’.

Its 2023 edition of ‘Free to Think’ – which analysed 409 attacks on higher education in 66 countries and territories between July 2022 and June 2023 – found that such attacks are a global problem and occur in diverse ways.

India is a group of 16 countries from which SAR profiled concerning cases in more detail.

Among the “most notable violations of student expression” SAR noted in India during the reporting period was the action taken against students who tried to watch the BBC’s documentary India: The Modi Question.

The documentary is critical of Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots as chief minister of that state.

The Indian government called the documentary “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage” and directed YouTube and Twitter to take down links leading to it.

SAR noted that the police detained Delhi University (DU) and Jamia Millia Islamia students in January for trying to publicly screen the documentary.

It also noted that students from DU as well as other universities were punished or threatened for planning or trying to watch the -documentary – in one case, DU students were detained by police for protesting the suspension of a fellow student.

Another incident from DU’s track record that made it to SAR’s report was when police detained students protesting against the alleged harassment of their classmates at the Indraprastha College for Women during their annual fest.

The report also tracked an instance of action against university teachers – when the South Asian University suspended four of its faculty members for supporting students who had protested against reduced stipends and lack of adequate representation.

“Expulsions, dismissals, suspensions, and other forms of professional retaliation or silencing can have a corrosive effect on institutional autonomy,” SAR said in the report.

It continued to warn that they can “even contribute to brain drain, as scholars and students seek fairer and more transparent environments in which to conduct their research, teaching, and studying.”

‘Education as a space to promote dominant ideologies’

SAR went on to identify instances across the world where authoritarian governments were encroaching on academic spaces to fulfil their agendas.

“Rising global illiberalism and democratic backsliding means that governments are increasingly using their regulatory powers to encroach on academic space,” the report said.

“In some of the most closed and authoritarian contexts, higher education is being used as a space to promote specific dominant ideologies.”

An instance it found in India was the University Grants Commission’s introduction of a reportedly mandatory course on Indian knowledge systems that critics said was an attempt to colour the syllabus with the ruling party’s ideology.

Similar incidents involving the revision of syllabi perceived to be favourable to the ruling government have taken place in the recent past.

“University complicity with the government was also a concern,” SAR continued to say, noting that DU and Gujarat University have stymied attempts to inspect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s degrees.

Speaking of Modi, the report also acknowledges that two DU students were effectively confined to their home ahead of a university event featuring Modi as chief guest.

Local police allegedly told the students that they were being detained “for the safety of the prime minister” as they “might create [a] ruckus at the DU event”.

DU went out of its way to ensure student compliance during the ceremony, with some of its colleges mandating attendance at screenings of the event and barring students from wearing black-coloured clothing, a common symbol of dissent.

G.N. Saibaba

SAR dedicated a section of its report to scholars in prison to whom it said it provided public support over the past year.

“Collectively, these individuals, imprisoned for their peaceful academic and expressive activities and associations, are subjected to judicial harassment; unfair or inadequate legal proceedings; lengthy pre-trial detention and/or sentences; abuse and torture in custody; denial of access to legal counsel, appropriate medical care, or family; and other forms of mistreatment,” it said in the report.

It added that these actions also affect the wider academic community by sending a message that “expressing ideas or raising questions can have dire consequences”.

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One of these scholars is G.N. Saibaba. SAR presents the details of his case.

Its report quotes UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders as saying earlier this year that “[Saibaba’s] continued detention is shameful. It bears all the hallmarks of a State seeking to silence a critical voice.”

Saibaba is a former Delhi University English professor who had travelled to tribal areas and engaged in activism on their behalf.

He was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 for having links to Maoist rebels.

Although he was discharged from prison by the Bombay high court, the Supreme Court set aside the discharge order in April.

He is wheelchair-bound with over 90% physical disability and has alleged medical negligence several times during his incarceration.

One of his co-accused, Pandu Pora Narote, died in August last year after contracting swine flu in jail.

SAR is not the only one to have noticed the decline of academic freedom in India.

In an update to its ‘Academic Freedom Index,’ the V-Dem Institute noted earlier this year that India is among 22 countries and territories out of 179 in the world where institutions and scholars enjoy ‘significantly less freedom today than 10 years ago.’