Row at India’s premier private university sparks debate on academic freedom

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By Webdesk


New Delhi, India – A private university on the outskirts of India’s capital has faced criticism after one of its faculty members resigned earlier this month following a row over his academic paper that suggested potential electoral “manipulation” on several seats during the 2019 general elections.

The 50-page paper, titled Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy, presents evidence that indicates voter suppression to favour Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Manipulation appears to take the form of targeted electoral discrimination against India’s largest minority group – Muslims, partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers. The results present a worrying development for the future of democracy,” the abstract of the paper read.

Sabyasachi Das, who was the assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University – located in the BJP-ruled northern Haryana state – faced backlash from the party’s supporters after he circulated his paper on social media last month.

The university distanced itself from the paper, saying it has “not yet completed a critical review process”. Later, its governing body instituted an inquiry committee to examine the paper’s academic merits after it created a political firestorm.

Meanwhile, Das resigned from his post.

Prior to the new academic session which began on Monday, students and teachers at Ashoka had protested against the exit of the academic, putting the spotlight on declining academic freedom in India.

Only resignations, no apologies

More than 80 faculty members wrote a letter to the university authorities on August 13, saying to “stifle critique” is to “poison” the lifeblood of pedagogy, and the recent crisis will not be solved by “apologies and resignations”, and it has to be “addressed” with academic freedom.

But the university has not backtracked from its position.

Pulapre Balakrishnan, another economics professor, also stepped down in protest, stating that academic freedom was violated in the university’s response to the attention received by Das’s paper on social media.

The economics department threw its weight behind Das, saying the paper, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, “did not violate” any accepted norm of academic practice and the governing body’s interference amounted to “institutional harassment”.

The department demanded unconditional reinstatement of Das and assurance from Ashoka’s governing body that it would not play any role in evaluating faculty research. The faculty also warned that unless questions regarding “basic” academic freedom are resolved, they will be “unable to carry forward their teaching obligations”.

Das did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment over the controversy.

While the BJP slammed Das’s paper by calling it “half-baked,” India’s intelligence agency reportedly visited the university last week to meet him.

Sunil Sharma, secretary of the National Democratic Teachers’ Front (NDTF), told Al Jazeera that academics cannot write anything without providing facts. NDTF is affiliated with the BJP’s ideological parent, the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

“If intellectuals think free and fair elections did not happen in 2019, why didn’t they challenge it in the court?” Sharma asked. “The state has the right to put an academic under surveillance if he fails to prove his claim with substantial facts.”

Amit Chaudhuri, author and head of Ashoka University’s creative writing department, told Al Jazeera both public and private universities in India have been closely “controlled” and “punished” if they defy the government line.

Education and learning in the country, he added, are in a “far worse” state than they are being talked about, and there is relatively little talk about it because of the “fear of further reprisal”.

Chaudhuri added that universities as a habitat for free intellectual discussion have been “looked upon with suspicion”.

Repeat of the past

The debate over academic freedom at Ashoka University, conceptualised on the lines of Ivy League liberal arts institutions in the United States, is not new.

In 2021, academic and columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who routinely questions Modi and the BJP in his newspaper columns, resigned as professor, saying it was “abundantly clear” that his association with the institution was a “political liability”.

Renowned economist Arvind Subramanian resigned soon after, stating that the university was no longer a forum for academic expression and autonomy.

Soon after Mehta’s resignation, Ashoka’s faculty members recommended the constitution of a committee for academic freedom, but the discussions fizzled out after a while. In the wake of the recent controversy, the demand for the committee has reignited.

Saikat Majumdar, professor of English and Creative Writing, said the key founders and trustees of Ashoka University, however, are “genuinely” committed to the idea of academic freedom.

“Their goal has been to create a research university with a liberal arts foundation similar to the American universities, adapted to the Indian landscape,” Majumdar, who formerly taught at Stanford University in the US, told Al Jazeera.

But in India, Majumdar said, individualism, intellectual property and freedom of expression are not understood in the same way as in the US.

India is a far more “hierarchical” society and the university is “expected to operate in the same way”, and which “it unfortunately often does”, he said.

Attack on academic freedom

Critics have accused the Modi government of undermining public and private institutions, with changes in history to suit its far-right political agenda. Prominent think tanks known for independent research had been under attack, and in many cases, starved of funding.

A global survey stated India’s academic freedom index in 2022 was in the bottom 30 percent among 179 countries, including the US and China.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, several universities were targeted and academics faced the axe for being critical of the BJP and its Hindu nationalist affiliates.

Last month, the elite Indian Institute of Science cancelled a discussion on the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – a stringent law used by the government to target its opponents, particularly the Muslim minority.

In January, a centrally-funded university suspended students for watching a BBC documentary that questioned Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Historian Mridula Mukherjee, who taught at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University until 2015, said teachers were targeted for protesting against violations of reservation policy, arbitrary removal and appointment of chairpersons, among other issues in 2018.

The JNU administration issued “chargesheets” against 48 teachers who participated in the protest. Some of them were “denied” sabbatical or leave to attend seminars and even pension upon retirement, Mukherjee told Al Jazeera.

“Dissenting voices are labelled as anti-national,” she said.

Al Jazeera reached out to JNU authorities for their response to the allegations, but the telephone calls and messages were not answered.

Attempt to cover up?

At Ashoka University, however, for now, teachers have decided not to disrupt teaching and carry on their academic responsibilities.

Vice Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury wrote to the students, saying the faculty, academic leadership and governing body are “geared towards finding long-term solutions” that would reinforce the university’s “fundamental commitment” to academic freedom.

However, the university’s media team told Al Jazeera they have no official statement to offer for now.

Author and academic Chaudhuri said people are “not aware” of the extent to which educational institutions are “stifled” and “monitored” by those who hold powers.

“We are in a country where it now seems that hardly any disagreement with the government’s vision will be tolerated,” he said. “Maybe the universities need to collectively decide now how to respond to this situation.”

Saffronisation of education

Modi government has been accused of rewriting school textbooks that fit into the Hindu nationalist agenda by removing references to Mughal history, freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to Hindu nationalism, and the mention of the 2002 Gujarat massacre.

The government has been accused of appointing people with RSS links as administrators at several universities who allegedly favour research topics espoused by the Hindu nationalists.

Ashoka University’s environmental studies professor Mukul Sharma believes that academics should be prepared for more onslaught in the current political climate. But, he adds, they have to creatively deal with the challenges they face after expressing dissent.

“At a time when the Hindu nationalists are ruling, one has to fight the regressive curriculum and pedagogy,” Sharma said.

The journey, he says, will not be easy but a “deep and longer” one.





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