In India, academic freedom is at stake in a row over research
As the new semester began this week at Ashoka University, an elite private institution near Delhi, students returned to a campus that has been at the center of a loud political row sparking debates about academic freedom in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India.
On August 21, officers from India’s Intelligence Bureau visited the campus as part of what was meant to be a routine procedure to renew Ashoka’s license to receive foreign funds. But the questions that the officers asked instead concerned an academic paper that had cast the country’s ruling party in a negative light. They also questioned the “intent” of the professor who had written the paper.
Even before the visit by officials, the professor had resigned from Ashoka. It is just the latest example of India’s shrinking space for research and criticism.
Nandini Sundar, a writer and professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, told me that the Modi administration has censured and put pressure on academics it believes threaten its Hindu nationalist agenda. “Academic freedom in India is under attack,” she said, “and has been ever since 2014,” when Modi became prime minister. The Academic Freedom Index 2023, which assessed academic freedom in 179 countries, placed India in the bottom 30%. The report included India among 22 countries in which standards of academic freedom had fallen.
The Index also traced the beginning of the decline in India’s academic freedom to 2009, when the now-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party were not in power. But the report noted that “around 2013, all aspects of academic freedom began to decline strongly, reinforced with Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014.” It concluded that “India demonstrates the pernicious relationship between populist governments, autocratization, and constraints on academic freedom.”
Bolstered by India’s recent feats in space research – becoming on August 23 the first country to successfully land a craft in the southern polar region of the moon – Modi likes to describe his government as being devoted to science and innovation. But it has little time for the humanities, or the social sciences, or any research that does not fit its definition of “progress.” Apoorvanand, a professor at the University of Delhi and prolific commentator on political and cultural affairs, told me that the “real challenge is self-censorship by academics due to legitimate fears of reprisal by university administrations and physical violence by right-wing groups.”
He said academics rarely have the freedom to design their own curriculum, and research scholars are told to avoid certain subjects. “There has been an unprecedented ideological bias in new hirings,” he told me, meaning that the BJP has been eager to place friendly academics on faculties and in positions of power in universities across the country. Students at Indian universities have been some of the Modi administration’s most dogged and committed opponents, with even the United Nations noting the Indian government’s propensity for using violence and detention to intimidate student protestors.
On July 25, the paper in question, written by Sabyasachi Das, then an economics professor at Ashoka, was posted on the Social Science Research Network website which publishes “preprints,” that is, papers which await peer review and journal publication. Das had reportedly presented his findings at a talk in the United States. Titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy,” the paper claimed to document “irregular patterns in 2019 general election in India,” comprehensively won by the Modi-led BJP, and to “present evidence that is consistent with electoral manipulation in closely contested constituencies.”
According to Das, the “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.”
Once news of the still unpublished, yet-to-be reviewed paper emerged on social media, it caused a political furor. M.R Sharan, an Indian economics professor at the University of Maryland, explained on X (formerly known as Twitter) that although Das’ “astonishing” new paper showed that the BJP had perhaps gained a dozen seats through electoral manipulation, this was a negligible number in an election in which the BJP won 303 seats, 31 seats more than the number required to win an outright majority in parliament.
But the impact on the results of the election or lack thereof was beyond the point, argued prominent opposition figures such as Shashi Tharoor, once a candidate for the post of secretary- general at the U.N. Das’ conclusion, Tharoor said, “offers a hugely troubling analysis for all lovers of Indian democracy.” The “discrepancy in vote tallies,” he wrote on X, needed to be accounted for by the government or India’s Election Commission “since it can’t be wished away.”
The BJP responded to Das’ paper with fury. On X, Nishikant Dubey, a BJP member of parliament, demanded to know how Ashoka University could permit a professor, “in the name of half-baked research,” to “discredit India’s vibrant poll process?”
Das also became a target of online trolling by Hindu nationalists and BJP supporters. Ashoka tried to distance itself from Das, claiming it had no responsibility for “social media activity or public activism by Ashoka faculty, students or staff in their individual capacity.” By the middle of August, Das had handed in his resignation. It was quickly accepted by the university administration.
On August 16, student journalists at the university’s newspaper reported that a public meeting was held in which “students, alumni and faculty expressed their escalating dismay regarding academic freedom at Ashoka.”
In an open letter to administrators posted on X, the economics department wrote that the governing body’s interference was “likely to precipitate an exodus of faculty.” The letter also warned that if Das wasn’t given his job back and the administration continued to interfere with research, the faculty “will find themselves unable to carry forward their teaching obligations in the spirit of critical inquiry and the fearless pursuit of truth that characterize our classrooms.”
But only a couple of days later, the fledgling protest fizzled out. The promised exodus or strike never happened. Only one professor resigned. Instead, the administration told students that the economics department had “reaffirmed its commitment to holding classes, a sentiment echoed by almost all other departments.”
The episode with Das isn’t the first time that the university has been embroiled in matters of academic freedom. The tacit acceptance of Das’ departure suggests that Ashoka, set up as a U.S.-style liberal university with private donors, continues to have little stomach for confrontation with the government.
In 2021, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a professor and former Ashoka vice chancellor, resigned from the university. Mehta, a public intellectual steadfast in his opposition to Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics, was told that his presence at Ashoka was turning into a “political liability.” His “public writing in support of a politics that tries to honor constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, [was] perceived to carry risks for the university,” he said.
As far back as 2016, just two years after Ashoka University was founded, the Indian magazine Caravan revealed that the administration might have forced the resignation of staff members who had signed a petition protesting state violence in the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir.
Few academics at Ashoka are now willing to speak to journalists about Das or the issues of academic freedom that have surfaced since the BJP’s angry response to his paper. Economist Jayati Ghosh, another prominent critic of the Modi government, wrote on X that she was “truly shocked at the lack of solidarity displayed by senior faculty” at Ashoka. “They have so little to lose from defending basic academic freedom,” she added. “Silence enables injustice, and it spreads.”
A professor at Ashoka who asked to remain anonymous told me that there were “plenty of caveats in Das’ paper and it had yet to go through rigorous peer review but the outsized reaction shows that the paper hit home.” Another liberal intellectual, who also asked to speak anonymously, told me that the paper questions the “most fundamental aspect of India’s claim to being a democracy – free and fair elections.” By continuing to send a message that academic insubordination will not be tolerated, they added, “the BJP is warning universities to control areas of research.”
Mehta, who resigned from Ashoka in 2021, was also a former president of the Center for Policy Research, a well-respected Delhi think tank. In July, The Hindu reported that the center’s tax-exempt status and license to raise foreign funds had been revoked. Nearly 75% of its funds were raised abroad. In the absence of an official reason for the decision, the media has speculated that what might have led to the crackdown were the frequently combative articles that CPR staffers publish about Modi administration policies and the independent research that the center undertakes, which has often contradicted the official government line.
The BJP appears determined to stamp out criticism of Modi. In January, when the BBC broadcast a documentary in the U.K. examining Modi’s actions as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when 1,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed in riots in the state, the Indian government banned it from being screened in India. When students tried to organize public screenings in defiance of the ban, they were allegedly detained by the police and suspended by their universities.
Academic freedom and the need to ask questions, it appears, is less important to Indian universities than appeasing the government of the day.
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