The space for free intellectual expression in India is shrinking as authoritarianism rises and the government shifts from secularism to anti-democratic Hindutva politics.
Civil, press and academic freedoms have drastically been reduced in India under the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and recent events suggest an increased effort to silence alternative viewpoints and dissenting voices. The latest case in point is the resignation of prominent scholar and political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University, a privately funded liberal arts institution in Sonipat, Haryana state.
Mehta said he resigned because it had become "abundantly clear" that Ashoka's founders viewed his association with the university as a "political liability". His resignation on 16 March came two years after he stepped down as vice-chancellor. "My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens is perceived to carry risks for the university," Mehta wrote in his resignation letter.
Two days later, well-known economist Arvind Subramanian also stepped down as a professor at Ashoka, which was founded in 2014 as an India version of American Ivy League institutions. Subramanian said Mehta's departure showed that Ashoka, despite its "private status and backing by private capital", was no longer a forum for academic expression and autonomy.
Mehta has been a vocal critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, slamming it over a slew of policies and political actions and accusing it of stoking polarisation among different communities, cracking down on students and activists, and threatening democratic institutions.
Students at Ashoka announced a two-day boycott of classes in protest against the resignations, saying they were "incredibly dissatisfied" by the conditions under which they took place. "Not only have we lost intellectual giants and erudite academics whose scholarship we value deeply, but also our trust and faith in this administration to protect the students within this university from external political pressures. This is a gross violation of academic freedoms and we strongly condemn it," said a students' statement.
The university faculty also expressed their "deep anguish" over Mehta's resignation in a letter to the vice-chancellor and board members, noting that his departure sets a "chilling precedent for future removals of faculty".
Ashoka University acknowledged "lapses in institutional processes" and expressed "deep regret" over the two academics' resignations. But The Economist reported that the founders of Ashoka had told Mehta in a meeting that his criticism of the Modi government was threatening the planned expansion of the institute.
Unprotected and undefended
About 150 academics from the world's leading universities signed an open letter titled "A Dangerous Attack on Academic Freedom" to express solidarity with Mehta. "A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings," the letter said. "It seems that Ashoka's trustees, who should have treated defending him as their institutional duty, instead all but forced his resignation."
Expressing his dismay over Mehta and Subramanian's exit, former Reserve Bank of India governor and economist Raghuram Rajan said their resignations were a "grievous blow" to free speech and liberalism in India. He observed that Mehta's resignation letter "would suggest that Ashoka's founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic".
"The reality is that Professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments," said Rajan.
An editorial in The Indian Express said Mehta's exit from the university was a seminal moment because it pointed to the institution's unwillingness and inability to protect freedom of expression and ideas, which should be an inalienable part of its commitment.
"It is true that the challenge of institutional autonomy is sharpened terribly by the dominant political ideology that has shown a will to conquer all spaces and ... will not hesitate to weaponise the mandate to target dissent. It is also true that the larger environment is one in which the countervailing and unelected institutions that were supposed to, in the constitutional design, apply the check and maintain the balance, are not holding up. They are caving in," the newspaper said.
The guise of 'guidance'
In February, India's Ministry of External Affairs released guidelines for holding online international conferences, seminars and activities. Institutions are now required to request prior permission if the subject is centred on the security of the Indian state or "clearly related to India's internal matters". The directive, which was later redacted following a backlash from scientists and academics, said the ministry was required to ensure that the subject matter of online events was not related to "security of the state, border, northeast states, union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, or any other issues".
A March 2020 Academic Freedom Index report gave India a low-ranking score, paralleling its poor ranking in global press freedom indices. The near-global data set on several dimensions of academic freedom puts India's score at 0.352, equivalent to the scores of Saudi Arabia and Libya. The index has a maximum value of 1. Pakistan, Brazil, Ukraine, Somalia and Malaysia are among the countries that ranked higher than India.
The Academic Freedom in India: A Status Report in 2020 documented the diminishing scope for academic freedom in higher education, noting that since 2014, when Modi's government came to power, India has seen an "unprecedented assault on academic freedom as well as academics". The study, drafted by Delhi-based academics Nandini Sundar and Gowhar Fazili, said the most prevalent obstacle to intellectual freedom was the state interfering with what can be taught, or restricting what is taught inside the classroom, by non-academics and others outside a given discipline.
"Since 2014, whatever the BJP's official position as government, the underlying force appears to be the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] vision in which the stated aim of education is to consolidate a Hindu nation, and promote education based on 'Hindu values'," the report highlighted. It added that this vision had taken the form of attempts to introduce subjects with a distinctly "Hindu" focus or divert research funds to particular themes upholding the RSS' pet concerns such as cow protection.
Critics argue that when the BJP government isn't spreading propaganda, it uses universities to praise Modi's "governance style". For instance, in BJP-ruled Gujarat, the government released a list of 82 PhD thesis topics pertaining to the (successful) implementation of state and federal government schemes, while Lucknow University in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh set exam questions on Modi's schemes.
Increasingly, the heads of different institutions set up to encourage research in various fields, as well as vice-chancellors, tend to be political appointees. Since 2014, the BJP regime has routinely filled vacancies with Hindu right-wing ideologues or pro-government sympathisers, all of whom lack enough academic credentials. Some have publicly promoted anti-Muslim sentiments under the guise of scholarship. In the case of dissenting students, universities regularly turn to rustication, expulsion and withholding allowances.
An estimated 12 000 scientists marched across India in 2017 in protests over funding cuts. They also called for an end to the "propagation of unscientific, obscurantist ideas and religious intolerance patronised by persons in high positions", asserting that "untested and unscientific ideas are being introduced into school textbooks and curricula".
Coming down hard on dissenting voices, the BJP government in recent years has also widened its crackdown on academic and student activism. Law enforcement agencies have arrested several scholars and activists, including Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Hany Babu, GN Saibaba and Sudha Bharadwaj, and charged them under sections of laws against criminal conspiracy, sedition and unlawful activities.
In September last year, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student activist Umar Khalid was arrested as one of the main accused in the February 2020 Delhi riots case. Shifa Ur Rehman, president of the Jamia Millia Islamia Alumni Association, was also arrested.
Likewise, in May 2020, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, research scholars at JNU and the founding members of women's student collective Pinjra Tod, were arrested by Delhi police in connection with a protest against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act. Another research scholar at JNU, Sharjeel Imam, was arrested over alleged inflammatory speeches made during protests against the act, while student activists were also arrested.