The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The Harbours Of Academic Freedom

By Smriti Nambudiri, Undergraduate Batch of 2022 and Amogha Sharma, Undergraduate Batch of 2023

A few weeks before Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s widely discussed exit from Ashoka University, an Office Memorandum had raised several eyebrows. The Office Memorandum  issued by the Ministry of External Affairs outlined stringent guidelines for public universities organising international seminars online. There is some commonality in the interpretation of these two events. Both cannot be isolated from the current atmosphere of stifling dissent and imposing restrictions on academic freedom in India.

Academic Freedom Or The Lack Thereof 

The crackdown on academic freedom is not a new event. In recent years, several Indian academics have faced arbitrary questioning and arrests. 

Universities expect to be autonomous not only from within but also from the University Grants Commission, which is the body tasked with maintaining the standard of university education. This body, too, requires some amount of independence from the State. The increasing threat to academic freedom from both organised student groups, like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and authoritative bodies has greatly increased in recent years and gone beyond the public space, to infiltrate the private.

Curtailing of Academic Freedom in Public Universities 

Some public universities curtail academic freedom denying students and faculty the rights to hold meetings, discussion and screening on topics identified as ‘hurtful to certain communities’ sentiments’. It’s also indirectly instituted by calling on Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, that allows the police to ban books on the basis of hurting religious sentiments. For example, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s book, ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ was banned from the syllabus of Delhi University’s MA for political science, under the guise of it being ‘anti-Hindu’, and Shepherd was consequently seen almost as an ‘enemy’. This example is just one of many instances where authorities have banned books and material under the guise of hurting sentiments, only serving to censor unwanted views.  

Public universities are directly funded by governments, whether it be state or central. Therefore, their authorities are under more pressure to follow any demands the government places on them. Employment and research is another way in which public universities limit themselves to the government’s prevailing ideologies.  In the past few years, universities have offered academic positions to those who undertake pro-government research. Instances like this further are pushing academic freedom in public universities to a dangerous tipping point.

However, the most glaring example of academic freedom being overtly curtailed, especially in public universities, is students and faculty being attacked and silenced when speaking up in criticism of the government and their policies. Students who dissent are routinely suspended, rusticated, and withheld from scholarships. Faculty are denied leave and stalled or refused promotions to prevent them from writing for the press. One of the more famous examples of the squashing of dissent against the government is the brutal targeting of students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU),  protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) in December of 2019.  

But what about private universities? 

Private funding ensures that these universities are not dependent on the government. Owing to their private ownership, they must have autonomy over faculty selection, research, and subjects discussed. Theoretically, private universities offer better protection to academic freedom. However, the reality is that it’s only barely better. While it is true that private universities have more control over the material taught, recent events have only gone further to prove that academic freedom is as threatened in these spaces, albeit in different ways. 

Since private universities don’t get funding from governments, they rely on multiple stakeholders, both internal and external, in order to keep functioning at their capacity. Therefore, there isn’t as much institutional autonomy as once expects. With many stakeholders, come possibly competing beliefs and ideals. With this, comes the chance of political leanings that could very well end up influencing how a university is run. The most observable way of this influence on private universities’ academic freedom is how faculty are let go and made to resign because of their research topics. 

Despite around 78% of colleges in India being privately owned, they are still seen, sometimes rightfully so, as elite academic spaces. Therefore, people don’t generally believe that academic freedom could be curtailed in these institutions as it would be in public universities. But, in light of Professor Mehta and Professor Subramanium’s resignations, we can see this isn’t true. Even earlier in Ashokan history, with Professor Narayan’s resignation following the resignation of two admin members who had signed a petition to stop armed control over Kashmir, we see this is something with precedent.

Combatting The Crisis

The public’s response to the faculty resignations is very diverted from its larger implications on academic freedom. Some of the discussions and debates which have unfolded in the past few weeks have suggested that private institutes are responsible for the deterioration of higher public education. Additionally, these debates identify a general apathy in private universities students. A few of these allegations point towards the need to address bigger issues concerning public education in India. 

Owing to their perceived academic independence, quality of education and faculty offered, private universities seem like a more lucrative option. More often than not, we have seen good faculty opt to join private universities over public ones. A developing country as huge as India requires a robust and affordable public higher education system that can accommodate its youth. This case asks to identify lapses in our system and policies that have progressively worsened public institutes’ quality. 

The complications involved in imparting adequate higher public education deserves independent discussions, and therefore, we must attempt to address it separately from the question of academic freedom. This proposal doesn’t intend to suggest that these issues are disconnected from each other, but we require these independent discussions to generate objective solutions.

Clarification: The Office Memorandum issued by the Ministry of External Affairs referenced in this article was withdrawn in February, 2021.

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