Is academic freedom still viable in private Indian universities?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka underlines that financial autonomy doesn’t remove fear of government anger, says Saikat Majumdar

April 1, 2021
A person's wrists bound with a rope, symbolising the restriction of academic freedom
Source: iStock

The relatively recent appearance of private universities in India has ushered in a new era of possibilities – and dangers. This is why the recent resignation of a prominent public intellectual and critic of the Narendra Modi government from Ashoka University, where I teach, has touched such a raw nerve.

Ashoka, a private initiative of collective philanthropy dedicated to the liberal arts, has gathered wide international attention in its first decade of operation and has begun to emerge as India’s most innovative university for the foundational arts and sciences. Equally, the Delhi institution has drawn criticism for its perceived elitism; its tuition fees are high by Indian standards, resulting in a fairly homogenous student body in a deeply stratified country.

You might assume that Ashoka’s private funding gives it a level of autonomy unknown to public institutions. Yet, in announcing his resignation in March, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a widely recognised political theorist and a former Ashoka vice-chancellor, declared that his public criticisms of the Hindu nationalist BJP government have made his association with the university increasingly unsustainable for it.

A day later, Arvind Subramanian, noted economist and chief economic adviser to the previous Indian government, resigned in a gesture of protest against the circumstances around Mehta’s resignation. Students and other faculty have exploded into protests over the resignations, which appear deeply ominous in the current climate of governmental intolerance of free speech and dissent. The national media has been full of speculation about what it all means for the future direction of private higher education in India.

I learned the concept of academic freedom in the US, first as a student and then as a teacher. Notwithstanding private universities’ material and ideological complicity in structures of power and capital, scholars’ freedom to teach and research without obvious subservience to these structures was zealously fought for, and largely maintained – even during the Trump era.

The jury is still out about whether such a balancing act is possible in India. A historical pattern of ugly political interference in the administration of public universities has attained tyrannical dimensions under the Narendra Modi-led government, leaving virtually no room for academic freedom. It doesn’t help that, unlike their US brethren, most private Indian universities are for-profit. This runs counter to the post-independence legacy of Nehruvian socialism, through which many of us got excellent college educations practically for free. The mushrooming number of shoddy private universities and engineering colleges, sometimes operating from residential flats in housing colonies, have only fuelled suspicion of their motives and competence.

Nor has private ownership necessarily brought greater academic freedom or institutional autonomy. Many private universities are owned by individuals or single families or business groups, often resulting in direct or indirect interference in student recruitment, faculty appointments and resource allocation.

But Ashoka, along with the newly founded Krea University near Chennai, have raised hopes that the private sector can, after all, offer academic integrity and freedom. These non-profit institutions are instances of collective philanthropy; Ashoka’s more than 150 founders – many of them younger digital entrepreneurs – make it the largest instance of such philanthropy in India. Yet, for many observers, Mehta’s resignation suggests that even private philanthropy on such a wide scale is no bulwark against government interference.

What could happen if a private university independent of state support became recognised as a venue of consistent criticism of the current Indian government? Honestly, the regime is now so hostile that anything could befall it. While the government would have no financial leverage, it could erect bureaucratic roadblocks.

For instance, a large proportion of Ashoka’s faculty hold foreign passports (as do a much smaller segment of the students). The government could easily make things very difficult for those people, complicating the visa-application process or even limiting university participation to holders of permanent residence. For instance, severe limitations have recently been imposed on the holders of the OCI status – Overseas Citizen of India.

Private universities depend on government permission for many other things, such as the acquisition of land and the construction of new buildings. A hostile government could easily put roadblocks here, too.

Finally, even though Ashoka’s core founding members are genuinely respectful of academic freedom, there are many within the large and ever-increasing body of donors and trustees who, given their beliefs and political leanings, are unhappy with ongoing faculty criticism of the government.

Ideological differences between university trustees – often champions of private wealth – and university faculty dedicated to a life of scholarship are often a given. The crucial issue is whether a private university can maintain due separation between its two functions: fundraising on the one hand, and teaching and research on the other.

The answer has particularly high stakes because Ashoka’s fate is widely regarded as emblematic of the fate of such philanthropic initiatives more generally in India. Will it be able to maintain a safe space for the inquiry and dissent that are prerequisites for a healthy democracy? Or will it too be brought to heel by an increasingly authoritarian government bent on crushing all opposition? And if it is, what does that say about the future of the nation as a whole?

Saikat Majumdar is professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University.

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