Renewed academic freedom curbs ‘hamper India’s eminence hopes’

‘Under these circumstances, high world rankings are just not going to happen,’ professor warns

October 9, 2019
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India has been warned that it will struggle to achieve its higher education development goals if it does not take significant steps to guarantee academic freedom.

The country has selected 20 universities to receive Rs10 billion (£110 million) each over the next five years under its “institutes of eminence” programme, with the goal of making them “world-class teaching and research institutions”. In the same period, India aims to quadruple the number of international students in the country to 200,000.

However, academics across the country remain concerned about continuing assaults on freedom of expression – widely regarded as a prerequisite for the creation of a successful university sector that is attractive to foreign academics and students.

Concern is highest over the status of universities in the disputed Kashmir region, which has been the subject of a communications blackout since August. Professors from six universities warned in The Hindu last month that academics and students in the region had no access to the internet or mobile phone networks and had only limited access to landlines.

“Teaching and activities there have been dealt a devastating blow,” the professors wrote.

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, told Times Higher Education that the problems went beyond Kashmir’s borders. “The rest of India is also being silenced about Kashmir. There’s such a clampdown on universities that nobody can discuss anything about Kashmir, except to praise the government,” she said.

Professor Sundar saw a broader deterioration of liberties across India. “Academic freedom has been under threat for a while, from institutional control and lack of support. But the thought control and restrictions have got much worse since 2014” – the year the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.

In July, officials at the University of Delhi said curricula should contain no “controversial” or “provocative” content “which may hurt the sentiments of any organisation and community”. That edict led to the departments of sociology, political science, history and English “revisiting” their syllabuses.

Professor Sundar’s work was removed from reading lists by the political science department because it makes references to India’s agrarian crisis and Maoists, according to local reports. But she took issue with the term “controversial”. “It’s only controversial to the BJP,” Professor Sundar said.

Other recent cases have also given cause for concern. Last month, the renowned historian Romila Thapar said she would refuse to comply with a request from Jawaharlal Nehru University that she resubmit her CV in order to retain her post as professor emerita.

While JNU said the move was a routine procedure, Professor Thapar has long been critical of the authorities. In a May column in The New York Times, she said the Modi government was writing “make-believe versions of the past”.

N Sai Balaji, president of JNU’s students’ union, told India Today that asking for Professor Thapar’s CV was “part of larger agenda of this government that wants destroy research and learning”.

In August, six students at the University of Hyderabad were detained briefly by police for organising a screening of the 1992 documentary In the Name of God, which some BJP supporters regard as anti-Hindu.

“There is no free discussion and instead, demoralisation,” Professor Sundar concluded. “Under these circumstances, high world rankings are just not going to happen.”


Print headline: Illiberal acts undermine eminence goals, scholars say

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Reader's comments (1)

India is focusing on improving science and technology education. The people complaining are in the humanities and social sciences. Their complaint is irrelevant to India's goal. India's real problem lies in the poor quality of technical education beyond the top few universities.