Scholars of India ‘face increasing assaults’ on academic freedom

Attacks inspired by Hindu nationalism are now ‘transnational dynamics’, argues Cambridge scholar

October 22, 2016
Indian flag being waved by demonstrators during protest
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Scholars who research Indian history and culture face growing attacks on their academic freedom, wherever they are in the world, an event has heard.

Edward Anderson, the University of Cambridge’s Smuts research fellow in Commonwealth studies, told the Cambridge Festival of Ideas that incursions into intellectuals’ freedom of expression inspired by Hindu nationalism had become “transnational dynamics”.

Dr Anderson argued that attempts to create an image of a glorious Hindu past for India, in which the role of minorities and outsiders is diminished, meant that historical accounts or religious criticism that challenged this “black and white narrative” were denounced.

Inside India, this has long led to senior academics being forced out of their posts: Romila Thapar, a leading ancient historian, was “ejected” from her advisory position on the Indian Council of Historical Affairs shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 1998, while last year Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was “pushed out” of his role as chancellor of Nalanda University, said Dr Anderson.

But attacks on academics working overseas have also become more common, Dr Anderson said. While such criticism appeared spontaneous, it was often “carefully orchestrated”, Dr Anderson argued, highlighting sudden criticism of a book on the god Ganesh by Paul Courtwright, now professor emeritus of history at Emory University, which erupted after the book had fallen into obscurity decades after publication.

He also referred to the case of Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, whose book The Hindus was withdrawn in India by publisher Penguin after a 2014 lawsuit claimed that it defamed followers of the faith.

Criticism of Professor Doniger had been “driven” by US-based activists who seek to counter what they perceive to be a “Eurocentric conspiracy” against India, demonstrating the influence that Indians overseas “increasingly have on debates relating to free expression and academic freedom in India”, he said.

“Hindu nationalist incursions on academic freedom and freedom of expression have really become transnational dynamics and they are now global,” Dr Anderson said.

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