Scholars ‘reprimanded by universities’ for criticising Indian government

Administrators are noting who is signing petitions critical of government or speaking out publicly, lecturers say

July 20, 2022
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Academic freedom is coming under threat in India due to increasingly stringent restrictions and institutions using tactics of intimidation and harassment, scholars in the country have warned. 

There have been reports of university officials reprimanding academics for openly speaking out against the policies of Narendra Modi’s regime in the latest sign that the prime minister’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, first elected in 2014, is using its power to stamp out freedom of speech. 

“No doubt censorship has increased in the last couple of years,” said Ayesha Kidwai, a professor at the Centre for Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), noting that the “insulation that the academic sphere used to give you” has all but disappeared.

Professor Kidwai is currently involved in a court case against JNU, which maintains that she breached rules applying to civil servants by taking part in a protest against the alleged mismanagement of the university by its then vice-chancellor. She maintains that the rules do not apply to academics.

THE Campus views: Academics must resist the creeping degradation of academic freedom

Times Higher Education has also spoken to two academics who said they were called into meetings with university officials after publicly criticising government policies. Their names and institutional affiliations have been kept anonymous to protect their jobs.

One academic who was called into one such meeting said administrators gave her the “impression” she should be careful about what causes she is seen to support.

She noted that such tactics, commonly used against outspoken activists or non-ruling party politicians, are spreading to academia, with increased oversight giving scholars the sense that “we are noting who from which institutions” are taking actions such as signing petitions.

“It cannot be seen as direct threat, but it’s a beginning,” she said. “Many of my younger colleagues who are quite keen, who would like to see change and are upset with the current atmosphere in the country, have pretty much stopped signing statements – they look at every word on a statement before signing.”

Another academic told THE that he had been in a situation where a high-level administrator with government ties “called some of us in for a ‘discussion’ as they felt our public criticism of a specific government policy was misplaced”, adding that “the conversation itself was quite civil” but “the intent to intimidate was clear” nonetheless.

The incident has made him wary of taking any further actions that could be perceived as critical of the country’s leadership.

“Being critical of my institution is still fine…but I do think twice before any activity that has the potential to be interpreted as being critical of the current government, the academic said, adding that similar tactics, along with high-profile court cases targeting opposition figures and certain academics have “silenced the sector”.

“Activities deemed political…often trigger enquiries by the intelligence bureau – sometimes informally but enough to be seen as a threat. Routine vigilance clearances for appointment to high-level administrative positions have started to involve questions like rating...the government’s performance", he said. 

While THE was unable to verify these claims, other academics said they would be “unsurprised” if such things were happening.

Given institutions’ heavy dependence on government funds, administrators are in a difficult position to do much to protect their resources, lecturers said.

But even in the absence of protection, academics must push back, said one of the scholars who spoke to THE. “Academics need to come together to counter self-censorship by building solidarity, challenging questionable punitive actions in the courts and bringing to the attention of the public the downsides of not having any critique of government policies from academia.”

The Indian press information bureau did not respond to requests for comment.

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Reader's comments (7)

This is a one-sided skewed view blaming academic freedom at JNU on the present government at the center. The issue is that JNU has been the hotbed of academics and students who nurture communist ideals and now are deeply frustrated with the present regime. As an Indian, I do not see any indication of pressure, overt or covert in any of the academic activities. JNU because of the few, has suffered immensely as it once propagated the division of India on communal lines and also called for support of a terrorist involved in an Indian parliament attack.
The above commentator is wrong and has a flawed understanding of what is academic freedom. There is plenty of pressure on academics in India. which makes it very difficult to work on certain topics. If anybody supports the division of India on communal lines it is the current government .
The usual diatribe that we are now used to with the THE. He-said-she-said sort of reporting. Nor is it amazing that this dumbed-down rubbish is meant for consumption by the academic community. One only has to consider the kind of lousy work that passes for research on India in British academia.
This is what the BJP has led India to. A complete nose dive of what the country was. Watch the space, it will get only worse.
"JNU because of the few, has suffered immensely as it once propagated the division of India on communal lines...." Division of India on communal lines happened in 1947. JNU was established in 1969/70.
What JNU is witnessing today cannot be seen in isolation from what has transpired since 2014 and how many like me who have studied in JNU have at times been frustrated with an ecosystem which rewarded left leaning students over others. And no one would dare challenge that ecosystem as it may impact one’s grading in exams. So there is a strong alternate perspective which needs to be factored in along with these claims which THE says cannot be verified, and should have been verified before putting out in the media. Today, in India there is a new historical consciousness and national narrative which has challenged the old ecosystem and the history as we have studied, largely written by the Leftist historians. There have been events such as distribution of sweets in JNU when 76 armed personnel of the CRPF were killed in Dantewada and having my late father in the CRPF, I take serious objection to such celebration, many of which are condoned by academics crying foul today. When academics, student union peddle a narrative which talks of India’s breakup “Barbadi, “sympathasizing with terror convicts”, abusing the Supreme Court for sentencing Afzal Guru and backing protests which have been largely supported and funded by forces inimical to India, a backlash was bound to happen. I have studied in JNU, have experienced the ecosystem first hand, and while I deeply respect the institution, I have serious reservations against seeing the lines of politics and teaching being blurred. JNU is public-funded institution, and academics and others must understand that JNU cannot live and function in isolation from the new narrative and national consciousness which has little sympathy for those who distribute sweets on the killings of our jawans and those who attack our pillars of democracy. The backlash is the outcome of the deeds of many who are crying foul today, and have functioned with impunity in the Left dominated ecosystem. It's a churning coming of age.
Having studied there for over 7 years and done my M.Phil and PhD I could not agree more with you. Many of these academics are annoyed over complete rejection by the new emerging India of their ideology. Ironically, the very academics who cry for academic freedom and freedom of speech are the first to resort to name calling and labelling a contrarian view as fascist or Sanghis aur Bhakt . Although the latter care little. Been there and seen these very academics in JNU for 7 years. So, I say...such it up, and move on as you brought JNU to this pass.