Academic Freedom Under Assault By Indian Government

Freedom of speech has become a rallying claim for the world’s autocrats. Their actions, however, routinely show they do not care for free speech but only freedom of their speech, as they seek to eliminate speech that is critical to them.

Assault on the freedom to speak takes many forms, but the most common tactic is broad censorship that the government employs to silence their critics and opponents and deprive them of a forum with which to do so.

While primary government censorship efforts focus on journalists and their publications, a secondary casualty will be higher education.

Autocrats loathe education – especially higher public education because universities are fertile grounds for exchanging new ideas and where those ideas are freely debated. Autocrats also know that students are still forming their identities, including their political leanings, and if they can fill the students’ heads with state propaganda – the next generation will be more likely to support the ruling party than oppose it.

Universities are also likely to be the breeding grounds for government opposition.

It is no wonder the Indian government has taken an expansive interest in weeding out thoughts that might be critical to the ruling BJP.

Throughout 2022 this process has escalated. It occurs by subtle and overt means. In this blog, we’ll examine how India is censoring higher education.

Eliminating studies that are not in the national interest

The Indian government’s censorship efforts predate the occupation of Kashmir. Indeed, they began their efforts after the BJP came into power in 2014.

In early 2019, the Indian government told universities their Ph.D. candidates would have to pursue topics that were “in the national interest.”

In March 2019, Meena T. Pillai was on the board of the Central University of Kerala, in the fields of English and Comparative Literature. She resigned from her position in protest rather than comply with the dictates of New Delhi.

The University was directed to establish three criteria for its Ph.D. students. First, research was curtailed to areas of national priority. Second, so-called irrelevant research was not permitted. Finally, the faculty had to prepare a shelf of projects from which students have to choose.

“You are saying the next generation research student, who is normally 24 years old by the time he/she reaches the Ph.D. is not imaginative enough to choose his/her area of research, and we will decide what to research on. This is suicidal for the higher education in the country,” Pillai said.

Government overreach continues to infect higher education. Currently, over half of all universities are without a Vice-Chancellor. The delay in appointments for such a vital administrative role is political as potential nominations are withheld for political reasons. Even though the Prime Minister has no role in nominating for that position, the vacancies are not filled due to pressure from the Indian government.

Censoring subjects and harassing professors

Given the large-scale overreach into university administration, the next logical progression is to cancel subjects that are perceived to be against the ruling party. In late 2021, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s top university publicly canceled a webinar that referred to Indian-occupied Kashmir that was to be hosted by political anthropologist, writer, poet, and social activist Ather Zia. Zia is an associate professor of anthropology and gender studies at the University of Northern Colorado.

The webinar focused on resisting disappearances by the Indian army and highlighted gender-specific violence that women face in Kashmir. JNU Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar defended the cancellation of the webinar by saying, [The webinar] is a highly objectionable and provocative subject, which questions the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country.”

While India sought preclearance before controversial subjects could be taught, they later rescinded it. However, as this case shows, the policy is very much being enforced despite not being on the books.

Earlier this month, the government of Manipur issued an order that requires prior approval to publish books in the state. Certain topics are under scrutiny, such as Manipur’s history, culture, tradition, and geography. This policy seems to be an extension of efforts to censor a book called ‘The Complexity Called Manipur: Roots, Perceptions & Reality’ authored by Sushil Kumar Sharma.

Professors and academics are regarded with the same level of suspicion as journalists throughout the country. In a report to Inside Higher Education – faculty discuss the intimidation tactics India employs to keep their silence.

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

Another academic who spoke provided an anonymous account to the IHE report and said she was told ‘to be careful which causes she supported or which politicians she criticized’.

“It cannot be seen as a 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.”

Still, others are refused entry into India completely.

In April 2022, Filippo Osella, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at the University of Sussex, has been visiting India since the 1980s, was denied a visa into India, and was hurriedly deported from India.

Osella, who was not known to be political, was turned away simply because his passport had too many visas from neighboring Pakistan.

Eliminating Private Education

India’s censorship of education does not end with the public sphere. All private schools in the Jammu and Kashmir region operated by Falah-e-Aam Trust were closed for being affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami, an organization banned in 2019.

The regional administration declared that all students must attend Indian Public Schools for the 2022-2023 school year.

This move affected more than 11,000 school-age children.

With the overreach and the rampant Hindu nationalism running amok in the J&K region, it is clear this decision was not made with the children’s best education intentions in mind but to further solidify them as second-class citizens in the region.

As a side effect of this policy, hundreds of teachers are likely to become unemployed, further exacerbating the economic despair in the region.

Final thoughts

Censorship in higher education is a nebulous issue, often occurring out of plain sight and providing the government with plausible deniability to maintain the veneer of legitimate democracy.

However, those denials do not hold up to scrutiny. When the pieces are put together, what the government is doing is obvious. Hindu nationalism leaves no room for different interpretations other than the nihilistic vision it has set for the country.

The Modi government has shown outright hostility to freedom of speech by arresting, deporting, and harassing journalists. There are no reasons why it will not take the same heavy hand to education.

It leads to one conclusion: The world’s largest democracy is dying as corruption and rot censorship continues to grow within it.