What an Academic Freedom Debate Says About Australia-India Relations

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What an Academic Freedom Debate Says About Australia-India Relations

A group of fellows at the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute recently resigned, alleging restrictions on their academic freedom.

What an Academic Freedom Debate Says About Australia-India Relations
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There is palpable emerging intimacy between Australia and India. This includes a recently signed new trade deal — the first India has signed with a developed country in over a decade — strengthening security ties, major investment from Australia in India, and expanding people-to-people links, including India now being Australia’s largest source of migrants. Yet this burgeoning relationship is not progressing without its controversies. 

In recent weeks a group of 13 academics who were fellows at the Australia India Institute (AII) based at the University of Melbourne collectively resigned their affiliations, claiming that restrictions were being placed on their academic freedom and alleging interference from the Indian High Commission in Canberra. The group also expressed concerns that the institute was prioritizing the bilateral relationship over academic research. 

The AII was established in 2008 with a $6 million grant from the federal government, and continues to receive funding from both the federal and Victorian state governments, as well as from the University of Melbourne and private donors. It is currently the only center in Australia that is dedicated exclusively to the study of India, understanding the relationship between India and Australia, and supporting the relationship between the two countries. 

Yet it is within this mission where the institute is finding conflict. As a branch of the University of Melbourne, academic inquiry should be its primary concern. Yet if the institute instead sees itself as a facilitator of the relationship between Australia and India, then research that may upset the current Indian government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) becomes problematic. As the scholars wrote in their collective resignation letter: “As experts on India, we have doubts that [the AII’s] quasi-diplomatic focus is consistent with, and furthers, the mission of the University.”

One incident cited by the resigning group was the refusal by the AII to publish an article on the attempt to decapitate a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Melbourne. Within the wider Hindutva movement of the BJP there has been an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Gandhi’s assassin, Nathurum Godse. Rather than the driving moral force behind India’s independence movement, Gandhi is now seen by some Hindu nationalists as an appeaser of the country’s Muslim minority. It is this perspective that led to the attack on Gandhi’s statue.

Given that this issue is central to the modern contest over what kind of state India should be – a secular democracy with respect for all religious groups or one that privileges its Hindu majority and excludes, often violently, all others – and that agitation against Indian secularism had found an outlet within the diaspora, this should have been of critical importance to the AII. Instead, reluctance to publish the article suggests either a self-censoring instinct to tip-toe around the sensitivities of the BJP, or direct submission to its pressures. The article was subsequently published by Pursuit, a different University of Melbourne publication.

As highlighted by Dilpreet Kaur in South Asian Today, debate over Australia’s emerging relationship with India has been playing out within the pages of Australian Foreign Affairs magazine, with the University of Melbourne’s deputy vice chancellor (international) – and AII board member – Michael Wesley a central figure. In a recent issue of the publication, Wesley argued in an article titled “Pivot to India: Our next great and powerful friend?” that India is a natural partner for Australia with significant commonalities, and that the relationship should be primarily driven by maritime security in the Indian Ocean.  

In the following issue, Ian Woolford, lecturer in Hindi at La Trobe University, wrote a response saying that Wesley was overlooking the lack of compatibility that the BJP’s Hindutva ideology has with Australia’s liberal democracy, and that this may create a serious impediment to the relationship. In his own reply, Wesley asserted that Woolford “will wait a long time before Australia makes human rights or democracy a central plank of its foreign policy. One of the most consistent elements in Australian foreign policy is a willingness to overlook a foreign regime’s foibles if Australia has a strong interest in maintaining stable and positive relations.”

Public debates over international relations are often mired in making the distinction between interests and values. Yet for liberal democracies like Australia this is always a false dichotomy because its interests and values are intrinsically linked. A liberal democracy’s values create its interests, and trying to separate the two undermines both. 

Liberal international norms like free trade, multilateralism, mutually beneficial rules, power restraint, and freedom of navigation all flow from the same philosophical well as democracy, respect for individual and human rights, the rule of law, secularism, freedom of the press, and academic freedom. These are all structures designed to best aid human flourishing, and each works in concert with the others to enhance this objective. 

Academic freedom is not a luxury that can be swept aside if deemed to be inconvenient; it is a core national interest because its purpose is to advance knowledge so that societies can make better and more sophisticated decisions. Protecting the national interest is about being vigilant toward each critical component of liberal democratic society, and this is not the sole purview of governments — institutions like universities are equally as responsible. Liberalism requires constant practical upkeep. 

The grand irony of this episode is that Australia’s desire to forge stronger ties with India is due to a belief that this will help protect its liberal values – and therefore its national interest – from the challenge and degradation posed by authoritarian China. Yet what is clear now is that the relationship with the BJP’s India is starting to degrade those very same values and interests.