The decline of academic freedom in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule has been a matter of debate and discussion for quite a few years now.
But what happened recently over a paper published by a private university faculty member on possible electoral manipulation in the 2019 general election was unprecedented. Intelligence agents arrived on campus, looking to find the academic’s “motive.”
Sabyasachi Das, an assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, a private, non-profit university in the northern Indian state of Haryana, resigned after a political controversy broke out over his paper, titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy.” He claimed to have uncovered electoral manipulations that appeared to “take the form of targeted electoral discrimination against India’s largest minority group – Muslims, partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers.”
The paper, which examines only 11 of India’s 574 Lok Sabha seats, dropped like a bomb, with senior politicians like Congress MP Shashi Tharoor demanding clarifications from the government and the Election Commission of India. An event at Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Maharashtra where Das was to present his paper was curiously canceled hours before it was scheduled to take place.
The paper was published online on July 25 and the Ashoka authorities distanced the university from the paper by August 1, saying that the paper had “not yet completed a critical review process and has not been published in an academic journal.”
Das resigned 12 days later and Pulapre Balakrishnan, a professor of economics, resigned in solidarity. Even though a section of the students and faculty have been demanding Das’ unconditional reinstatement, the authorities have not budged.
Intelligence agents came visiting the campus on August 21, looking to question Das, who was not on campus. His colleagues reportedly refused to interact with the sleuths, who were apparently looking for Das’ motive behind publishing such a paper.
The presence of members of the intelligence branch of different state police forces and the union government’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), as well as the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau, is not unheard of on university campuses known as hotbeds of student politics, for example, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi; Jadavpur University, Presidency University, and Aliah University in Kolkata; or Osmania University in Hyderabad. Ashoka University, too, has been on their radar.
“Intelligence officers do visit and cultivate sources at certain campuses, as various insurgent groups also scour such campuses for prospective recruits and sympathizers. However, the concern has mostly been student politics. I don’t think our superiors would have allowed interviewing an academic straightaway about their paper,” said a retired police officer, who had served in an intelligence unit, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Intelligence officers are not legally empowered to formally interrogate anyone, but their reports based on informal interviews can form the basis of formal investigations by the police or other investigating agencies.
If the IB visit was not enough, the university itself stood up an ad hoc committee to scrutinize the merits of Das’ paper. According to The Edict, an independent student newspaper covering Ashoka University since 2014, the Ashoka University Student Government (AUSG) hosted an open meeting on August 16, during which “students, alumni, and faculty expressed their escalating dismay regarding academic freedom at Ashoka.”
The report said that Arunava Sinha, professor of practice in creative writing, “emphasized that this committee aimed to evaluate the context surrounding the paper rather than its actual content.”
“Investigations via an ad-hoc committee into the ‘political context’ behind the research, the likes of which find neither precedent nor any mention in the faculty handbook, speak volumes about the political climate,” undergraduate student Rutuparna Deshpande wrote in The Edict on August 28. The article was titled, “Ashoka’s Tongue is Still Stuck to a Saffron Pole: Strike 3 with Academic Freedom.”
The university’s argument about Das’ paper having not been peer-reviewed yet comes as an irony. Academics had earlier pointed out that Y. Sudershan Rao, who was appointed as the chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) soon after Modi came to power, had no peer-reviewed publications and had only published “ancient Indian history from the RSS angle.”
RSS refers to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological-organizational parent of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Modi government has been accused of filling varsity leadership positions with RSS ideologues.
The paper, actually a work-in-progress, was shared on the website of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), an “open-access online repository of pre-prints papers dedicated to social sciences” that many researchers use.
The case of Ashoka is no isolated event. In 2020, Delhi University professor and author Nandini Sundar listed 54 incidents since Modi’s ascent to power when events on campuses were cancelled under pressure or threat from the administration or RSS-linked organizations, whereas only five such cancellations were recorded during 2010-14, when the Congress-led UPA II government ruled. The Congress is now the main opposition party.
Simultaneously, events and seminars highlighting the Hindu nationalist ideology are finding institutional backing with increasing frequency.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a professor at a union government-funded university told The Diplomat, “The way research funding is being directed towards subjects that serve the Hindu nationalists’ ideological purpose is sending out a clear signal to academics about how they should set their priorities.”
The debate around reducing academic freedom in India has been going on for quite a few years now. In March, the Academic Freedom Index Update 2023 included India in the list of countries having witnessed “substantial, statistically significant decreasing cases of academic freedom over the past 10 years.”
Even though it said the trend started in 2009, during the rule of the UPA II government, it became more powerful with time.
“Around 2013, all aspects of academic freedom began to decline strongly, reinforced with Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014. Campus integrity, institutional autonomy, and the freedom of academic and cultural expression declined more strongly over the following years than the freedom to reach and teach and the freedom of academic exchange and dissemination,” it said.
The report opined that the absence of a legal framework to protect academic freedom enabled “the attacks on academic freedom under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.”
Academics, however, seem to expect no such legal protection to come in the foreseeable future, not the least with the Hindu nationalists in power.