As APJ Abdul Kalam puts it, “one of the very important characteristics of a student is to question. Let the students ask questions.” Academic freedom is the freedom of students and faculties to study, teach, research and pursue knowledge in any areas of interest to them. While the Ministry of Education, Government of India has entrusted ‘academic freedom’ to its autonomous educational institutions, it is crucial to discuss the extent to which this is actually practiced.
In March 2021, the student community of Ashoka University, Delhi was shocked to apprehend the news of Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s untimely resignation. Prof. Mehta, a renowned political scientist and commentator, had stepped down as its Vice Chancellor almost two years back before giving up his role as a professor at Ashoka.
Academic freedom promises zero interference from external bodies such as the governing body or other political parties. Unlike the above stated fact, many of the organizations in India are facing political interference from the ruling government. Prof. Mehta, in his resignation letter, clearly states that the university authorities used the phrase ‘political liability’ to describe his continuation in the university. He said he was forced by the management, who had pressure from the government to move on with the resignation.
Few days later, Arvind Subramanian, Economics professor at Ashoka, former chief economic advisor to the Prime Minister, also resigned from his position expressing his disagreement with the management for forcing Prof. Mehta to resign. Mr. Subramanian pointed it out as an insult to academic freedom in our country. The student’s union of Ashoka organized protests asking justification from the college management but received no response.
There have been several concerns about academic freedom in the country, but since the Modi government has taken over power in the country, there have been continuous unprecedented assaults on academic freedom. Shilpa Singh, Assistant Professor at the VM Salgaocar College of Law in Goa was threatened by the ABVP student wing for her critical lectures on Manusmriti. The ABVP goons accused her of “outraging religious feelings.”
In an era where questioning the policies of the government is considered ‘anti-national,’ dissent of the public is being silenced. Incidents like these stands as testimonies for the assaults faced by people for believing in different ideologies that are in opposition to the ruling government.
Constraints placed on research subjects constitute another limitation set by the government. Recently, Meena Pillai resigned from the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature, Dept. in Central University, protesting against a circular restricting research to topics of national priorities. Freedom in research is fundamental and inevitable for finding truths. Curbing this would lead to promoting interests of a particular political party even if it disturbs the nation collectively.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed the need for good researchers and academicians in our country. But the curtailed freedom in the academic field no longer attracts their stay. Students expect liberal thought to be practiced in educational institutions. In reality, debate and discussion clubs around universities are attacked by the saffron activists for their difference in opinions. JNU’s debate club was criminalized by the authorities as a step to shush the student influence. The fee hike faced by the students came as a backlash for the protests furnished by the student community against authoritarianism.
Democracy is founded on a series of negotiations that require multi-faceted opinions that eventually ends up in a collective good. But for this, proper debate and discussion is crucial. Attacks on the freedom of academia works well for the dubious political agendas but not for a future that we envision.