India as the “largest democracy in the world” is a description that the world press was fond of using. It is a cliché that has long outlived its relevance, but its afterlife has been of great value to an anti-democratic Hindu extremist government. On 26th January this year, the 71st anniversary of the inauguration of the Indian Constitution, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung carred an advertisement masquerading as a news item, paid for and placed by the Indian Embassy in Switzerland, which attempted to draw an unbroken democratic lineage from Mahatma Gandhi to Narendra Modi. But the politics of the regime has been in sharp contrast to their need to claim international legitimacy as democrats, and at home the pretence of democracy is no longer seen as necessary. The regime’s attempt, a few days before the anniversary of the Republic, to make further inroads into the practices and possibilities of academic and intellectual freedom, is just one of many occurrences demonstrating that the term democracy has been emptied of content.
Pre- and Self-Censorship
Very quietly, a bureaucratic notice from the Ministry of Education of the Government of India dated 15thJanuary 2021 laid out that all online academic events or conferences taking place at or with the participation of government-funded institutions would have to be subject to prior approval and registered with the Ministry of External Affairs, its programme uploaded to an online site provided by the Ministry. The meetings could not discuss internal affairs, sensitive issues, or matters of national security. The phrasing of the notice was vague and all-encompassing, but it was clear that the relative flexibility and ease with which academic and intellectual cooperation could happen online without budgets and the need for travel was a matter of concern to the Government of India.
The American Historical Association, one of the first professional academic associations to react, said the guidelines encompassed “most topics of interest to scholars of India”. Other academic associations across the world have added their voices to expressions of concern. Colleagues in India concurred that the new guidelines made it almost impossible to discuss anything without being pre-censored or placing colleagues at risk of retaliation. A later notice appeared to have retracted the new guidelines, but reiterated the need for ministerial control. Those with long memories hark back to the moment at which political and academic freedoms were under attack before, during the notorious Emergency of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977. Most would now agree that the attacks on such freedoms, and on academics and intellectuals themselves, under the Prime Ministership of Narendra Modi since 2014, has been quite unprecedented.
India’s academic system, both in the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities, despite being under-resourced and sometimes working in sub-optimal conditions, has produced world-standard research. But its credibility has suffered under the new regime, in terms of quality of work as much as of indices of academic freedom. The structural problems and institutional failings of Indian academia have been exacerbated by the regime. Unqualified party loyalists have been appointed to Vice-Chancellorships, with a view to controlling the political behaviour of university staff and students, and with complete disregard for academic standards. Government or government-funded universities are more directly affected, but private universities that desire to continue to operate in the new India either self-censor or are forced into conformity lest they run into trouble with the government. There has been a significant lowering of permanent posts at university level, and a resort to part-time teachers and precarious contracts, with new appointments being handed out to party loyalists. A policy of gradual affirmative action for people of disadvantaged economic or caste backgrounds has been under attack, and the limited gains from such policies are being pushed back.
Cultural Values and Violence
There has been an upward trend in interfering in the content of teaching in the name of “national priorities” with a view to strengthen “cultural” values. Doctoral positions have been greatly reduced in numbers, and supervisors no longer have control over the subjects researched under their supervision, in some cases with universities providing PhD topics that are explicitly pro-government political positions. “Sensitive themes”, ill-defined, but usually relating to “Hindu sentiment”, are pre-censored or censored not by academics but by kangaroo courts of the RSS, the ruling party’s paramilitary wing, or the ABVP, its student wing, who threaten organisers with violence and disruption, and often carry out destructive “raids” on academic programmes and campuses. That there is now an openly anti-Muslim sentiment encouraged or created on campuses across India, and sustained by university administrations, is an open secret. Additionally, caste Hindu ‚values’ are promoted by interference in the private lives of students, often through the enforcing of ‚vegetarian’ diets at student canteens and hostels.
The Ministry of Education has been less concerned with education and more with working together with ministries concerned with repression and ‘national security’. When there are protests, such as against the abolition of the autonomous status of Kashmir, against the new Citizenship Amendment Act that disproportionately disenfranchises Muslims, or the ongoing farmers’ movement, government propaganda accuses students and intellectuals of leading ‘anti-national’ activities, and individuals, often of Muslim origin and without affiliation to any of the larger opposition political parties, are arrested and detained without trial. Several of them have spent many months in prison without knowing what they are being charged with. The systematic appointment to leading academic positions of right-wing ideologues without academic credibility or publications is matched by a trend to prohibit research on subjects that are not congenial to the regime. There is a consequent attack on the selection of subjects for research, and on freedom of publication within the country. This has gradually led to international universities asking for more documentation and written work from students from Indian universities as a precondition for admission.
The concern with turning universities into sites of social control with no concern for the damage to academic freedom or credibility is in line with the regime’s larger fears of loss of control over its public message. The mainstream press in India has long felt the burden of government repression, or forms of persuasion exercised by newspaper owners; this has been steadily increased. Reporters are routinely harassed, their equipment broken by police or by paid party hooligans, male reporters beaten up, female reporters sexually assaulted and threatened with rape.
International charm offensives such as that by the Indian Embassy in the NZZ stand in sharp contrast to the less charming offensive against academics, intellectuals, the press, and now India’s farmers. The farmers’movement has placed India in the world news since December. As these protests, and the previous year’s protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, have shown, the right of protest has been severely under attack. Public campaigners from civil society who have protested against the government have found themselves in jail on the basis of impossible accusations, from instigating riots in Delhi in February of 2020 (actually a ruling party-organised pogrom) to offending ‘sentiments’, and awaiting trials that never seem to happen, or are imprisoned on the basis of the sort of emergency laws against undifferentiated ‘terror’ and opponents of state power that have been on the increase everywhere in the world. The skilful use or abuse of laws that mostly date back to colonial times has been noted; it has also been noted that people with Muslim names are disproportionately likely to be arrested and imprisoned (a comedian was arrested on the basis of jokes he might potentially make that could offend ‘Hindu sentiment’). The regular use of character assassination in public and threats of lynching are further disincentives to dissent.
In this context, the attempts to curtail academic communication make sense, and require strong resistance. Academic communication internationally has been a relatively privileged space that the Hindu nationalist movement has been unable to completely control. For instance, attempts by the ‘Dharma Civilisation Foundation’ to fund chairs sympathetic to the Hindu view of ‘Indic’ civilisation in the United States faltered mainly on procedural irregularities some years ago. Universities in India have been relatively quiet, beaten down by a combination of anti-intellectual propaganda, political appointments, and orchestrated violence engineered by the government’s auxiliary organisations, paramilitary groups and student union members.
Scholarship as Loyalty
There is still a scholarly community that has not succumbed to the pressure to stay away from subjects that a Hindu majoritarian and authoritarian regime finds inconvenient. Yet this is under threat, domestically and internationally. Some colleagues have expressed a concern that in certain sub-fields such as Sanskrit studies, a Hindu nationalist tendency is either dominant, or is tolerated by other colleagues; the Indian government-controlled Indian Council for Cultural Relations, an institution that far predates the coming to power of Hindu nationalists, now places regime-friendly academics at universities across the world. Many ‘scholars’ have taken to producing feelgood histories in conformity to national ‘sentiment’, which seem to correspond to academic trends that encourage historians to take feelings and emotional responses into consideration when writing. There is a tendency to self-censorship of academics working in and out of India and of international scholars with India connections that is partly driven by requirements of survival, livelihood, and/or access to academic spaces, fields of study and archives. Without joining a clique in power, less empowered academics, especially from non-mainstream and underprivileged communities, don’t stand a chance.
Connected to this is the fear among academics of offending ‘postcolonial sensibilities’. The apparent reclaiming of the right to speak for the ‘global south’ by academics of colour has led to silencing of critical voices of any kind, lest they be seen to be criticising another ‘culture’ or – if white – exercising their ‘white privilege’. That many scholars of colour are also critical of some ‘postcolonial’ or ‘global south’ trends, as also of the tendency of those trends to legitimate the politics of the right-wing regime in India, is easy to overlook. The mainstream of the academy, not concerned in work or everyday life with these themes or countries, is still sensitive to getting involved in the affairs of ‘third world’ scholarship, with the (still privileged) implication that lesser countries fighting over incomprehensible things is not their concern. Meanwhile, governments in the global south have learned to speak the language of hurt postcolonial sentiments, very often even using the terminology of the academic world. It is this disturbing coming together of academic indigenism and cultural chauvinism that needs to be addressed; it is not, therefore, merely the loss of academic freedoms, disturbing as they are, that needs to attract our attention, but the interwoven, interconnected and systematic destruction of democracy in India, with which it is connected, that must be addressed.