Since coming to power in 2014, India’s Hindu nationalist regime has been steadily shrinking the spaces of political and academic freedom. Its latest moves show a continuing tendency to silence critical voices and to further its narrow views of history and society.

  • Benjamin Zachariah, currently at the University of Trier, Germany, is an historian of modern and contemporary India, of colonialism, and of fascism.

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

Student leader Aishe Ghosh, injured in an attack by Hindu natio­na­lists on the campus of Jawa­harlal Nehru Univer­sity in Delhi, Jan. 5, 2021; source: nytimes.com

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. 

Senti­ments

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.  

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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.

  • Benjamin Zachariah, currently at the University of Trier, Germany, is an historian of modern and contemporary India, of colonialism, and of fascism.