Academic Freedom under Threat in India

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.

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:

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.  

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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.