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India Warned on Academic Freedom

Lack of respect for international norms will detract from efforts to build research excellence.

October 10, 2019
 

India has been warned that it will struggle to achieve its higher education development goals if it does not take significant steps to guarantee academic freedom.

The country has selected 20 universities to receive 10 billion rupees ($135 million) each over the next five years under its “institutes of eminence” program, with the goal of making them “world-class teaching and research institutions.” In the same period, India aims to quadruple the number of international students in the country to 200,000.

However, academics across the country remain concerned about continuing assaults on freedom of expression -- widely regarded as a prerequisite for the creation of a successful university sector that is attractive to foreign academics and students.

Concern is highest over the status of universities in the disputed Kashmir region, which has been the subject of a communications blackout since August. Professors from six universities warned in The Hindu last month that academics and students in the region had no access to the internet or mobile phone networks and had only limited access to landlines.

“Teaching and activities there have been dealt a devastating blow,” the professors wrote.

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, told Times Higher Education that the problems went beyond Kashmir’s borders. “The rest of India is also being silenced about Kashmir. There’s such a clampdown on universities that nobody can discuss anything about Kashmir, except to praise the government,” she said.

Sundar saw a broader deterioration of liberties across India. “Academic freedom has been under threat for a while, from institutional control and lack of support. But the thought control and restrictions have got much worse since 2014” -- the year Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.

In July, officials at the University of Delhi said curricula should contain no “controversial” or “provocative” content, “which may hurt the sentiments of any organization and community.” That edict led to the departments of sociology, political science, history and English “revisiting” their syllabi.

Sundar’s work was removed from reading lists by the political science department because it makes references to India’s agrarian crisis and Maoists, according to local reports. But she took issue with the term “controversial.” “It’s only controversial to the BJP,” Sundar said.

Other recent cases have also given cause for concern. Last month, the renowned historian Romila Thapar said she would refuse to comply with a request from Jawaharlal Nehru University that she resubmit her CV in order to retain her post as professor emerita.

While JNU said the move was a routine procedure, Thapar has long been critical of the authorities. In a May column in The New York Times, she said the Modi government was writing “make-believe versions of the past.”

N. Sai Balaji, president of JNU’s students’ union, told India Today that asking for Thapar’s CV was “part of larger agenda of this government that wants destroy research and learning.”

In August, six students at the University of Hyderabad were detained briefly by police for organizing a screening of the 1992 documentary In the Name of God, which some BJP supporters regard as anti-Hindu.

“There is no free discussion and instead, demoralization,” Sundar concluded. “Under these circumstances, high world rankings are just not going to happen.”

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