Academic freedom is under threat in India

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Academic freedom is coming under threat in India due to increasingly stringent restrictions and institutions using tactics of intimidation and harassment, scholars in the country have warned.

The Times Higher Education logo, with a red T, a purple H and a blue E.There have been reports of university officials reprimanding academics for openly speaking out against the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime in the latest sign that the prime minister’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, first elected in 2014, is using its power to stamp out freedom of speech.

“No doubt censorship has increased in the last couple of years,” said Ayesha Kidwai, a professor at the Center for Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, noting that the “insulation that the academic sphere used to give you” has all but disappeared.

Kidwai is currently involved in a court case against JNU, which maintains that she breached rules applying to civil servants by taking part in a protest against the alleged mismanagement of the university by its then vice chancellor. She maintains that the rules do not apply to academics.

Times Higher Education has also spoken to two academics who said they were called into meetings with university officials after publicly criticizing government policies. Their names and institutional affiliations have been kept anonymous to protect their jobs.

One academic who was called into one such meeting said administrators gave her the “impression” she should be careful about what causes she is seen to support.

She noted that such tactics, commonly used against outspoken activists or non–ruling party politicians, are spreading to academia, with increased oversight giving scholars the sense that “we are noting who from which institutions” are taking actions such as signing petitions.

“It cannot be seen as direct threat, but it’s a beginning,” she said. “Many of my younger colleagues who are quite keen, who would like to see change and are upset with the current atmosphere in the country, have pretty much stopped signing statements—they look at every word on a statement before signing.”

Another academic told Times Higher Education that he had been in a situation where a high-level administrator with government ties “called some of us in for a ‘discussion’ as they felt our public criticism of a specific government policy was misplaced,” adding that “the conversation itself was quite civil” but “the intent to intimidate was clear” nonetheless.

The incident has made him wary of taking any further actions that could be perceived as critical of the country’s leadership.

“Being critical of my institution is still fine … but I do think twice before any activity that has the potential to be interpreted as being critical of the current government,” the academic said, adding that similar tactics, along with high-profile court cases targeting opposition figures and certain academics, have “silenced the sector.”

“Activities deemed political … often trigger inquiries by the intelligence bureau—sometimes informally but enough to be seen as a threat. Routine vigilance clearances for appointment to high-level administrative positions have started to involve questions like rating … the government’s performance,” he said.

While Times Higher Education was unable to verify these claims, other academics said they would be “unsurprised” if such things were happening.

Given institutions’ heavy dependence on government funds, administrators find it difficult to do much to protect their resources, academics said.

But even in the absence of protection, academics must push back, said one of the scholars who spoke to Times Higher Education. “Academics need to come together to counter self-censorship by building solidarity, challenging questionable punitive actions in the courts and bringing to the attention of the public the downsides of not having any critique of government policies from academia.”

The Indian press information bureau did not respond to requests for comment.

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