Attack on academic freedom across Indian Universities: BJP’s saffronization agenda

In global education, established universities are seeking partnerships with India to build their brand presence in the country. Noting the large market for education in India, multiple international institutions are exploring building partnerships.

For these institutions, while building linkages with India, it is vital to make note of India's most recent round of attacks on academic freedom. Partnerships and collaborative works with Indian universities stands threatened in a climate that is actively seeking to thwart academic freedom, silence thoughts, and turn education into a skills-mill. While the skills-mill approach may sound enticing for a global partnership, the drawback of such a skills-focused approach is its lack of engagement with critical thought.

Education in many ways in India now is being modeled into a factory for producing obedient workers for the global neoliberal economy. Add to this training in obedience an unhealthy dose of nationalism filled with perversions of history, you have a model of education that can hardly be called education.

Since coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the center in India has systematically orchestrated attacks on academic freedom across Universities in India. The impetus of these attacks has been on silencing dissent, with an active agenda toward thwarting any critique of the BJP’s narrow idea of a Hindu nation state and its model of growth-driven development.

These attacks have been accompanied by strategic efforts by the BJP to place at the helm of University decision-making individuals who are aligned with the BJP’s Hinduization agenda. These BJP-installed decision-makers are seen by the state as instruments for redoing the curriculum and the research agendas of Universities, turning toward the teaching of Sanskrit, the discoveries of ancient Vedic science, and the reformulation of teaching as practical skills-building to serve the narrowly conceived agendas of economic growth.

Education, reworked in a saffronized imaginary, is seen as an instrument for reintroducing the ancient knowledge of India from its Hindu past. Education, thus, is reworked into a script for investing Indians with nationalistic pride.

In BJP’s strategy of redoing India’s education, Universities as spaces of critical thought are antithetical to the progress of the nation state. The vision of the nation conceived in the image of Hindu growth has little room for critical thought that is seen therefore as anti-national, against the goals of the nation.

Concerted efforts have been carried out in attacking criticisms of India’s regressive caste-based Brahminical culture, interrogations of the increasing saffronization of the country, and criticisms of India’s death penalty or of the oppressions carried out in the hands of the Indian army in spaces such as Kashmir and Northeast India.

Earlier in 2015, a Dalit (meaning “oppressed” in South Asia, a broad category comprising of the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other oppressed groups) student leader at the University of Hyderabad, Mr Rohith Vemula committed suicide after having been unjustly treated by a University administration directed by the BJP government at the Center to take action. Rohith was a member of the Ambedkar Students Association, a dalit student group and was protesting the hanging of Yakub Memon, a convict in the 1993 Bombay bombings. The attack on the Ambedkar Student Association reflected the caste politics of the state, mixed in with its impulse to label any critique as anti-national.

The recent round of attacks on the hallowed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) further depict the relentless nature of the efforts to cleanse Universities. On February 9, 2016, a small group of students at JNU had organized a cultural event ‘A Country without a Post Office’ to question the unjudicial hanging of Mr. Afzal Guru, who was allegedly involved in the attacks on the Indian parliament in 2001, and in solidarity with the people of Kashmir.

Accusations of anti-India slogans raised at the event formed the basis for the arrest of the President of the JNU Student’s Union Mr. Kanhaiya Kumar, followed by arrests of students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya accused of raising the slogans. Used as evidence for the arrests were doctored videos broadcast by TV channels and circulated on social media. The police are yet to offer concrete evidence that the arrested students had raised the slogans.

How the doctored videos were circulated suggest possible involvement of the BJP in the creation of the story. For instance, investigations reveal that Ms. Shilpi Tiwari, former aide of the Union HRD Minister Ms. Smriti Irani, planted and circulated the doctored videos. Moreover, the BJP spokesman Mr. Sambit Patra played the doctored video(s) on network Television, thus framing the students as anti-national. The attack on JNU students by the state was accompanied by orchestrated media attacks on the basis of the doctored videos that constructed the students as anti-nationals.

The depiction of the accused students as seditious sought to catalyze mass hysteria. Home Minister Rajnath Singh warned “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared.” Singh then suggested that the JNU event had the backing of the Lahore-based Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, following a tweet by an unidentified individual impersonating as Saeed.

Similarly, the Union HRD Minister in charge of Education observed: “The nation can never tolerate any insult to mother India” and went on to deliver an address in Indian parliament attacking the students. BJP-affiliated politician Subramanian Swamy demanded a temporary closure of the University and a complete cleansing of the University. The disproportionate actions of these BJP leaders raise questions about the underlying motivations behind the cooked up controversy.

More recently, arrests have been carried out at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai and the University of Hyderabad. The responses by the state point toward a concerted effort to delegitimize the University as a site of thought and to undermine spaces of thinking that interrogate the BJP’s vision of creating a Hindu India. The anti-national propaganda campaign has been strategically directed at portraying students, professors, and their university as a threat to the nation, feeding into a national media and public frenzy to shut down debate, conversation, and difference.

This most recent attack on JNU is part of an ongoing campaign against Universities in India, witnessed earlier in Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), University of Hyderabad, and more recently, Allahabad University.

Across these spaces, thought is in jeopardy.

To think, in the imaginary of Modi’s “Make in India,” is to be anti-national.  

Globally, institutions of higher learning need to think cautiously and carefully when building partnerships in India. To build collaborations in spaces where freedom of expression stands threatened is to give in to the silencing of knowledge and thought, simply because it is inconvenient. Countries and universities that are exploring collaborations in the Indian education sector without giving serious consideration to questions of academic freedom are equally at fault as Mr. Modi's authoritarian regime.


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