Academic freedom is under attack in Modi’s India

The ongoing unlawful imprisonment of Professor Anand Teltumbde and numerous other dissident scholars is a clear reflection of the bleak state of academic freedom in India.

Joint Press Conference Condemning The Arrest Of Activists In Bhima-koregaon Violence Case MUMBAI, INDIA - AUGUST 29: Susan Abraham, wife of Vernon Gonsalves, Civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde whos
Leading scholar and author Anand Teltumbde was arrested in April 2020 after being accused of having links with Maoist rebels and conspiring against the government [Photo by Bhushan Koyande/Hindustan Times via Getty Images]

Last year I had the opportunity to listen to the prominent Indian intellectual and author, Anand Teltumbde, speak at an academic conference in Delhi. At one point in his speech, he got teary-eyed and told the audience that he has lost all hope because India’s transformation into a “Hindu nation” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears complete. Having followed his profound anti-caste scholarship and civil rights activism closely over the years, I was heartbroken to witness his despair. I wanted to walk up to him and tell him that things will eventually get better. But since I did not know him personally, I chose not to.

I thought of him and his sorrow about the state of India often in the following months. I was miles away in the United States studying towards a PhD, but I was aware of the increasing repression of dissident academics and student activists in my home country. So when I read about Professor Teltumbde’s arrest in April this year, it felt personal. He was accused of having links with Maoist rebels and conspiring against the government, including “plotting the assassination” of Modi. Countless legal experts agree that the charges are fabricated and politically motivated, but he remains behind bars to this day.

Sadly, Teltumbde is not the only scholar to have fallen victim to the ongoing witch hunt against government critics in Indian academia – many public intellectuals have been accused of endangering “national security” and imprisoned for challenging Modi’s authoritarianism in recent years.

Just last month, a report published by the international NGO Scholars at Risk exposed the steady curtailment of academic freedoms in India under the Modi government. While the findings of the report were undoubtedly disturbing, they did not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the news from India closely.

Since assuming power in 2014, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been systematically destroying the secular, democratic foundations of India and transforming the country into a strictly Hindu nation. BJP’s Hindu supremacist ideology portrays Muslims as the nefarious “other”. Moreover, Hindu supremacy is about the hegemony of upper-caste Hindus. Lower castes, which constitute the majority of the Indian population, are on one hand told to be proud Hindus, and on the other hand, oppressed violently because the caste system deems them inferior. It is in this context that anti-caste, Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) scholars such as Teltumbde, as well as Muslim and other dissident academics, are accused of being “anti-national” and prosecuted with fabricated charges.

Last August, India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region over which both India and Pakistan claim jurisdiction. Following this move, the world’s so-called “largest democracy” imposed a communication lockdown in the region, closed all educational institutions and erected police barracks in university campuses.

Without access to the internet and university campuses, scholars and students from the region were left struggling to study, teach and communicate with each other and the outside world. To make matters worse, Hindu nationalist groups supporting the government started attacking Kashmiri students in other parts of India for merely “looking Kashmiri”. Scholars working on subjects related to Kashmir, meanwhile, have been summoned by state authorities to explain why they are doing “anti-national” research. Attempts by the Indian government and its supporters to silence dissenting voices in academia have not been contained within the country’s borders, either. Letters accusing Kashmiri scholars based in the US of “supporting terrorism” have been sent to the universities they are associated with, and events they participate in have been disturbed by Modi’s supporters.

Just a few months after the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, Modi’s BJP rammed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which offers an accelerated path to citizenship to migrants who are not Muslim, through India’s parliament.

On university campuses across India, students held unprecedented, peaceful protests against this blatantly discriminatory law. These protests were met with brutal state repression. Police and paramilitary forces entered university campuses and fired tear gas and rubber bullets and beat up students. In some cases, officers stood by and watched as Hindu nationalist groups stormed the same campuses, vandalised property and attacked anti-CAA student protesters.

Indian scholars and students studying abroad, such as myself, watched these events in horror. Many of us published open letters against the CAA and in support of the protesters. Despite a large number of signatories including many prominent scholars, these letters made little difference to the Modi government – it continued its repression of peaceful protesters, which eventually resulted in an anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi that claimed 53 lives.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic provided another opportunity for the government to clamp down on any criticism of its policies and actions. As protests became difficult and at times “unlawful gatherings” amid the pandemic restrictions, the Modi government decided to utilise its powers to further silence dissenting voices. It started wielding the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – which gives the state the power to designate an individual as a terrorist before being proven guilty by trial – against dissident scholars and students participating in anti-CAA protests and anti-caste activism.

In July, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, the BJP government also approved the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) outlining its vision for India’s education system. Not only does NEP pave the way for further privatisation of education and the erosion of the federal character of the educational structure, BJP’s rhetoric around NEP reveals how Hindu supremacy is shaping education in India.

BJP officials’ discussion of NEP has been replete with proclamations that education needs to be grounded in “culture” and “traditions” and that India was a “knowledge superpower” in the ancient past, before Muslim invasions and British colonialism.

According to Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, the NEP is based on the dictum that “nation [comes] first, character [is a] must”. Under this ideological design, questioning caste oppression, Islamophobia, patriarchy and crony capitalism is “anti-national” and scholars who dare to do so lack “character”.

The NEP prioritises the development of “practical skills” over critical thinking abilities. I, myself, have seen what this means during my undergraduate studies in one of the country’s premier engineering and science institutes, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). It means keeping the curriculum and the university atmosphere strictly apolitical, which ensures graduates obtain remarkable technical skills but remain unable to think critically and question oppressive structures.

With Indian engineers and technical professionals working across the world, this issue has global ramifications. After watching my college peers bash affirmative action for Dalit students for years, I was not surprised to find that there is rampant caste discrimination among Indian-origin engineers in Silicon Valley. Having experienced the meritocratic, technocratic environment of the IIT, I was not surprised that Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who is an IIT alumnus, chose to work with the Chinese government to create a censored, trackable search engine rather than question how doing so will endanger human rights in China.

The ongoing unlawful imprisonment of Professor Teltumbde and numerous other scholars is a clear reflection of the bleak state of academic freedom in India. It will take years, if not decades, to undo the damage that Modi and his Hindu nationalist supporters have inflicted on Indian education. It will require university leaders, lawmakers, civil society, and crucially, the international community, urging the state to end repression of ideas and safeguard academic freedoms.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.