The definition of what precisely academic freedom constitutes, is not concrete or bounded. It can also be referred to as a subclass of the more extensive fundamental right, of Freedom of Speech, of institutions and higher education. It argues that a university is a place, that is free from political pressure, bureaucratic influence, and which can be an autonomous, self-regulatory body with freedom of thought, expression, and research.
Indian institutions are witnessing a decline in the Academic Freedom Index or AFI Score, which has reached an all-time low of seven years. Countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and Brazil have scored higher than India. AFI takes into account, the following parameters:
(1) freedom to research and teach;
(2) freedom of academic exchange and dissemination;
(3) institutional autonomy;
(4) campus integrity; and,
(5) freedom of academic and cultural expression.
With a population of 1.2 billion people, India has the world's second-largest post-secondary sector. There are more than 37,000 institutions with 32.3 million students and 1,367,535 faculty. Contrary to these fine figures, only six Indian Universities feature in the top 500 of the International University Ranking System, and even those could not make it up to the top 300, this can be read in relation to the stamping down on academics, researchers, scholars, and students by the current ruling party.
The popular belief - that private institutions are autonomous and free from external influence, was shattered by Pratap Bhanu Mehta's recent resignation as a professor, from Ashoka University, a prominent liberal arts college, set up as a response to America's Ivy League Colleges. He was followed by Arvind Subramaniam, who resigned two days later in solidarity. In his resignation letter, Subramaniam wrote that,
"even Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital – can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom [which] is ominously disturbing."
Both of them were vocal critics of the ruling party and its policies; Subramaniam had even worked as the chief economic advisor for BJP. This raises critical questions about the far-reaching influence of government, even in universities that are not state-funded, that function on private capital and its widespread agenda of curbing dissent.
It is common knowledge by now, that a majority of appointments, especially to top-ranking posts like that of vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors, and registrars, have been highly politicized. At University of Mumbai's 150th anniversary, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, expressed concern that,
"many state university appointments, including that of vice-chancellors, have been politicized and have become subject to caste and communal considerations and there are complaints of favoritism and corruption."
Authorities use sedition and anti-terrorism laws to silence and create fear among students and academics. Controversial subjects such as caste or gender-related issues that are confrontational to society create an uneasy climate that manifests itself in a lack of support or validation for research. This makes an arbitrary category of subjects that the academics ignore or pretend to ignore to steer clear of any unwanted attention from the "thought-police."
UGC To Draft A Full-Fledged Syllabus
Recently, University Grants Commission or (UGC), India's higher education statutory body, declared that it would draft its history undergraduate syllabus, that is to be followed by all the public and private universities in the country. This marks a change from the previous framework, wherein, it only used to issue general guidelines, and universities could decide on their curriculum and what texts to teach. This move has drawn a lot of ire from the academic community, which has projected mythology and folklores as "Indian History." Texts like Kautilya's Arthashastra, Kalidas's poems, and Charak Samhita have been discarded. While the Mughals have been referred to as 'invaders,' the East India Company's brutal rule has been termed 'territorial expansion.' This is in direct contradiction with the government's promises to set up "world-class" educational institutions free from all kinds of regulations and restrictions, even those issued by UGC.
Role Of Organized Student Groups
Threats to academic freedom not only come from outside the community, but also exist within. The Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad or (ABVP), the student wing of RSS, has a long history of violence and aggression, which has increased dramatically in the last few years. These include seminars being disrupted mid-way by creating a commotion, or talks being cancelled in the final seconds due to the fear of possible disturbance.
February 2017, Ramjas College (Delhi University)
An event featuring a talk on the War in Adivasi Areas, which was to be delivered by JNU student Umar Khalid, was cancelled because members of ABVP were opposed to it and resorted to violence, threw chairs at faculty and students, which caused them to hide inside the college premises before police finally escorted them out.
The Heckler's Veto
The Academic Council of Delhi University had to eliminate AK Ramanujan's essay, titled- "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation", from the BA Honours History course, after ABVP vandalised the university's history department, to protest the teaching of this essay.
These instances serve to show the state of affairs, which can be abused unrelievedly by citing "hurt sentiments" when it comes to books, films, or any other form of expression. Universities have been turned into battlegrounds instead of functioning as the sites of intellectual debates, discussions, and dialogue. Students cannot discuss contentious issues without the fear of ending up behind bars.
The Radhakrishnan Higher Education Report, which dates back to 1948, states:
"Students cannot learn these if, the institutions are run on authoritarian lines. We cannot teach the lessons of freedom by the methods of servitude. Students should be encouraged to participate in the social and cultural activities of the areas, in which the colleges are situated, so that, they may become alive to the needs of the society in which they live."
There can be no institutional autonomy or academic freedom in India unless, the policy-makers: respond promptly to the declining AFI Scores, ensure that there is no unsolicited interference by government, or any other external force, leadership appointments are made based on merit instead of political influence, and, governance power resides with the academicians instead of bureaucrats.