Sabyasachi Das, an economist by training, writes a paper titled ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’. Das studies 11 closely contested seats during the 2019 general elections in India and finds their results disproportionality in favor of the BJP, India’s governing party. He notes, ‘the results point to strategic and targeted electoral discrimination against Muslims, in the form of deletion of names from voter lists and suppression of their votes during election, in part facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers.’ Das presents detailed evidence and uses econometric techniques to unravel this potential electoral manipulation and fraud.
An SSRN link to the paper was shared on Twitter, picked up and discussed extensively by the civil society and the opposition. As a result, Das’ institution, Ashoka University, distanced itself from the research before reportedly pressuring him to resign from his position. Now, in a concerning turn of events, the federal Intelligence Bureau paid a visit to the Economics Department. While the Department stands by Das, the University’s Governing Body has failed its faculty by failing to provide a safe space for research. In reaction, another senior economist resigned from the University and several departments have written open letters against the Governing Body’s interference. This is the same institution that was embroiled in a similar controversy a few years back upon the exit of noted intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
Not many days before this controversy, a teacher in Pune named Ashok Sopan Dhole was arrested for allegedly making objectionable remarks against Hindu deities and ‘outraging religious feelings’ of the students after a video of his lecture went viral on the internet. Dhole could be heard commenting in the video about the presence of innumerable deities in the Hindu religion in contrast to the monotheism of Islam and Christianity.
In response to this alarming development, a professor noted, “An incident of this kind shows how we are destroying the spirit of learning and unlearning through questions, counter-questions, dialogues, conversations and differences. We are destroying what sustains a classroom – the efficacy of mutual trust. And we are destroying the spirit of studentship.” This comment reverberates with my first thoughts upon reading this story. The direction in which the Indian academia is progressing could not have been described better. These events support V-Dem Institute’s ‘Academic Freedom Index’, released earlier this year, which shows that academic freedom in India is in a constant decline.
These are not standalone events. I have personally experienced instances where the University administration canceled lectures and discussions, fearing governmental action. Several accounts have surfaced online in reaction to the Ashoka controversy discussing how the presence of state intelligence units during conferences and discussion sessions is a common phenomenon, particularly in state universities. The state-supported environment of fear around independent and critical thinking is pervasive and, sadly, effective.
During my conversations with a few law professors, one theme emerged as common – the chilling effect of a sense of fear about the potential repercussions of making comments that may sound critical of the incumbent government or its ideology. Teachers have become cautious about what discussions they could organize in their classes. This fear has intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic, as classes have shifted online, making it easier for students to record lectures and circulate them online, usually by presenting small bits divorced from their context to make the clip sound more controversial.
This is not the only thing wrong with Indian academia today. In terms of research support, India merely spends 0.7% of its GDP on research and development, considerably less than countries like the USA, Germany, and Japan, which spend around 3% of their GDP. To correct this situation, Parliament recently passed the Anusandhan National Research Foundation Act, 2023, to inject about 6 billion USD into the research industry over the next five years. However, instead of keeping the Research Foundation distant from politics to support independent research, the Act creates a Governing Council largely populated by the members of the government. The Council is presided over by the Prime Minister, and its other members include two union ministers, four secretaries from different governmental departments, one member from the government’s think tank NITI Aayog, and the Principal Scientific Advisor to the union government. In addition, the Act vests the Prime Minister with the power to nominate field experts to the Governing Council. With such a design, it is highly doubtful that the Research Foundation would support academic works critical of the government.
A recent controversy with the Director of the International Institute for Population Sciences offers a glimpse of how this will look like. IIPS operates under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and in its recent report, it contradicted repeated claims made by the Prime Minister and BJP about the success of its cooking gas-related scheme and about India being open defecation-free. As a reward for these revelations, the government suspended the Director.
Something similar happened in 2019 when multiple members of the National Statistical Commission resigned in protest over, among other things, delays in releasing their findings about the increasing unemployment rate in India. This is at a time when scholars are noting that the Indian statistical system, which used to be one of its crown jewels, is breaking down and is facing a ‘major crisis’.
In another related legal development this month, Parliament passed the Indian Institutes of Management (Amendment) Act, 2023, making the President a “visitor” of every IIM in India and vesting them with considerable management powers. For instance, one provision provides that “the Visitor may appoint one or more persons to review the work and progress of any Institute and to hold inquiries into the affairs thereof and to report thereon in such manner as the Visitor may direct. … Upon receipt of any such report, … the Visitor may take such action and issue such directions as he considered necessary in respect of any of the matters dealt with in the report and the Institute shall be bound to comply with such direction.” This necessarily subjugates institutional freedom to the government’s interest in avoiding any political embarrassment that independent research may result in.
Under the layer of policing power that these actions create, there is a lurking sense of cowardice and fear of losing control over the narrative about the efficacy of the government. The ruling regime fears data and arguments that could make it look weaker. It believes in controlling the public narrative by rhetoric and silencing anyone who attempts to defeat its rhetoric with facts and logic. The regime’s minions are out there motivated by fear, expectation of reward, or belief in the BJP’s ideology, making every effort to police and suppress independent and critical thinking. A functional democracy values its researchers, introspects when presented with distressing data, and responds with scientific evidence when challenged by works generated with ulterior motives. The first response can never be to humiliate the researchers with its state and political power and suggest that any work critical of the government is motivated by elements directed to ‘defame India’ and is sponsored by ‘foreign interests’.
To those who believe in the Indian Constitution, let’s take a relook and read what it says:
“51A. Fundamental Duties. – It shall be the duty of every citizen of India – … (h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform …”