Pratap Bhanu Mehta has reportedly resigned as a professor at Ashoka University, following the results of a global survey, which ranked India’s 83rd Freedom House in the world, the Freedom in the World 2020 report. Along with the ‘free’ democracies, Timor-Leste and Senegal, only Tunisia received a low score. Among the listed examples of “terrible setbacks” in the world’s largest democracy, the report states that the freedom of expression of journalists, academics and others is being harassed and threatened when addressing politically sensitive issues.
Earlier this month, there was a report in the Premier Indian Institute of Management (IIM) that its director had refused to submit a copy of a ‘objectionable’ academic work, a PhD thesis, to the Union Ministry of Education. With vague references to this thesis, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party ignored Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy, who insisted that the theory should be reconsidered by ‘independent’ professors and that the doctoral degree should be revived until then. Such ‘contempt action’ on behalf of the director is not uncommon as IIMs are given autonomy under the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Act, 2017. If it had happened before that legislative change, the result would have been no brain.
In today’s circumstances, questioning the academic dissent of a government genius at a ‘private’ university that offers liberal arts education is not only causing serious unrest, especially the fear that educational spaces in higher education will shrink. Despite all this, the government, by contrast, is trying to give more autonomy to higher education institutions through the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, but its intended goal is to reform the Indian education sector and make it multi-disciplinary, liberal and holistic education for the 21st century.
A powerful, liberal democracy is determined on the basis of its institutions, especially the press, judiciary and academia, and conducts elections periodically, not on the basis of having the traps of constitutional democracy. The academy, in particular, is central to the idea of free democracy because it helps to shape young minds and instill higher ideals that are fundamental to the concept of free thought and expression. In order to do so, however, academics must have the courage to speak up, and to listen to different opinions that come from different ideologies and not to act out of political convenience. Only such an enlightened and empowered academy living in India’s higher education institutions can initiate critical thinking and engagement with the big questions of nationalism and democracy.
Institutions of higher education and the educators associated with them should develop an environment in which young citizens can think critically about various issues from multiple angles, freely question the status quo and express their views without fear of retaliation. Students should be challenged and persuaded not to march in a way that beats ink to the same beat, but to do so as their ‘virtue’ or duty. It is the broader goal of ‘multi-disciplinary’ and comprehensive education that government policy seeks to provide 21st century students.
Established with private funding and a clear purpose, Ashoka seemed to be a guide to what independent institutions and autonomous multi-disciplinary universities in India should look like, especially after the implementation of NEP 2020. Arvind Subramanian of Ashoka showed how difficult it was for professors Mehta and resignation to gain true autonomy. NEP 2020 states that the country should recruit the best and brightest to enter the teaching profession at all levels by “ensuring livelihood, dignity, respect and autonomy”, but the Ashoka episode provides a harsh reminder of how things can go. Despite the best policy intentions, in the same way, or worse. The government debate recognizing the need to empower the academic community to do “their work” as effectively as possible and to provide quality higher education, which promotes personal engagement as well as constructive public engagement, seems to have evaporated into the ether within a year of the reforms being announced. True, some may even wonder if it exists.
The NEP’s focus on the governance of these institutions is left to highly qualified independent boards with academic and administrative autonomy. The ability of private companies to demonstrate their “public-spirited commitment” to the expected quality of keeping the regulator at bay is also questionable.
There is dissatisfaction and concern over the destiny of higher education in India and for academics and intellectuals who dare to challenge the establishment or dominant political ideology.
Freedom of expression is under threat as a threat to democracy through freedom of expression in the World 2020 Survey. Reducing the freedom of higher education institutions and educators poses a grave threat. It not only compromises the present, but by reducing the transmission of core values and ideals, it threatens the upliftment of the entire future generation of Indians driven by liberal thought and expression. Because, when silence is a preferred behavior and different voices are questioned, how can institutions and indeed countries teach students to have an ethical tendency to tolerate criticism and to subject themselves to internal and external observations?
Professor of Economics at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Tulsi Jayakumar Bhavan. These are the personal views of the author.