Plea in Supreme Court to save academic freedom

Data stored digitally in devices that are seized can be tampered with or distorted, says petition by five teachers

Updated - March 31, 2021 01:59 am IST

Published - March 30, 2021 10:11 pm IST - New Delhi

A view of Supreme Court of India

A view of Supreme Court of India

The Supreme Court has asked the government to respond to a plea by five teachers to protect “academic freedom” from raids and seizures of police and investigative agencies.

The past few years have seen raids on and seizures of electronic evidence from academicians, researchers, lawyers and activists.

Now, a group of educationists have asked the court to frame guidelines so that the police treat the academic work and research, usually stored in computers they seize during raids, in a “civilised manner”.

A Bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul issued notice to the Centre and sought a reply in four weeks.

Professors Ram Ramaswamy, Sujata Patel, M. Madhava Prasad, Mukul Kesavan and Deepak Malghan said academicians lose their life’s work when police carry off their computers and drives after a raid. What may be stored in these devices would be their life’s work. At the hands of the police, their work run the risk of damage, loss, destruction or even distortion.

“Data that is stored digitally by academics may have been collected through extensive field work spanning decades or the results of scientific experiments or calculations similarly representing major effort. If these are tampered with or damaged, the loss to research in the sciences and social sciences is considerable and often irreplaceable. A lifetime’s work is life as much as livelihood. Patentable material may exist or work that runs the risk of being plagiarised. Work may also be stored in ‘clouds’, compelled exposure of which carries all of the aforesaid risks as much as the seizure of physical devices,” the petition, filed through advocates Nitya Ramakrishnan and S. Prasanna, said.

The “entirely unguided power” of investigative agencies to take control of devices that contain much, if not all, of a citizen’s personal and professional life, requires to be treated in a civilised way by means of directives from the Supreme Court, it said.

“Academic freedom is part of the right to freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) and also of the right to practise a profession or occupation under Article 19(1)(g). The work of an author or an academic may be a work in progress to be protected from premature exposure, it may contain sensitive data concerning others, and may store years of research,” the petition said.

The Constitution and international treaties like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights imply the need to protect academic work.

“Recent reports of the UN Special Rapporteur have expressed dismay at the growing intolerance of independent thought on the part of regimes across the world, leading to criminal prosecutions, including in India,” the petition said.

It said some “recent news reports” suggested remote tampering with electronic and digital devices.

“Whatever be the veracity of the same, it is a matter of concern,” the petition said.

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