The hyperpoliticisation of Indian higher education

There is a grave threat to academic institutions, the academic profession, and intellectual life in general

Updated - May 18, 2024 10:10 am IST

Published - May 18, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘It is fair to say that Indian higher education has become fundamentally politicised’

‘It is fair to say that Indian higher education has become fundamentally politicised’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Indian higher education has always been political. Politicians started colleges and universities to advance their careers and build support. State and central government authorities sometimes placed new post secondary institutions in politically advantageous locations. Many of them were established to cater to the demands of the electorate based on various socio-cultural factors as well. The naming and renaming of universities, especially by State governments, are often influenced by politics. Academic appointments or promotions were sometimes made for reasons other than the quality of the professor, vice-chancellor or principal. And, especially in many undergraduate colleges, the norms of academic freedom were not always firmly followed — and teachers were careful in what they taught or wrote.

Yet, overall, Indian higher education, especially in the universities, adhered to international norms of academic freedom. Generally, professors were free to teach without fear of being disciplined or fired for their views. They were able to do research and to publish their work freely, and to speak and write in public forums and the media. The universities, while often mired in bureaucracy, occasionally faced allegations of political interference in the recruitment of faculty members. However, they enjoyed relative autonomy when it came to the promotion of existing faculty.

Fundamental political change

It is fair to say that Indian higher education has become fundamentally politicised. This is a grave danger to academic institutions, the academic profession, and intellectual life generally. These trends can, of course, be seen as part of the “illiberal” trends in society generally — and, of course, India is not alone in these developments. And, at some point, the rest of the world, including India’s potential academic partners, will notice this deterioration in academe, and it may affect their decisions at a time when India seeks to join the top levels of global higher education.

Examples of change

Not long ago, Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi made some comments about politically appointed vice chancellors — and received much criticism. But the fact is that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) authorities throughout the country have been replacing university vice chancellors with politically pliable appointees, many of whom have little or no higher education experience. And, these appointees have been reshaping the universities with politically allied faculty and through other changes. This is the first time in India’s post-independence history that such direct interference in academe has become common. It is so egregious that the non-BJP governments in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Punjab are trying to remove the centrally-appointed State Governors as chancellors of the State universities, which give them power to control the vice-chancellor appointment process.

Academic freedom is also under attack. Perhaps the most sinister aspect is that self-censorship has become common, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Even senior academics are afraid to publish work that they think might create problems for them from state authorities or pro-BJP media. There have been several widely reported cases where well-known professors have published controversial material and their universities have not protected them. It was reported that in his resignation letter to Ashoka University in 2021, prominent political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote that his public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens was perceived to carry risks for the university.

Respected journals known for their independence have become off limits. The fact that these pressures are being felt even at the top of India’s academic system says a lot about the situation throughout Indian higher education Professor Sameena Dalwai, a faculty member at the O.P. Jindal Global University, encountered an online smear campaign recently, orchestrated by right-wing groups alongside the lodging of a police complaint against her.

Even students have become embroiled in campus politicisation. Recently, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) suspended a PhD student over alleged “anti-national activities”. However, the Progressive Students Forum, formerly led by the student, claimed that his suspension was due to participating in a protest march against the central government’s “anti-student policies”.

Of course, traditional campus politics continues, although rightist organisations such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad are more active than in the past even at traditionally leftist universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University. But what is new is that students are reporting to campus administrators on their professors if they disagree with the content of their classes. And, sometimes, this leads to faculty members being disciplined

The implications

These trends are extraordinarily dangerous for Indian higher education and civic life in general. Most important, an independent and free academic sector is important for any society. The academic profession must be free to engage in unfettered research and have the ability to publish, and to speak out, in areas of their academic expertise. This is as true for the “soft sciences” as it is for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. This may be especially the case in India, where many top intellectuals and analysts are in the universities. Further, as India seeks to build world-class universities and to engage with the best universities worldwide, academic freedom and autonomy is a necessary prerequisite.

Philip G. Altbach is Distinguished Fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.

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