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News of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation as professor from Ashoka University came soon after the results of a global survey, the Freedom in the World 2020 report of the US-based Freedom House, which ranks India at 83rd position, making it one of the world’s least ‘free’ democracies, alongside Timor-Leste and Senegal, with only Tunisia receiving a lower score. Among its listed instances of “alarming setbacks" in the world’s largest democracy, the report cites the freedom of expression of journalists, academics and others as being under the threat of harassment and intimidation when politically-sensitive topics are addressed.

Earlier this month, one of the premier Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) was in the news when its director refused to submit a copy of an ‘offensive’ piece of academic writing, a PhD thesis, to the Union ministry of education. The thesis, with its unflattering references to the Bharatiya Janata Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, had irked Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy, who had insisted that the thesis be re-examined by ‘independent’ professors and the doctorate degree be held back until then. As the IIMs were granted autonomy under the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Act, 2017, such an ‘act of defiance’ on the director’s part was not extraordinary. But had it happened before that legislative change, the outcome would have been a no-brainer.

As things stand today, the question of academic dissent being quelled of a public intellectual at a ‘private’ university offering a liberal arts education evokes not just a deep sense of disquiet, but a fear of shrinking academic spaces, especially within higher education. And all this, even as the government, paradoxically, seeks to provide greater autonomy to institutes of higher learning through the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, the stated aim of which is to reform India’s education sector and encourage multi-disciplinary, liberal and holistic education for the 21st century.

A vibrant, free democracy is judged on the basis of its institutions, especially the press, the judiciary and the academia, and not merely on the basis of possessing the trappings of a constitutional democracy, with its regular conduct of periodic elections. The academia, in particular, is central to the idea of a free democracy, since it helps shape young minds and instil higher ideals that are fundamental to the very notion of free thought and expression. To do so, however, academics should possess the courage to speak up, and also to hear diverse opinions coming from those of ideologies different from theirs, and not to act from a position of political convenience. It is only such an enlightened and empowered academia, resident within India’s institutes of higher education, that could enable critical thinking and engagement with larger questions of nationalism and democracy.

Institutes of higher education and the academics associated with them should foster environments where young citizens can think critically about various issues from multiple perspectives, question the status quo freely, and express their views without fear of reprisal. Students should challenge and opine, and indeed deem it their ‘dharma’ or duty to do so, rather than march unthinkingly to the same beat. This should be the overarching goal of a ‘multi-disciplinary’ and holistic education that the government’s policy seeks to impart students of the 21st century with.

Ashoka, which was set up with private funding and a clear purpose, seemed to provide a beacon for how standalone institutions and autonomous multi-disciplinary universities might look like in India, especially after the implementation of the NEP 2020. The resignation of professors Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka demonstrates how difficult it is to ensure true autonomy. The NEP 2020 states that the country must recruit the best and brightest to enter the teaching profession at all levels, by “ensuring livelihood, respect, dignity, and autonomy", but the Ashoka episode serves a harsh reminder of how things may continue to be the same, or get even worse, despite the best policy intentions. The government’s talk of recognizing the need to empower the academic community to do “their job" as effectively as possible and deliver quality higher education, which besides enabling personal accomplishment also fosters constructive public engagement, seems to have evaporated into ether in less than a year since those purported reforms were announced. Indeed, some may even wonder if they existed.

Under question is the NEP’s vision of the governance of these institutions being left to highly qualified independent boards that have academic and administrative autonomy. Also under question is the ability of private institutions to demonstrate their “public-spirited commitment" to the quality expected of them so as to keep the regulator at bay.

There is unease and anxiety over the fate of higher education in India and that of academics and intellectuals who dare challenge the establishment or dominant political ideology.

A threat to the freedom of expression has rightly been construed as a threat to free democracy by the Freedom in the World 2020 survey. Curtailing the freedom of higher education institutions and academics poses a worse threat. It not only compromises the present, but by curtailing the transmission of core values and higher ideals, it threatens the raising of an entire future generation of Indians driven by liberal thought and expression. For, how does one teach students that institutions and indeed nations should have the moral rectitude to be able to withstand criticism and hold themselves up to scrutiny, both internal and external, when silence is the preferred mode of behaviour and divergent voices are questioned?

Tulsi Jayakumar is professor of economics at Bhavan’s S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research. These are the author’s personal views.

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