By Abhishek Jha:
The UPA government earned ire during its tenure for interference in academic institutions while introducing FYUP, the new format for entrance into IITs, and the like. Before the UPA, NDA was accused of introducing inaccuracies in NCERT textbooks for furthering its sectarian agenda. Now, the BJP led government at the centre is again being accused of unnecessary and increasing interference with academic institutions in the country. Recently, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen told Indian Express and India Today that he had never before seen the amount of academic interference as he is seeing now. “The board wanted unanimously me to continue as chancellor, but the government’s advice was clear: under no circumstances,” he told The Indian Express on his resignation from the post of chancellor at the newly established Nalanda University. Here we list instances where the current government has earned flak, seen resistance, and been criticised for interfering in academic work.
1. Nalanda University: Established in November 2010 by a Special Act of Indian Parliament, it is mandated to be “an international institution for the pursuit of intellectual, philosophical, historical and spiritual studies“. In a letter to its governing board, chancellor Amartya Sen alleged that “the governing board was kept completely in the dark about an attempted unilateral move by the government to rapidly reconstitute the entire board, and to do this in violation of some parts of the Nalanda University Act (reflected especially in the letters that have already been sent out to foreign governments, departing from the provisions of the act as it now stands).” This is apart from government’s obstinate stand on the issue of Sen himself.
2. Indian Council of Historical Research: Questions were raised about the appointment of Prof. Y. S. Rao to ICHR by historians like Romila Thapar and D. N. Jha. The Hindu reported that in a 2007 blog post Prof. Rao had defended the caste system and opined that rigidity in it had crept in due to Muslim invasions. Prof. Rao subsequently had suggested the names of three historians who are office bearers of RSS’s Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana for ICHR’s council.
3. National Book Trust: Established in 1957 by the MHRD with the objective “to produce and encourage the production of good literature in English, Hindi and other Indian languages and to make such literature available at moderate prices to the public and to bring out book catalogues, arrange book fairs/exhibitions and seminars and take all necessary steps to make the people book minded,” the NBT was given a new chairman Baldev Sharma in March. Sharma was the former editor of Panchajanya, a Hindi weekly newspaper published by the RSS. The incumbent chairman A. Sethumadhavan’s term was cut short by 6 months when the MHRD allegedly asked him to leave in February this year as it wanted to appoint a new chairman.
4. Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, IIT Madras: The study circle, a student group from IIT Madras, was de-recognised by the institute in May this year and asked not to use institute resources following a letter from the MHRD that sought comments from the IIT-M administration based on an anonymous complaint. The ministry’s action on the complaint was questioned as it seemed to flout a Central Vigilance Commission guideline from last year that stated that no action is to be taken based on anonymous complaints. After nationwide protests and a meeting with the institute, the group was reinstated by the institute administration.
5. Choice Based Credit System in Delhi University: A UPA-II initiative, this system is again being pushed forward by the UGC and MHRD. DU professor Abha Dev Habib wrote on YKA that universities with a semester system have expressed concerns about it and that it “has reduced teaching time, over-burdened universities and colleges with examination work, reduced time for in-depth and self-study, and failed to provide a structure that caters to need of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and varied schooling.” Both professors and students have been protesting over the implementation of this system.
6. Film and Television Institute of India, Pune: Students in the institute have been on an indefinite strike from 12 June this year protesting the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, who played Yudhhishthir in the popular TV serial Mahabharat, as the Chairman of the governing council of the institute. The students alleged that the actor did not have the adequate qualification or the vision to run the institute. Harishankar Nachimuthu, president of the student body of the institute, told NDTV that “these are partisan appointments and it is sad that the government is undermining the autonomy of the institute.” Some members appointed to the council have left in solidarity with the students. Popular Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor has supported the students’ demands even as eminent filmmakers and students protest against the appointment. Reports now suggest that government is considering shutting the institute down or transferring ownership to Bollywood as a meeting between I&B Minister Arun Jaitley and student protesters has failed to break the deadlock.
7. IIM: The draft IIM bill, on which the MHRD had sought opinion, drew flak for giving too much control to the government. The bill, which proposes to make IIMs institutes of national importance, also gives undue power to the Central Government. The section “power of Central Government to issue directions” says, “Without prejudice to the foregoing provisions of this Act, the Institute shall, for the efficient administration of this Act, be bound by such directions on questions of policy, as the Central Government may give in writing to it from time to time” and that “The decision of the Central Government whether a question is one of policy or not, shall be final.”
More trouble awaits foreigners who intend to do research work in India. “All research visa applications will be thoroughly scrutinised. An applicant has to submit a brief note in advance about the project in which the research work will be conducted. If we find it appropriate, non-controversial and beneficial to India, then only the applicant will be given a visa,” a senior Home Ministry official told PTI. Former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan Satyabrata Pal responding to Christine Mehta‘s account of her deportation due to her research work for Amnesty International told The Wire that “unlike most governments of the past which took a fairly liberal view on this issue, the current government has a different view on whether free thought is actually good or not.” He also reportedly said that no ministry has the expertise to deal with “anything technical or fully academic“. In March, the Delhi University Students’ Union, dominated by the ruling BJP’s student wing ABVP, asked for a ban on Ankur Society on the grounds that it was “playing drama which is anti-Hindu and giving a wrong message to the society (sic).”
Governments over the years have often imposed their hasty decisions on academic institutions and at times tried to further their own political agenda through such decisions. Despite resistance and small victories, this has continued. However, the pace at which it has happened and the amount of friction it has generated in just about a year of this new government makes our academic future look bleaker than ever. With unprecedented majority, there is also little resistance that this government will face in imposing its whims and fancies. Instead of fighting to make the horizon of available freedoms wider, we are battling for basic freedoms.
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