Academic Freedom: Do People In Indian Universities Have The Right To Think?

Posted by Prashant Kumar in Campus Watch, Society
April 24, 2018

In our contemporary era, when many of our fellow beings are either on the streets to put forward their different understanding of the world, or are writing about/discussing issues that need attention on some other platform, there are still a huge number of people who question their first basic right – the right to think, and subsequently, the right to think differently. Though this doubt is directed towards the general mass of India, this present article is more focused on students on university campuses.

Human beings are generally considered to be discursive beings. If we accept this claim (I personally do), then we have to assume that there are many opinions and counter opinions which people tend to discuss. Interestingly, it leads us to ask another simple but equally important question – how do you come to have these opinions and counter-opinions?

It leaves us with at least two possibilities: a) we have formed these opinions through the influence of others; and b) we have formed these opinions by ourselves. If our opinions have been informed by other people, they must have formed it by themselves (assuming that there must be someone who thought about a particular idea by themselves; if this will not be the case, then we will fall into the fallacy of infinite regress). Even when one accepts the other’s position, they reason with their capacity to believe in whatever is being said. It means, in turn, that we are left with only one possibility. Opinions are formed by ourselves. If we form our own opinions, it means that there is a big process with questions and answers regarding an issue that goes on in our head, to either accept or deny the idea (the intensity might vary). The big process of questioning and answering is what we call ‘thinking’. Therefore, if we have any opinion, and everyone has at least one opinion, it conclusively shows that we think.

If we think in general, it is inherent to us as human beings. It does not matter whether it’s legal to think or not – it’s a natural law that unfolds during this process. So, yes, we have the right to think. Now, let us come to the university. The basic job of the largest stakeholders in a university is to indulge in, what I call, the big process of questioning and answering. A day without this process is not a day in a university. It means that there is a necessary connection between the stakeholders of the university and thinking.

Patrick Blessinger and Hand De Wit  (two big names in the philosophy of education), in their article, “Academic freedom is essential to democracy”, mention that “the principle of academic freedom is derived from the notion of freedom of thought, which is a basic of human right.” I have argued till now that thinking is inherent in human beings and thinking freely is to justify what we are. More importantly, if you are in a space (a university space) where you are obliged to think, this doubles the responsibility. It means that the stakeholders in universities have a double responsibility to think. If we fail to do so, we become, what G. Arunima calls, a ‘docile student’.

If the right to think is our basic natural right, and university spaces double it, it becomes imperative to think freely. So, if these two conditions are there, any university then must have academic freedom. Not having this, will violate the natural law of being human. Though the discussion on the right to think justifies the need to have academic freedom, one must nevertheless ask what this academic freedom is?

Kemal Guruz, former President of Higher Education in Turkey, argues that institutional autonomy and self-governance are the rights of universities to decide how to run the institutions without any unreasonable interference. Unreasonable interference includes, as Blessinger and De Wit point out, a) in appointing and promoting staff, b) in determining admission and graduation requirements, c) in provisioning curricula and other programmes and services, and d) in defining organisational structures and in allocating various resources.

Further, Philip Altbach (a former professor of Boston College) and De Wit point out the three main points regarding academic freedom; a) the autonomy of professors to research and to teach with their methodology, b) teaching and any societal discourse, and c) free expressions of students and other members of the university.

If we see primarily Indian universities, we will find that authorities have interfered with all the four points mentioned by Kemal Guruz. In JNU itself, many new appointees have been caught up in plagiarism charges. It shows an external interference in appointing new professors who are not competent enough. The changes in the admission process and seat cuts in many universities are other forms of interference. Many are arguing that these changes have not been brought about through a proper channel. Random and arbitrary rules are imposed even in teaching and curricula, and various resources are used just to foster one sort of discussion (that might not be even academically oriented). These violate points c) and d) mentioned above.

If we talk about free expression of students and other members of the university, there are many examples that show that academic freedom in India is under threat – the ban on an Ambedkarite study circle in the IIT’s, last moment cancellation on talks in JNU, not allowing the conduct of symposiums, and even cancelling a whole conference at the last moment.

Who attacks academic freedom and why? Let us ponder over it for a while. Any society wishes to move forward. How can a society do that? This happens when the members of the society question society’s wrongs. So, if a student thinks, and thinking is the big process mentioned above, he will be questioning various aspects of the society – practices, ideologies, beliefs, and others. So, the so-called protectors of culture and communities will come forward to attack the people who question.

Peter Scott, in his article, “When does free speech become offensive speech?”, refers to these protectors of culture as right-wing populists. He further argues that right-wing populists always try to show that their culture and communities are under attack, and that universities are the bastions of liberalism and cosmopolitanism which means that they (the stakeholders of the universities) are the ones who are attacking.

Many people are the product of their culture, and if there is a group (right-wing populists) who shows that their culture is under threat, the students and professors are portrayed to the common masses as anti-culture (‘anti-national’ is a more popular term these days). That is how they turn the whole community against the universities. After this, the authorities can do anything – beat students, stop scholarships, cut seats, kill reservations, change the syllabus, and inflict more damage on the stakeholders, and this would be seen as justified.

But why? Because the members of the society choose not to exercise their natural right – the right to think!