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Modi Government’s Policies Will Reduce India’s Best Universities To North Korean Standards

Imposition of Central Civil Service (Conduct) Rules on universities will take away whatever little freedom the professors still have.

Last week, during an interview with an Indian TV channel, the anchor asked me the reasons for the failure of Indian universities in producing world-class research. My answer was simple. Besides some financial constraints, the real problem is the lack of academic independence of Indian universities. Universities in India do not select their vice-chancellors, the Government does. Vice-Chancellors are appointed based not on their academic merit but on their ability to keep the party in power happy. Political patronage elevates their status to demigods inside the university campuses. Professors not only have no say in the selection of their vice-chancellors, but also lack basic freedom of even what to teach, how to teach and which literature to use for teaching. Over and above, India’s age-old guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition does not allow students to question professors.

Innovation is not possible if we do not question what is known to us and told to us.  The Nobel Museum in Stockholm organizes symposiums on how to be innovative, for the employees of the world’s reputed organizations and Fortune companies. It puts priority on questioning superiors and questioning power. Unfortunately, for decades, Indian universities have throttled this freedom to question. Professors cannot question vice-chancellors and deans, and professors themselves consider it an affront to be questioned by their students. However, some Central Universities in India, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Hyderabad Central University (HCU) were somewhat exceptions to this. There was a certain space available here for raising questions. The confidence of professors being well-known scholars in their respective fields had made it possible for these universities to be different from most other university campuses in India, especially the ones run by state governments.

For the last four-and-half-years, Narendra Modi government has been restricting the limited freedom enjoyed by India’s central universities. Since May 2014, there have been attempts by the government to project any dissent as the work of forces determined to destroy the country from within. Artists, intellectuals and activists are regularly branded as ‘anti-national’. This overtly anti-intellectual regime has been handpicking Hindu nationalists with dubious academic credentials to head central government-funded educational institutions and universities. Considering the minimal bench strength of professors in the right-wing stable, most of these vice chancellors appointed by the present regime are academic pygmies and extremely insecure about their position and acceptance among their professorial colleagues.

A good example, of this disastrous politically motivated selection of vice-chancellors, is Dr M Jagadesh Kumar, who has been handpicked by the Modi regime to be the vice-chancellor of arguably India’s best university, JNU. The decision to appoint Jagadesh Kumar as the vice-chancellor of JNU was not based on his academic or administrative merits, but on his ideological affiliation with the RSS. His ‘rightwing-nationalist’ mindset and lack of prior academic administrative experience have made his choice to lead JNU, a disaster. Like Jagadesh Kumar of JNU, other handpicked vice-chancellors of Central Universities are less interested in listening to their colleagues or working for the wellbeing of the university and students. Rather, they blindly push Modi regime’s agenda to do whatever they can to kill the intellectual spirit and academic independence in the university campuses.  Their ideologically biased decision-making is bringing crisis after crisis to these prestigious academic institutions.

While promoting Hindutva agenda blindly, these vice-chancellors have been consistently attacking the ideals of Lehrfreiheit (freedom for the teacher) and Lernfreiheit (freedom for the student), which are critical components of any university. Academic freedom is the basic need for the success of a university and for infusing the spirit of innovation among the academic community. A professor must have the freedom to teach and carry out research in an objective and independent manner, as well as the freedom to express their views and take part in public debates and discussions without any fear of retribution.

Besides teaching and research, contributing to public discourse and policy making is the critical third pillar for an academic. Freedom to teach and do research is the most valued privilege of a university, which is being consistently undermined by Modi regime’s handpicked vice-chancellors and their arbitrary use of power. As if this was not enough, in May 2018, the government, through the University Grants Commission, has now directed Central Universities to come under the Central Civil Service (Conduct) Rules. These rules take away whatever little academic freedom Indian academics had before and turns them into obedient bureaucrats.

As per the CCS rules, academics will not be allowed to take part in any platform which can be seen a critical of government policy. They will not be allowed to say or write anything against the ruling regime. Publication of research papers will be subjected to the mandatory approval of government agencies. It will bring an end to any critical analysis of policies adopted and implemented by the government. If this happens, there will be no space for genuine research in social sciences, arts and humanities. JNU, which specialises in social science subjects, will become brain-dead. Universities will cease to be universities and will turn into government’s propaganda machines. Several professors might leave these central universities and join private universities to retain their academic freedom.

New rules bar professors from taking part in any protest against the government. Professors of AMU, BHU or HCU rarely protest against the central government. However, professors of two Delhi based universities, JNU and DU, because of their geographical advantage, have been occasionally taking part in protests against government policies. With the new rules, they will not be allowed to do so, which is a key determinant of any democracy. Breaking the CCS rules by academics can even result in the loss of their jobs. Using this rule, a professor of Central University of Kerala has been already suspended because of his support for a student who was arrested for breaking a fire alarm.

In spite of opposition from teachers, JNU’s vice-chancellor, adopting his usual dictatorial style, has already taken the decision, in the last academic council meeting on 6 October, to adopt the CCS rules. Protests by professors of Delhi University have managed to keep the rules from being adopted by its academic council, but it is only a matter of time. Other central universities are also being coerced to adopt CCS rules as soon as possible. The Modi regime, with its handpicked RSS-affiliated vice-chancellors, has already brought many obstacles for professors in India’s central universities to conduct their teaching and research with basic minimum freedom. The new rules will take away whatever little freedom the professors still have. While India is vying to make its universities world-class, the imposition of Central Civil Service (Conduct) Rules will bring down its best universities to a North Korean standard instead.

The writer is a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden

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