Freedom in the university and outside it: Atul Sood

Guest post by ATUL SOOD

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman spoke online at a recent Distinguished Public Lecture at the Ashoka University (March 12, 2021), hosted by Arvind Subramaniam, Director, Ashoka Centre for Economic Policy. He spoke on “Is Labor-Intensive Exporting Still a Feasible Development Strategy?”

Kugman said that in this globalized world, for India to get into the market space vacated by the Chinese manufacturers, particularly for labour-intensive goods, it will have to be ready to do two things: First, make policy choices that are realistic and not ‘precocious’ and second, be ready to accept that rights and freedoms of labour, in particular will be sacrificed.  The wise counsel of Krugman was that India will have to be prepared to negotiate the space between rights/freedoms and share in the world market of course, up to the point where “labour is not getting killed”.

This didn’t sound alarming on that day to most. Little would have Krugman imagined, or his host, that within 72 hours of his hypothesis on the curtailment of rights of the labour as fate accompli, the right to free speech and the guarantee of freedom of expression in the same University which is built on the promise of liberty will fall apart.  Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a senior faculty at the Ashoka University resigned from his position on March 15. In his resignation letter to Ashoka University on March 15, he said: “My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university. In the interest of the University, I resign”.

The opinion making circles of India are abuzz with feelings of disappointment and disapproval at the circumstance which led to Mehta’s resignation.  There is disappointment with the Ashoka University which has reneged on its promise of providing a liberal space.

Why is critical thinking not being permitted in academic institutions? What risks do opinions carry for the regimes?  Should we be surprised at what happened in Ashoka? It is part of the larger context, where fear is being instilled all over the country for a smallest tweet for sharing a photograph, singing a song or giving a speech. Within the boundaries of academic institutions criminal attacks and name calling of the academics are commonplace.  The institutional space for critical thinking is getting eroded and an environment of fear is being built. The attack on higher education is unrelenting. A recent report, Academic Freedom in India: A Status Report, 2020, identifies six major channels through which the regime is bringing the Higher Education sector under control. These include restrictions on and subversion of institutional autonomy, subversion of faculty selection process, political appointments in universities, institutional harassment of dissenting faculty and students, and restrictions on freedom of expression. This may not be new totally, but the scale, speed and purpose for which it is happening is certainly distinct.

Independent thinking in universities is being punished in new ways. The use of arbitrary disciplinary proceedings against teachers, firing and suspension and withholding of retirement benefits have acquired alarming proportions with the sole purpose of instilling fear to force conformity   There have been repeated attempts to impose Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules in the universities.  At the same time restrictions on the Ph D topics, control of research funding, coercing changes in the syllabus and readings and changes in admission and entrance examination norms to prevent diversity are also increasing.

The name of the game is to promote non tolerance for ideas that are different and uncomfortable for the powers that be.  Private and public does not count. The idea is to kill the very idea of a University – space for critical ideas and experimentation. Critical writings are classified as polarizing fit only for suppression. A recent piece in the Swaraj on the Ashoka University controversy (March 19) argues similarly. It argues that since Ashoka cannot be brought under the CCS rules, ‘company code of conduct’ should be invoked in such universities. The distinction between State and Market is immaterial when it comes to control.

The Ashoka episode is an opportunity to ask some hard questions on academic freedom and the state of higher education. Is the distinction between private and public relevant? Is it correct when we associate ‘freedom’ with market, privatization and capital and associate control with government and the state? If the rights of citizens are weakened can the freedom in the universities be protected?  Do we have a choice to protect only our own rights? And how? Can the idea of a University be defended and cherished when the meaning of democracy is being tweaked? Experience of other countries and of public institutions in India facing similar onslaught suggest that the only way to resist is to make these interconnections and resist in an organized manner, with collective action of teachers, students along with public employees, labour and farmers.  All must resist the attack on each other’s rights.

To me there seems to be a connect that the government is making but something that we at the Universities and Colleges are missing – there is a Jugalbandi going on here – of curtailment of rights of farmers, workers, teachers, students, minorities, women, Adivasis, Dalits on the one hand and the intimidation of the critics on the other hand.

In the distinguished lecture by Paul Krugman, there were nearly 2500 participants in attendance.  When Krugman mentioned the inevitable attack on the rights and freedom of workers, no one asked if the rights and freedom of intellectuals was going to be secure in such an environment. I do not believe that all the attendees supported the recent changes in the Indian labour laws which diluted the rights of labour.

But it is high time that we confronted the question: is it possible to defend freedom of expression without standing up to defend rights of the labouring citizens?

Atul Sood is Professor, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU, New Delhi

4 thoughts on “Freedom in the university and outside it: Atul Sood”

  1. It is high time that all primary, secondary and tertiary level teachers realize that they are service sector workers inside various political-economic institutions.

  2. Historically, the general pattern of ”intellectual culture” is to serve the power. Power is always illegitimate unless proven its legitimacy, and the burden of proof lies with the powerholders. The powerholder in India (and almost in all the countries) are the rent-seeking Zombie corporations guided by neoliberal assaults. Therefore, to challenge such immoral power- all truth-seeking intellectuals of the whole world shall courageously unite under a common platform.
    Abul Barkat, Professor of Economics, Dhaka University,
    & President, Bangladesh Economic Association.

  3. I never chose to be an academic to be monitored and enslaved by “authorities” – an intricate network of multiple figures of authoritarianism. This dialogue must continue. However, everyone knows, why intellectualism is found threatening to any “authority”, and why it is always in fear of the dissenting voice. Long back, in Ray’s film “Hirak Rajar Deshe”, the allegory played out remarkably – the voice of the penurious school teacher – academic, educationist, dissenter – turns out to be the most alarming weapon to combat. The King can’t rest until he is literally “brainwashed” in the machine he had installed for the purpose. It is the schoolteacher who brings in the eventual “change”. It wasn’t surprising that why a certain section – am not naming them – protested against having an award named after Ray. As the writer says, there is a “jugal bandi” going on – it’s a chorus of protests which are being muffled, for the jugalbandi is between these repressive state apparatuses which are rhizomically arranged, with each nodal point playing its tune in perfect rhythm with the other, creating a rather discordant note which is so cacophonous that democracy can’t survive its onslaught.

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