The Right-Wing Assault on Academic Freedom in India

A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the. adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people.

—Jawaharlal Nehru, convocation address to the University of Allahabad in 1947

In 2007, India ranked just behind Somalia in annual incidents of terrorism. The kind of terrorist violence that India faces often originates from the right-wing nationalist political parties that advocate Hindutva, a term which means “Hinduness.” A politico-religious ideology steeped in cultural nationalism, decolonisation, and the advancement of Hindu interests during the height of the British Raj, Hindutva quickly became the cornerstone of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing volunteer organisation formed in 1925. The RSS was not only the organisation to which Nathuram Godse drew his inspiration to commit the assassination of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, but it continues tto be an extremely right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation today invested in creating the Hindu nation. Between Hindu nationalism and the British who created the largest mass migration in modern history, the formation of modern India in 1947 came at the toll of a bloody, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian legacy. With the Partition of India, the newly created states of Pakistan and India were born at the human cost of ten million displaced, two million murdered, and 100,000 women raped.

Today the legacy of Hindutva and the RSS is still quite pervasive, especially since the 2002 Pogrom of Gujarat which resulted in more than 2,000 Muslims murdered, tens of thousands rendered homeless, and countless other atrocities in carefully planned and coordinated attacks of unprecedented savagery by Hindu nationalists. Gujarat’s former Chief Minister, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), today India’s Prime Minister, has capitalised on what his right-wing party calls the “riots.” Since this time the BJP has kept an iron-clad hold on Indian politics, society, and education, especially in this western state. Gujarat, home to cotton, silk, and diamond industries, is one of India’s wealthiest and fastest growing states, and is one of the slowest in poverty reduction. The reality of class politics in India is not evidenced through the car choices of the elites or the rampant economic disparity plainly visible to the eye. It comes down to who owns the means of production and who does not.

In “The Clash Within: Democracy and the Hindu Right,” Martha Nussbaum notes how these ethno-religious divisions after the riots were handled through positive state structures which combat the calls for hatred and violence together with a free press. Yet, Nussbaum does not hesitate to underscore the society’s negative aspects which leave India in peril of a continued conflict: “India’s current lack of emphasis on critical thinking in the schools, and its lack after Gandhi’s death of a public culture of compassion to counter the Hindu Right’s culture of humiliated, warlike masculinity, sound warning notes for the future.” (358) Nussbaum elaborates how Indian parents are focussed on their children learning “marketable skills” such that the Indian Institutes of Technology and Management (IIT) are the prized institutions, never those of the arts of the humanities. Analysing how India had avoided the “threat of a quasi-fascist takeover” before 2008, Nussbaum points to how the Hindu right has set the fertile terrain for a fascist state by limiting the scope of education: “They have contempt for the humanities and the arts. I fear for democracy down the road, when it is run, as it increasingly will be, by docile engineers in the Gujarat mold, unable to criticize the propaganda of politicians and unable to imagine the pain of another human being.” (370)

In 2007, Srilamanthula Chandramohan, found himself at the centre of a controversy regarding artwork he exhibited as part of the final-year show for his Master of Fine Arts degree at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Baroda. There ensued protests against his artwork beginning on 9 May 2007 by a local lawyer, Niraj Jain, who claimed that some of Chandramohan’s pieces were “derogatory” to Vishnu, Durga, and Jesus Christ. Soon after Jain’s complaints, came protests by a large number of activists from the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) accompanied by the media and the police. This was all in an elaborate theatre to persecute Chandramohan while also taking aim at the Art Department and the then I/C (In Charge) Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Prof. Shivaji K Panikkar. These protestors roamed the campus for six hours threatening faculty and students while the police arrested and charged Chandramohan with “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion,” ordering the removal and sealing of five of Chandramohan’s pieces.

In the days following, there was neither any support from the MSU administration to bail out the student nor was there any condemnation of the event.  To the contrary, there was a demand to apologise for hurting the religious sentiments of the public. Both the faculty and students went on strike and many students mounted a counter-protest, an “illustrative exhibition dealing with the long history of depiction of nudity in Hindu Sacred Art along with Western art traditions.” The university suspended Panikkar on 11 May from his position as dean for expressing his inability to stop the protest exhibition. On 14 May, there was a large gathering of supporters of Chandramohan and the Faculty of Fine Arts with over 600 people from around India peacefully gathering. The police arrested 16 students that morning who were later released from jail. Chandramohan was also released on bail on the 14th after due process.  The protests continued for months and eventually Panikkar lost his research funding, his scholarship, and his archives during the four years he was suspended by MSU. He tells me, “Finally it turned out to be my personal issue where the larger artistic and academic community moved forward. The matter as such never finally got sorted out. Still the student in question is in jail [for a separate incident], no justice given to him or to me.”

Panikkar, who is today Professor at the  School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University in Delhi, goes on to explain how he views the right-wing hold on intellectual and artistic life in India. “The art and cultural spheres had been targeted right from the1990s with the MF Husain events and attacks on freedom of expression of certain kinds of films like Fire.” Critiquing the assault on the freedom of expression which removes the autonomy of “university education and liberal practices,” Panikkar draws links between Modi’s rise to power 2014 and an eventual “systematic takeover of the Hindutva ideology in most prestigious central institutions such as Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU), etc.” There is great concern about the right-wing threat to India’s liberal and secular values enshrined within its education system since the Kothari Commission, also known as the Indian Education Commission (1964-1966). The Kothari Commission Report states that the mandate of the university must include “the pursuit of truth and excellence in all its diversity— a pursuit which needs, above all, courage and fearlessness.”

Panikkar is in good company with Nandini Sundar from the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi, who also notes how India’s desire for independence “was not at the cost of critical thinking, dissent or competition in international arenas: the idea was to establish a sense of equality rather than dependence.” Sundar notes the creation of elite institutions, such as the IITs and IIMs, meant that students could get the best education in engineering and the agricultural sciences, the so-called “centres of advanced studies,” going on to show how these elite institutions have largely functioned to have “bred wannabe non-resident Indian (NRI) engineers and managers.”

As any Indian from wealth will attest, going to the IIT is a consolidation of class and economic power, what Ajantha Subramanian characterises “an exemplar of intellectual merit, someone seen as naturally gifted in the technical sciences.” (293) Subramanian delves deeper into the problems associated with India’s elite educational structures which reproduce social injustices:

The majority of IITians come from upper-caste families of bureaucrats, schoolteachers, and academics where capital has long been held in education. While most were already children of the professional class, the value of their accumulated capital has suddenly spiked due to the reorganization of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century capitalism around the “knowledge economy.” At the same time, the role of caste and state in producing the IITian has been obscured in favor of his or her portrayal as a socially disembedded individual with an innate capacity for technical knowledge. (293)

Subramanian unravels a mythology of meritocracy within these public-private partnerships (PPPs) showing the links between the recreation of caste and social inequality through the “naturalisation” of inequalities which perpetuate social and economic disparity. Hindu nationalism figures into the buttressing of these private institutions by counter-balancing upper-class subjectivity where now there is a fully realisable politics of a collective elite, tied together through caste, social merit, and religious meritocracy. Throughout Indian universities and colleges the right-wing Hindutva have attempted to grab hold of power, threatening academic autonomy and instilling anti-Islamic sentiment in Indian society.

Some of the more well-known protests in recent years include the #Hokkolorob (let there be noise) movement that took Kolkata’s Jadavpur University (JU) by storm in the Spring of 2014, when BJP National Secretary Rahul Sinha called for people to “beat up” JU students for indulging in “anti-national” activities. By September 2014, #Hokkolorob was able to mobilise tens of thousands in the streets to protest the encroachment of the RSS-BJP since 2014.  Then there were the FTII students who went on strike on in 2015 against the appointment of BJP’s Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s chairman.  Chauhan’s qualifications for the role. being a BJP party member. The FTII students continued their protest for 139 days in one of the longest strikes in the film institute’s history, which included students taking the FTII’s former-director, Prashant Pathrabe, captive. Also in 2015 were the “Occupy UGC” protests which fought against its elimination of non-National Eligibility Test Fellowship (NET) for predoctoral (MPhil) and doctoral (PhD) fellowships, ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 12,000 per month. The BJP backed this initiative among other neoliberal policies. And last year, police brutality was again used against legitimate student protests in Banaras Hindu University (BHU).  Off-campus, JNU students protested their right-wing-led state in 2016 in objection to the judgment of capital punishment and the legal failures in the case of Afzal Guru, convicted in a 2001 attack on Parliament. Many of the students protesting were charged with sedition for allegedly shouting “anti-national slogans.” And last Fall, Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, of JNU was asked to explain by the government why he called the BJP party “anti-Muslim” and why he referred to the Gujarat riots deaths as “genocide.”

There are also instances when India’s elite institutions react to progressive social policies which threaten their notions of meritocracy. For instance, in 2006 the Supreme Court issued a ruling enforcing a 27% reservation for OBCs in all central educational institutions which affect the IITs and IIMs. Other Backward Class (OBC) is a collective term employed by the Indian government to refer to castes that are socially, educationally, or economically disadvantaged. In response to this, reservations are a quota system that were introduced during the British Raj by Hindu reformers in order to fight caste and ethnic inequality by creating reserved spaces for these under-represented groups in government jobs, legislature, and education. So, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the increased quotas for the OBCs, students in the nation’s most elite institutions cried out in protest as they view these measures to improve inequality for this group a menace to their social position (ie. they will not be as advantaged by class nepotism as before). These are students who largely come from the wealthiest and most advantaged families in the nation, catered to by an elite business-class approach to everything from lifestyle to insurance plans to home ownership.  And this elite class attempts to pushback on any and all legislation related to the OBC and Dalits which threatens their tenuous hold on power.  The world is theirs, the Hindutva policies of the BJP serve them well, and they have no reason to want to change these neoliberal policies or to rock the boat of which they are at the helm.

Recently, Prakash Karat, of the Communist Party of India (CPM) spoke about the degradation of Indian education, with proposed legislation to abolish the University Grants Commission (UGC), leaving higher education in the hands of the right, what he calls “a toxic fusion of neo-liberalism and Hindutva in education.” Modi’s government plans to replace the UGC with a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) to exert complete government control over colleges and universities. It has also recently granted “autonomy” to 52 universities and 8 colleges in the country, where these institutions must resort to self-financing and privatisation. The corporatisation of higher education will continue moving towards a British and American model and public education will be “curtailed and downgraded.” Karat has also accused the government of putting RSS men in positions of vice-chancellors where nepotism and Hindutva has created a deadly cocktail of ineptitude and greed. Panikkar echoes Karat’s sentiments, framing the current situation where the right-wing plans to “Hinduise India by destroying its secular democratic constitutional foundation.” Panikkar adds, “The right wing’s program is being systematically implemented at different levels in the streets, markets, schools, universities, religious places, in judiciary in police, in its military actions, and on and on.”

Every Indian academic with whom I have spoken is deeply distraught about what is going on, most every one seeing the the situation getting far worse before it gets better. Sumita Sarkar, a professor and dean of a business school in Mumbai, expressed her worries about the “right-wing coup in India” against academic freedom stating, “This has ranged from curbing academic and extra curricular events to brutal attack on students. Now, learning is increasingly devalued in favour of administrative centralisation and standardisation.” Sarkar doesn’t soften the blow for those who support this right-wing menace: “A significant percentage of Hindus love this mode of Hindu politics—and that’s why many will still vote for the BJP even though they have no job, the economy is shrinking, and multinational frauds have severely damaged India as a whole.”

Extending outside the university, Sarkar views the political situation untenable given the speed with which the BJP is grabbing hold of Indian society and politics. Panikkar also worries for India’s future beyond academia, especially if Modi or the BJP win the next general election, warning of communal violence in north India, particularly surrounding the situation of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. He foresees a dim future if the BJP are not voted out: “I personally think that north India will see large scale massacre and violence—a pogrom, like during the partition times in 1949, or even a kind of civil war.”

While academia in the west is under assault by left-wing ideologues eager to impose their punishingly woke justice onto those who dissent, India is facing the state-sanctioned blow-back from the right. From the RSS to the BJP, it is clear that the politics of Hindutva proposes the elimination of grass-roots empowerment and critical thinking that threatens the illogic of these conservative ideals. Certainly, the BJP recognises the threat that education poses to its existence and turning the university into a neoliberal arm of government will not end well for anyone.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: