Debating Academic Freedom in India

By William Tierney and Nidhi S. Sabharwal


The authors of this article put forward what academic freedom is not and then argue how academic freedom gets defined in the context of twenty-first-century India. The role of universities in Indian society, in general, and the ability of academic staff (faculty) to speak out on an array of issues, in particular, has become a central concern in India. The authors’ purpose is not to side with one or another interpretation of academic freedom but instead to delineate a way to think about academic freedom that enables individuals to engage in scholarly debate without either threatening their physical safety or shutting down conversation.

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This is written more like a blog rather than a journal article! Even the sources that are cited include blogs and opinion pieces. The news articles from which information is taken are not followed up to see how a particular event/story developed or concluded. Lastly, though there are a couple of examples of Left ideologues banning certain books or people, most of it focuses on Right ideologues banning books or people. That unfortunately, is like preaching to the choir especially in academia. Indian universities (incl. curriculum and hiring) have been dominated by the Left ideologues including card holding comrades for decades and reservations/quotas that in turn shape what gets published and occupies media (which the authors cite frequently) and academic space. There is also heavy influence of Catholic morality and missionary view of all things Indian. Thus, the sources that are cited to put forth authors' arguments are skewed to begin with. This is the biggest problem in India (and many other places). You have Left & Left leaning ideologues and Right & Right leaning ideologues that take up the most space in media and education, while the liberal, progressive and moderates are overlooked.

I'll address couple of examples. The banning of the film, India's daughter, was done for the simple reason that the case was sub judice. Yet, I have seen the film and it is the most rehearsed 'documentary' and almost makes the rapist a celebrity. In fact, it is on record that other rapists asked for TV interviews and felt cheated as they couldn’t tell their story. Additionally, when the the same documentary was shown in UK and elsewhere the end credits about rapes in 'developed' countries (incl. UK) were removed, but neither the director nor anyone else saw it as censorship of any kind. It’s a complex topic that the authors see from a very narrow lens. The authors also overlook the statement in which Udwin said that Indian culture is sick because her film was banned. Such extreme views have to be taken into account as these reflect certain inherent and deep disdain unless one gets their way! That's convenient! It takes away the legitimacy from the subject at least in a manner that the authors are presenting it here.

Doniger's work reflects Catholic/missionary view of Hinduism. This is the kind of Orientalism that western academics and 'scholars' suffer from and nothing new. Thus, it's not surprising that the authors missed it altogether (fyi, Orietalism does not go away just because a non-Western person is a co-author). It is equally important to note that those who complain about lack of freedom when it comes to Doniger & Udwin, disappear when it is about Taslima Nasreen, Ayan Ali Hirsi and the like. They also remain quiet about Arabization of Indian Islam as that is too risky to challenge this topic anywhere in the world. The Left ideologues has killed many in Kerala, the Evangelical money is destroying native cultures and even contributing to passing anti-gay laws (such as in Uganda in Africa), yet when they are challenged, it is termed as attack on 'freedom.' Essentially, those talking about freedom are filtering it by religion and caste themselves.

Overall, I feel the paper is quite simplistic and dumbs down the social discourse or presents a superficial understanding of complex social, cultural, legal and economic factors.

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