Resignation of Two Professors Highlights Growing Academic Freedom Crisis in India
Two professors at an Indian university resigned from their posts this month under apparent political pressure—PEN America said it supports those in the academic community fighting for free expression
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(New York, NY) — Two professors at an Indian university resigned from their posts this month under apparent political pressure. Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned from Ashoka University outside Delhi amid his critiques of the country’s political leadership, and Arvind Subramanian stepped down in protest of the circumstances surrounding Mehta’s resignation. PEN America condemns the suppression of dissent in India and supports the academic community at Ashoka that continues to fight for free expression and scholarly inquiry.
“The resignation under pressure of these respected public intellectuals not only damages the integrity of Ashoka University, but is a clear example of Indian authorities’ hostile disregard for the spirit of academic inquiry, and the right to freedom of expression enshrined in India’s constitution,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs. “Scholars who express dissenting viewpoints are at serious risk of professional harassment, as the Indian government attempts to curtail academic freedom through indirect political pressure, encouraging online intimidation, and—most egregiously—detaining scholars on bogus criminal charges. We implore private academic institutions in India to support their faculty’s critical work instead of self-censoring in the face of political pressure. We also call on the Indian government to halt the continued violations of scholars’ free expression and demand the release of writer-scholars who remain under arrest, including Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde, and Hany Babu.”
On March 16, professor and former vice chancellor at Ashoka University Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned under circumstances some view as related to his criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A contributing editor at The Indian Express and a well-regarded name in economic and political academic literature, Mehta is known for his scathing criticism of the Modi administration, calling it a “fascist government.” Two days later, fellow Ashoka professor and former chief economic adviser to the government of India Arvind Subramanian resigned in protest at the circumstances surrounding Mehta’s resignation. In response to public outcry, Ashoka has acknowledged “lapses in institutional processes,” however, in the wake of Subramanian’s resignation, it seems that other faculty members may follow suit. In addition, students continue to protest the university founders’ treatment of Mehta, despite his message to students calling for de-escalation.
The resignations of Mehta and Subramanian mark a new low for academic freedom in India, as it underscores both the government’s antagonistic stance towards vocal intellectuals and its pervasive interference in the operation of private academic institutions. In PEN America’s inaugural Freedom to Write Index 2019, India was ranked tenth globally in terms of countries with the most jailed writers, including P Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, and Arun Ferreira, and it was the only relatively-open democracy on the top ten list. Many of the detained writers were also scholars known for their work on politics, caste, minorities, and language. Freedom House’s recently released Freedom in the World 2020 report explicitly noted a downgrade in academic freedom as a reason for India’s decline into “partly free” status. Indian authorities have consistently engaged in crackdowns on academics during major protests since 2018, notably in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon, Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, CAA-NRC and farming law protests.