State may repent its bid to crush dissent

It is time for the govt of the day to sit up and introspect; set right the wrongs and take adequate steps to restore the confidence of the people. Brushing things under the carpet is neither an option nor a solution

The dust had yet to settle on the issue of media freedom when the Narendra Modi government was confronted with yet another ‘demon’: Academic freedom.  In the current government’s scheme of things, freedom, academic or any other, is a demon with fangs. The remedy: crush it before it can raise its head. This is exactly what the Government seems to be doing:  be it in academia, media, or civil society.

It is common knowledge that dissent is not something the present Government in India likes, wishes, or allows. A case in point is the recent cases of sedition slapped against journalists for tweets about a farmer’s death on January 26.

Flagging national unity and emerging as its sole custodian, the Government is on an overdrive to hammer that criticizing it, is akin to being anti-national. The confusion is deliberate because it gives the government enough leeway to play about with laws that it chooses to interpret and misinterpret at will.

As if confrontation with the media was not enough, it has now opened another front: this time in the academic circle.

If the recent goings-on is any indication, the Government seems to have tightened its noose around the well-known Ashoka University.

The entire faculty and the students are up in arms against a resignation that has triggered a storm that is unlikely to subside soon.

Ashoka University is among the well-known educational institutions in Haryana, some 35 kilometers off the capital city of New Delhi.

Hailed as India’s first liberal arts university, it espouses itself to be a liberal education institution, focussing on making students think critically. It also claims to encourage freedom of expression and more importantly questioning the world around them: a point reiterated by Ashish Dhawan, Chairman, Board of Trustee in his two-page letter wherein he stated that there is nothing to fear and that the University is committed to freedom in every aspect.

Ironically, both these aspects, namely,  fearlessness and commitment to freedom are under a cloud following the current crisis that the University and academia in India are facing.

The furor follows the resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a columnist, political scientist and Professor of Ashoka University. Not the one to mince words, Mehta made it clear that his resignation was necessitated because he was considered a “political liability”.

Referring to a meeting with the Founders, Mehta, in his resignation letter, had stated that it was abundantly clear that his “public writing in support of a politics that tries to honor constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university”.

The University’s discomfort was not with Mehta writing for newspapers: it was with its content.

Mehta is a known critic of the Modi government. He is on record to state that the BJP’s is a “fascist government” and the current situation in the country is worse than that of the Emergency during Indira Gandhi’s tenure. In 2019, he is reported to have said that democracy in India was in a crisis.

Mehta is not off the mark. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was one that was declared. The way things have panned out under Modi’s regime, crushing dissent is a given. The current dispensation is hell bent on silencing logic and voices of reason. It is coming down heavily on critics, Mehta being no exception.

It is in this context that Mehta’s observation of being a “political liability” is telling. It indicates the rot that has set in the system which will not tolerate or allow any other view that does not subscribe to that of the government’s. It wants to redefine democracy and practice dictatorship under its garb. It is a kind of an open challenge: stand up to us and we will knock you on the knuckles till you succumb. Mehta the individual did not; but the Ashoka University the institution did. And herein lies the danger.

Had it been a government institution or one funded by it, the subservience, even if it is not understandable or acceptable, would have a semblance of justification. But in the case of Ashoka University, an institution which is private and backed by private capital, the development is deeply disturbing and terribly worrisome to say the least. Therefore the question that stares one in the face is: if private founders, flushed with funds, cannot withstand government pressure who else can: a point Subramanian made in his letter of resignation.

Ditto historian Ramachandra Guha who apart from hinting at official pressure, accused the Trustees of being “spineless” and to borrow politician L. K. Advani’s phrase, though used in a different context, “chose to crawl when asked to bend”.

This could mean two things: one that the Government of the day will ensure that its writ must run; second those who pretend to uphold democratic values are willing to lay down arms even before guns are pointed at them, thus making the Government’s task much easier.

This more than anything else is worrying: the failure of  “independent” institutions like Ashoka University to challenge the government’s diktat and say: enough is enough; or draw a this far no further line.

One may argue that this is easier said than done. Perhaps it is.

But then one also needs to sit up and ask: should governments be allowed to ride roughshod without a whimper? Should they get a free run? And should those, who have the capacity to fight, directly or indirectly facilitate those who are closing in on our much-treasured democracy and freedom?

Take, for instance, the recent drop in India’s ranking in the context of political freedom. It clearly underlines the need for the government to set its house in order.

Freedom House in its report Democracy Under Siege changed India’s status from being a free country to being “partly free”. US-based Freedom House is a non-profit organisation that conducts research on political freedom and human rights.

On India, the report states that since 2014 increased pressure on human rights organisations, intimidation of journalists and activists, and a spate of attacks, especially those against Muslims, had led to a deterioration of political and civil liberties in the country.

Quite expectedly, the Indian government has rubbished the Report, instead of sitting up and taking cognizance.

Quite like Mehta’s case wherein after meddling in the affairs of the till now reputed University, it has chosen to look the other way. This despite the fact that over 150 academicians from international universities including Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge have come out in support of Mehta.

The contents of the open letter they have written to the Trustees are telling:  “A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings” even as they pointed a finger at the Trustees for not defending and standing by Mehta: “instead… forced his resignation.”

Reiterating the importance of values, it further states: “In the university, they are free inquiry, candour, and rigorous distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and the pressure of politicians, funders, or ideological animus. These values come under assault whenever a scholar is punished for the content of public speech”.

The signatories include Homi K Bhabha, Anne F Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University; Kate O’Regan, Professor of Human Rights Law at Oxford University; and Danielle Allen, director of Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University among others.

It is time for the Government of the day to sit up and introspect; set right the wrongs and take adequate steps to restore the confidence of the people. Brushing things under the carpet is neither an option nor a solution. It must feel accountable and protect whatever little credibility it has left. It is time for it to read the writing on the wall and do course correction before things get murkier. The countdown has begun.