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India by and large survived as a liberal democracy for almost six to seven decades. The Indian Constitution was structured around liberal values coupled with an egalitarian vision. My generation had the full benefit of this Nehruvian democratic vision. As liberalism has come to be displaced by neo-liberalism, the very role of the state started undergoing a change from a liberal democratic state to one of a repressive state.

India by and large survived as a liberal democracy for almost six to seven decades. The Indian Constitution was structured around liberal values coupled with an egalitarian vision. My generation had the full benefit of this Nehruvian democratic vision. As liberalism has come to be displaced by neo-liberalism, the very role of the state started undergoing a change from a liberal democratic state to one of a repressive state. In the recent past there has been a systematic subversion of all the democratic institutions, more specifically the institutions of higher learning. Several writers, poets, lawyers, democrats along with several prominent teachers have been picked up under UAPA, a draconian Law wherein once a person is arrested, he or she has to be in the prison for a minimum of six months as there is no bail provision under the Law. This can be extended for years together under one pretext or the other. One recent example is the case of Bhima Koregaon.

The Bhima Koregaon case, now a well-known legal case, has been woven around an episode of Dalits defeating Brahmin fighters in January 1818 and the annual celebration of this victory since the 1990s. Celebrating this event itself is debatable as the Dalits at that point fought on behalf of the British. Whether those Dalits had a Dalit consciousness of the modern kind needs further investigation. While the celebration had a history of being peaceful, the January 2018 event was marked by violence, initiated and incited even before the event by right wing forces. The violence became the pretext for the state to arrest person after person, though only such persons who were critical of the government. A recent report by a US based digital forensic firm has concluded that key incriminating evidence was planted on the computer of one of the Bhima-Koregaon accused. The entire case deserves a full length debate, but the present piece focuses on the place and role of academics in a democracy.

Of the sixteen activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, a number of them happen to be academics from some of the prestigious institutions of higher learning. Much before the Bhima Koregaon case was the case of G. N. Saibaba, a popular teacher in Delhi University, who is 90% disabled and has been convicted on the charge that he had a close relation with radical politics. It is obvious that given the level of disability he cannot participate in any physical action. While delivering the judgment the Judiciary did observe that he has a strong mind.  In human history starting from Socrates to the present, scholars, philosophers underwent punishment not for their physical actions but for their thoughts. The medieval period witnessed a number of philosophers, later on scientists, including Galileo, Copernicus, Bruno, who suffered physical torture for their  scientific enquiry into the mysteries of nature. Today mankind feels indebted and celebrates their memory. Ideas unpopular at one point in history become extremely useful to the subsequent generations at another point. So also is the case with freedom fighters and men of conscience and conviction. 

It is based on this rich human experience that societies realized that unpopular ideas often led to greater enlightenment and elevated the societies to higher levels. It is this realization that led to the birth of the right to freedom of speech and thinking. J. S. Mill in his celebrated work ‘On Liberty’ strongly pleads for unrestrained freedom of thought. He argues that as it is wrong for one individual to silence humankind, it is equally wrong for the entire humankind to silence one human being. A stimulating climate of freedom promotes creativity. In fact, creativity is a function of freedom. It is from this enlightenment that the concept of the autonomous University blossomed.

India has also had a long tradition of questioning. In fact, the Upanishads are full of searching fundamental questions. The whole Bhagavad Gita was in response to a basic question on the very purpose of war and destruction that causes such a huge loss of human lives. The ancient centres of learning in Taxashila and Nalanda were vibrant places of debates and discussion. They attracted scholars from different parts of the world. Indian philosophical thought was never confined to one stream of thought. Both Jawaharlal Nehru (Discovery of India) and Amartya Sen (The Argumentative Indian) highlighted six streams of contending philosophical thinking in the Indian intellectual tradition. Buddhism, a child of Indian thought, was a rebellious response to our understanding of the Karma Theory. Buddha in search for the Truth came out with an enlightened response that multiplying desires are the causes of Dukha (human suffering). Similarly the Bhakti movement was yet another peaceful resistance against prevailing hegemonic practices.    

These rich traditions and background paved the way for the establishment of universities in India. Tagore, an internationalist and known as VishwaKavi [literally World Poet], established Visva-Bharati in Shantiniketan as an educational institution for encouraging free and frank enquiry. The Constitution of India, a product of several indigenous and international traditions, upholds some of the finest civilizational values. Indian universities are a product of these very rich democratic traditions.  

There has always been a big debate as to whom the universities are accountable to. Certainly the spirit of universities is that they are not directly accountable to the state nor are they there to subserve the market forces. On this question, the Kothari Commission (National Education Commission 1964-66) stated very categorically that education represents the conscience of a nation and should respond to social needs. The university community should speak on behalf of society and in turn be accountable to the larger society. This is precisely the reason why universities are created by legislative enactment and not through an executive order. The vision behind this approach is that legislatures are supposed to represent the sovereign will of the people and it is in that capacity that they share a part of that sovereign power with the universities. Once created, universities were neither to be controlled by the executive nor the legislating body. In fact, they were designed as autonomous self-governing institutions. The faculty had to decide the curriculum, the courses, and push the frontiers of knowledge forward. In Nehru’s words they are places for the battle of ideas.  

The academic in India enjoyed this freedom of enquiry for quite sometime. In my own experience of five and half decades of teaching, there was no time when we felt constrained. The classroom was a free place for expression of ideas; students were free to question and debate with the teachers.  The research space was unconstrained. Scholars could work on areas of their interest including investigations of people’s struggles and the causes of social unrest. That is the only way that the political system can understand and attempt to solve challenging problems.

This democratic culture started witnessing a change during the last two to three decades. The State and market started making deep inroads into the universities. Neo-liberalism with its aggressive market fundamentalism started putting pressure on the State to push the universities to fall in line.  State agencies started interfering in the otherwise self-governing institutions. Since funding is still done primarily by the State they are able to arm-twist the universities. This also led to controlling what the universities and its scholars should and should not do. In the process of pushing through the neo-liberal policies, the authoritarian culture of the state agencies increased and universities and their scholars became increasingly vulnerable. 

In this context, the work of critical scholars investigating people’s movements is no longer seen by the state agencies as a part of enriching and deepening of democracy. In current times they are often dubbed as “anti-national”. It is this tragic change of culture that poses a threat to the very survival of the institutions of higher learning. The academics who have been implicated in a number of cases are men and women of convictions. Since they speak for the people, it is the people who have to stand for them, not only to protect them but protect constitutional values and, in the long term, help the advancement of democratic civilization. 

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Prof. G. Haragopal is currently visiting professor at Bangalore, National Law School of India University (NLSIU). He has been associated with the Civil Rights Movement in India for the last four decades.

The article forms part of our Whither India? series, curated by Ira Raja and Shaswati Mazumdar.



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