Anti-terror laws used against scholars erode academic freedom

Academic freedom continued to be eroded in India during 2021 against the backdrop of a years-long crackdown on dissent under the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The 2021 Free to Think report from Scholars at Risk (SAR), published on 9 December, identifies attacks on higher education communities across the world, including in India.

It says the Indian authorities are using anti-terrorism laws to prosecute more than a dozen scholars, in an apparent act of retaliation against the expression of views critical of Modi and his administration.

This crackdown was heightened during the 2019-20 reporting period, when students and faculty came under attack for protesting the passage of a controversial and discriminatory citizenship law known as the Citizenship Amendment Act, and for their criticism of the government more generally.

The repression continued this year, with more students and scholars facing arrest, prosecution and disciplinary action, the report said. It also noted that scholars, students and society generally in Jammu and Kashmir continued to suffer from state-ordered restrictions on telecommunications that significantly impeded academic activity.

State authorities continue to investigate and prosecute scholars and students for their public expression of views, and have undermined their freedom of association, according to SAR.

For example, on 9 November 2020 police opened a criminal investigation into Shilpa Singh, a professor of political science at VM Salgaocar College of Law in Panaji in the western state of Goa, for allegedly making derogatory comments on social media mocking the Hindu religion.

Scholars, students in custody

Free to Think said a number of scholars and students remain in state custody or under investigation for expressing views or associating with particular groups, including left-wing Maoists.

Most of these scholars and students have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, a law purportedly intended to prevent acts of terrorism and other national security threats. It has frequently been used to punish and silence human rights activists, political opposition and other expression or activities government finds displeasing, according to SAR.

They include Anand Teltumbde, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Varavara Rao, jailed under the UAPA based on allegations that they instigated violent clashes at the 2018 Bhima Koregaon memorial, which commemorated an 1818 battle in which Dalit soldiers of the British army fought upper-caste Hindus. Dalit is the name for a wide range of low-caste Hindu groups.

According to the SAR report, “evidence used to support the allegations has been called into question for its veracity and relevance; it reportedly includes files that were planted on one defendant’s computer. The scholars implicated in the case are known for their human rights and anti-caste activism”.

Teltumbde, a management professor at the Goa Institute of Management, has been scathing in his criticism of the government. Wilson is a member of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners and has worked with people accused in terrorism cases, including people booked under the UAPA.

Sen is a women’s rights activist, and a former assistant professor and head of the English literature department at Nagpur University, while Rao is an activist, poet, teacher and writer from the state of Telangana.

Asif Iqbal Tanha, a former student of the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, who is a member of the Students Islamic Organisation of India, was arrested by the Delhi Police in connection with the Northeast Delhi riots case and was charged under UAPA.

Tanha, along with Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Safoora Zargar – students arrested for peaceful activism against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – have been released on bail but continue to face charges.

Zargar, from Jamia Millia Islamia, and Sharjeel Imam from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are student activist leaders – from Jammu and Kashmir and the northern state of Bihar respectively – who participated in anti-CAA protests.

Imam was charged with sedition, allegedly for a speech during the CAA protests that police allege prompted enmity among people that led to riots in and around the Jamia campus.

Meeran Haider, an activist leader and human rights defender, is also known for his role in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Kalita and Narwal, both students at JNU in New Delhi, were arrested in May 2020, for allegedly being part of a ‘conspiracy’ behind the communal violence that erupted in Delhi over the CAA.

Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba, popularly known as GN Saibaba – a scholar, writer, human rights activist and professor – is currently serving life imprisonment for his connections to banned Maoist groups and was removed from the post of assistant professor at Ram Lal Anand College of Delhi University in February 2021.

According to SAR, which has been campaigning for his release on humanitarian grounds, Saibaba was wrongfully convicted while engaged in human rights activism on behalf of vulnerable populations in India that suffer from poverty and human rights violations due to the prolonged internal conflict between the Indian government and Maoists.

Delhi University’s Associate Professor Hany Babu was also arrested for alleged Maoist links and is an accused in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case. In December 2017 a mass event organised by civil society groups was held in Pune in Western Maharashtra state to commemorate the 1818 Battle of Koregaon Bhima, and it was known as the Elgar Parishad.

The National Investigation Agency has alleged that the many accused in the case recruited students from well-known institutes like JNU and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for the commission of terrorist activity.

Institutions act against scholars

Higher education institutions have also taken action against scholars through suspensions and other pressures to force resignations.

In May 2021 the Central University of Kerala suspended Gilbert Sebastian, an assistant professor of international relations, for labelling the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – a Hindu nationalist organisation connected to India’s ruling party – as “proto-fascist”. In January Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal suspended Economics Professor Sudipta Bhattacharyya in apparent retaliation for his criticising a university hiring decision.

At Ashoka University, a private institution in Northern Haryana, noted scholar, political scientist and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned as a professor in March 2021, less than two years after he stepped down as vice-chancellor.

His resignation raised serious concerns over scholars’ ability to think freely. Mehta said the university’s founders had made it clear to him that he was a ‘political liability’ on account of public writings that were critical of the government.

Authorities have also used regulatory powers to restrict academic exchange. On 15 January 2021 the Ministry of Education, in consultation with the Ministry of External Affairs, announced guidelines for how publicly funded higher education institutions and their members hold online virtual conferences, seminars and training.

According to Free to Think, the actions and policies of the Indian authorities outlined in the report “jeopardise the conditions India’s higher education communities require for quality research, teaching and discourse”.

“Imprisoning and taking disciplinary actions against scholars and students for their ideas and restricting the academic activity of entire communities of scholars and students have a chilling effect on the sector’s ability to understand and seek to resolve problems of the day.

“Ultimately, they deny everyone – in and outside India – the scientific, cultural, political and economic benefits of a strong, healthy state of academic freedom,” the report says.