Scholars and students often attacked by own authorities

Key drivers behind pervasive and at times deadly attacks on scholars and students worldwide include not just overt conflicts such as the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, but also oppressive tactics by authorities, according to the Scholars at Risk Network’s latest Free to Think report released on 8 November, which documented 391 attacks in 65 countries between September 2021 and August 2022.

The use of oppressive tactics by authorities constrict society’s space to think and question, the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR) says, and some important examples of this trend can be found in West and South Asia, regions where attacks are often under-reported, including in Iran, Pakistan and India.

Iran: Scholars and students

According to the report (which was compiled before the death on 16 September 2022 of Mahsa Amini which sparked countrywide protests in Iran and harsh crackdowns on student demonstrators in particular), scholars and students in Iran faced a range of threats ranging from disciplinary action to imprisonment in connection with their academic activities and freedom of expression.

It notes that the authorities arrested, imprisoned and used violent force and travel restrictions against scholars and students.

For instance, in September 2021, Iranian authorities arrested three professors from Poland’s Nicolaus Copernicus University for espionage. One of them, Maciej Walczak, was accused of taking samples of soil, rock, water and mud in a restricted area and was later sentenced to three years in prison.

On 20 April 2022, so-called morality guards attacked students at the Iran University of Science and Technology while they attempted to distribute a statement condemning the heightened presence of the guards on campus, especially in women’s dormitories, and their enforcement of compulsory Islamic dress and other regulations.

In another incident, in May 2022, authorities arrested sociology professor and former political prisoner Saeed Madani, whose research focuses on poverty, drug addiction, sex work and child abuse, among other topics, on charges of “suspicious foreign connections” and “measures against the security”.

The Scholars at Risk report also highlights the fact that Iranian authorities continue to imprison a number of scholars and intellectuals, including disaster medicine scholar Ahmadreza Djalali, jailed under a death sentence; anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, serving a five-year prison sentence; and conservationist Niloufar Bayani, serving a 10-year sentence.

Baloch students in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the report highlights systematic state oppression and harassment targeting academics and students who are members of the country’s ethnic Baloch community.

According to the International Forum for Rights and Security, a Canada-based non-governmental organisation, 48 Baloch students disappeared in Pakistan from January to May 2022. Thousands of Baloch individuals have gone missing at the hands of Pakistani authorities since the early 2000s, with students being one of the most targeted groups, according to the NGO’s reports.

“Over the past year, police used force against members of the higher education community in Pakistan carrying out peaceful protests while extremism threatened campus safety, and Baloch students faced a disturbing pattern of detentions and disappearances,” said the Free to Think report.

On 1 March, police used baton charges and laid criminal charges against students protesting the apparent abduction of a classmate from Quaid-i-Azam University in the capital Islamabad.

Attacks are also carried out by armed groups opposing the state, however.

On 26 April 2022, a suicide bomber carried out a targeted attack at the University of Karachi, killing three Chinese teachers employed by the university’s Confucius Institute and their Pakistani driver.

Those killed in the attack include the Confucius Institute’s founder, Huang Guiping, and his fellow teachers, Ding Mupeng and Chen Sai. A fourth teacher, Wang Yuqing, was injured in the attack.

The separatist Baloch Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack and commented that it targeted the institute as a “symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism”.

India: Academic freedom at risk

The report documents 16 cases of actions against academics in India where academic freedom has been described as being at risk as police and state authorities have cracked down on student protests, state and university authorities have punished outspoken scholars, and government actors have restricted academic freedom and the right to education.

For instance, students in the right-wing group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and others at the University of Lucknow surrounded Ravi Kant Chandan, a Dalit professor of Hindi, and harassed and threatened him over accusations that he disrespected Hindu deities in comments he made during an online event.

In another event, Sharda University suspended Waqas Farooq Kuttay, an assistant professor, for a question he included on a political science exam for undergraduate students. Kuttay reportedly asked: “Do you find any similarities between Fascism/Nazism and Hindu right wing (Hindutva)? Elaborate with arguments.”

In Bengaluru, police baton-charged students marching against the government’s National Education Policy. In Khairabad, police arrested 52 students during a peaceful protest responding to a Hindu seer’s alleged rape threats against Muslim women.

Mangalore University imposed a total ban on the wearing of hijabs on campus, following protests by the student union, ruled by the far-right student group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

Afghanistan: A hardline approach

The Free to Think report paints a grim picture of the education sector in Afghanistan under hardline Taliban rule since the United States withdrawal and collapse of the republic in August 2021.

It documents targeted actions against scholars and students as well as policies and practices by the Taliban seeking to bring the higher education sector in line with its vision and priorities.

For instance, Sayed Asif Mubtahij Hashemi, the dean of the faculty of Sharia law at Ghazni University, was found dead roughly three months after he was abducted by armed assailants believed to be affiliated with the Taliban.

In two separate incidents, the Taliban detained two scholars critical of their rule: Faizullah Jalal and Sayed Baqir Mohsini. At Alberoni University, a professor fearing violent attacks resigned from his position of 14 years after he was accused of blasphemy in connection with comments he allegedly made on WhatsApp; the same scholar was reportedly critical of Taliban policies.

In addition to targeting and punishing individual members of the higher education community, the Taliban have constricted female scholars’ and students’ academic freedom and right to education. One of the earliest policies was a requirement that higher education institutions enforce gender-segregated classes.

In April 2022, the Taliban instructed universities to further enforce gender segregation at scientific conferences and programmes.