Assault on academic freedom, interference in higher education on the rise

Ashraf Engineer

July 22, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Recently, I happened to speak to a senior academician in one of Mumbai’s most renowned public universities and research institutions. He mentioned that political pressure on the institution and interference in its working have affected it deeply, impacting everything – from who gets to speak there to what students can research and discuss openly. This is a sentiment echoed across India’s institutions of higher learning. Their takeover has been a key component of the saffron project and has even made international headlines. Not too long ago, Sweden’s V-Dem institute pointed to the erosion of Indian democracy. V-Dem categorised India as an “electoral autocracy” rather than an electoral democracy, something I’ve referred to in earlier episodes too. A large part of this classification is due to the pressure on and interference in institutions of higher learnings – and this poses a serious threat to India’s constitutional values and democracy.


Since 2014, when the BJP came to power, there have been massive changes in education policy that can broadly be classified into two categories: changes in curriculum and the assault on institutions’ integrity by advancing the Hindutva ideology. Even IITs and IIMs are not spared. So, expertise and relevant experience were no longer the criteria for choosing their directors. Instead, what was sought was ideological alignment with the saffron right wing.

In effect, the government – and through it the BJP – is trying to control and direct how students and professors think. Of course, unfettered thought and debate have never been the BJP’s strong suit; what it prefers instead are conformity to the Sangh Parivar’s political agenda.

Concerned faculty members and students of the Department of Sociology in Delhi University documented the attacks on intellectual freedom by the state and political activists in recent years. This documentation took the form of a set of tables that span a list of restrictive actions, from withdrawal of books to cancellation of events and cases filed against professors and students.

Table 1, for example, lists books withdrawn from the syllabi and public distribution because of so-called insults to religious groups. Among the authors whose books were withdrawn were Indologist Wendy Doniger and novelist Mahasweta Devi.

Another table lists seminars organised by students or faculty that were cancelled or attacked by Hindu right wing activists. The tables list 69 such incidents, including the screening of a film by renowned documentary maker Anand Patwardhan in Pune in December 2014; a talk by Professor MN Panini at the Central University in Jharkhand in February 2016 because he had had once taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, believe it or not; and a talk in Chandigarh in January 2018 on Mahatma Gandhi by Professor Apoorvanand of Delhi University that was disrupted by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP.

Charges have been framed against professors and students of public universities for statements that the government considered defamatory or anti-national. There are 37 such instances in the tables.

The list includes also 39 instances of physical attacks against faculty and students, including the death of a professor in Ujjain after an assault by right-wing students and the murder of scholar MM Kalburgi in Dharwad in 2015. In addition, many foreign scholars have been stopped from entering India or speaking at events.

Let’s move on from the tables to the changes in curriculum enforced since 2014.

The Central Board of Secondary Education announced a 30% reduction in curriculum ostensibly to reduce pressure on students. On the face of it, this seems to be a good thing. However, in the name of reducing pressure, it’s the chapters on federalism, secularism, rights that have been axed as well as those on popular movements and diversity. This points to a covert saffron agenda.

Numerous scholars and experts across fields have criticised this, among them the former director of the National Council of Education Research and Training, Krishna Kumar, who said the cuts have rendered some remaining topics “incomprehensible”.

BJP-ruled states have changed textbooks to elevate the role of conservative Hindu organisations and minimised the role of efforts to nurture secularism. For example, the earlier Rajasthan government removed references to Jawaharlal Nehru but added numerous references to VD Savarkar. Meanwhile, Dr BR Ambedkar was referred to as a “Hindu social reformer” and his work with Dalits was minimised.

Naturally, this sort of interference and policy is not divorced from the politics of the government, which is informed by the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. The RSS believes in a Hindu Rashtra and its negative impact has been observed at various times in Indian history. Today, its ideology is being sought to be infused in academia. This has taken the form of a frontal attack on academic freedom.

When it comes to expression, Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer, has written that “in judgment after judgment, the Supreme Court had decried the hecklers’ veto, clarified that the task of maintaining law and order rested with the authorities, and that the risk of vigilante-caused disturbances could not be a ground for curtailing the freedom of speech”. Despite that, the police and other agencies apply curbs through other laws, such as Sections 124A and 295A to file charges of sedition and ban books.

Several events have been called off because of threats from the ABVP, the student wing of the RSS. These events were based on issues like Kashmir and the threats were a direct attack on freedom of speech. Given that it’s part of the Sangh Parivar, we have a situation now in which the ABVP can decide what events can be held on campuses.

The Constitution lays down a ‘fundamental duty’ of the state and citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform” as well as to “strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement”. These ideals enshrine academic freedom as a fundamental duty of the state. Moreover, India is a signatory of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which incorporates a commitment to academic freedom in higher education.

So, what is academic freedom? There is broad agreement that it comprises the freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity and freedom of academic and cultural expression. Virtually all of these are under pressure in India.

Academic freedom includes the right to challenge power structures, from gender to caste. When it comes to students from marginalised communities, many of whom are first-generation learners and face discrimination, the assertion of their identity is termed as “politicising” the campus and attacked. However, the purpose of education is not restricted to the classroom learning; it includes the assertion of dignity and social mobility.

What’s even more worrying is the appointment of RSS affiliates as heads of institutions. It would seem that these people occupy their positions only because of their ideology. Since 2014, the government has chosen for academic leadership right-wing ideologues or pro-government sympathisers. Even vice-chancellors of universities are increasingly political appointees. Some have advocated anti-Muslim sentiments in the guise of scholarship, while others have restricted the space for what is permissible on campus – for instance, the banning of meat in women’s hostels.

Let’s look at some examples:

The chair of the Indian Council for Historical Research between 2014 and 2017 was Y Sudershan Rao. He was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, the RSS History Wing, and had no peer-reviewed publications.

Braj Bihari Kumar headed the Indian Council for Social Science Research between 2017 and 2019. He was a founding member of Astha Bharati, an RSS front organisation. He blamed the caste system on Muslim invasions, glorified Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said textbooks should not mention communal or caste conflicts and the nation should not tolerate Rohingya refugees.

M Jagadesh Kumar was appointed vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016 and served till 2022. He had no prior administrative experience and was closely associated with the Vignyana Bharati, the RSS science wing.

GC Tripathi was vice-chancellor of Benaras Hindu University between 2014 and 2017. He was an RSS member with no peer-reviewed publications. He allowed RSS shakhas on campus and banned meat in girls’ hostels.

The inroads made into higher education by saffron hardliners are cause for serious concern and all of these instances I mentioned are shocking.

Central and state governments must move quickly to restore and strengthen institutional autonomy, allow foreign scholars to speak here and stop filing false charges against professors and students.

The systematic saffronisation of education will serve to hollow out not only Indian society but also our freedoms and democracy.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.