Writers, scholars, artists have always worried the powers that be.
There was a time when the Parisian police had been given the onerous task of keeping the greatest writers of late 18th Century who were living in Paris at that time under their watch. Poor fellows, one can imagine their difficulty in maintaining files on writers and artists and scholars ‘beyond criminals and political figures.’ (The Statesman and The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 26 th September 2006)
The present dispensation at the centre is no different.
It could be said that it may be a step ahead.
The French Monarchs – who within few decades witnessed a mass upheaval which finally overthrew them – were wise enough to ask their minions to be rather discreet in their activities, not to offend the writers, scholars directly ; the harbingers of today’s ‘New India’ have even abandoned that discreetness for good.
Close on the heels of a Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations to prevent an ‘award wapsi’ embarrassment in future (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/parliamentary-panel-suggests-recipient-consent-to-prevent-return-of-awards-over-political-reasons-8859318/), which has asked potential award winners sign an undertaking that they would not return their awards at any stage, has come the news that a team of Intelligence Bureau Officials suddenly landing at a leading private university in full public glare when the Institution itself is in the eye of a storm because of a research paper written by one of its (former) Professors from the Economics Department which focussed itself on the 2019 elections to the Parliament.
Apropos they were keen to meet former Prof Sabyasachi Das, who worked for the Economics Department and to probe his research paper ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’ Paper’ ( https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4512936) – whose tentative conclusions about the 2019 elections had unsettled the ruling dispensation which pointed towards ‘possibility of electoral ‘manipulation’ in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections’ (https://thewire.in/education/author-of-paper-on-possible-manipulation-in-2019-polls-quits-ashoka-university). As they were unable to meet him as he was out of station, they even wanted his colleagues from his department to interact with them but when these sleuths formally refused to give their queries in writing to the department people they firmly refused to meet them.
One learns that they have informed they will come back soon.
This unprecedented episode in the academic history of the country has raised lot of concerns but before moving further it is necessary to share few more details.
The publication of this research paper generated lot of heat on social media and its tentative findings were attacked by BJP leaders. Instead of defending the scholar’s right to research the management of this ‘liberal institution’ distanced itself from its findings. It created such a situation that the Professor Sabyasachi Das resigned from the post, causing tremendous unease in the academia within the University as well as elsewhere.
Contrary to what has happened in many earlier cases, when rest of the academia has wore silence or decided to look the other way, this episode prompted an entirely different reaction.
Prof Pulapre Balakrishnan, another senior Professor from the same department (http://www.pulaprebalakrishnan.in/)- who has served at various international Universities like Oxford and has even worked as Consultant to the ILO, RBI and UNDP, and has many published books to his credit resigned from his post in solidarity with Prof Das
This solidarity action was followed by a growing call to ensure academic freedom.
A statement was issued by around 400 leading economists from India and abroad expressing their solidarity with Prof Das and even many departments within this Private University passed resolutions about ‘academic freedom’ and asked the management to support ensure it at any level.
The university was asked to reinstate Prof Das as well as Prof Pulapre Balakrishnan with immediate effect. In fact, the University’s Student Parliament also seconded this demanded and according to unconfirmed sources the management of the University was seriously contemplating to take back the two resignations.
The unannounced visit by the IB people is an ominous development – perhaps unheard of in academic world.
Could one say that it was a signal to the private university – which is seriously considering the formal reinstatement of the author Prof Sabyasachi Das and also Professor Pulapre Balakrishnan because of unprecedented turmoil within the academic community within and outside to ‘save academic freedom’ that such a step would be inimical to its own interests in future ?
Could one say that it was also a reminder to the University establishment that the Private University’s FCRA licence has to be renewed soon and perhaps it does not take any step which will impact this decision? As an aside it need be told here that merely few months back CPR – a leading think tank in Delhi – which has been engaged in research with a focus on India’s 21st-century challenges since 1973 found its FCRA licence suspended (https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/thinktank-centre-for-policy-research-s-foreign-funding-licence-suspended-101677663337670.html) for ‘allegedly violating the provisions of the law” compelling it to shed a significant part of its academic and other teams. Whatever might be the formal reasons offered to withdraw the FCRA licence to this institution, one knows that some of its research and its conclusions – which centred on industrial houses in good books of the government had not gone well with the government.
Next few days are important to watch.
Whether the ‘liberal Institution’ sticks to its resolve or not will be important to watch. .
Whatever happens one cannot but notice a silver lining of sorts in these developments.
Since last more than nine years the present dispensation has made tremendous attempts to change the character of education and educational institutions.
Not satisfied with the radical changes it has undertaken in revising academic courses, or installing its people in key positions, or introducing an educational policy without any proper consultation or not satisfied with putting (used) battle tanks in University campuses to instill a feeling of patriotism etc., or sending its cheerleaders to campuses to discipline still dissenting voices, educational campuses are still vibrating.
The idea of resistance to evil or whatever is wrong around you has not died down.
Students, teachers and other intellectuals who still believe in values and principles of Constitution are making it happen.
This definitely is a good sign.
Subhash Gatade is a left activist associated with New Socialist Initiative