Among The Last Reputed Bastion Of Academic Freedom Falls

iim ahmedabad

This is the seventh consecutive academic year when I would have gone as a visiting faculty member to the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad to teach an Elective course on Transformational Social Movements to the second year of Post Graduate Programme students. But the invitation has not come so far and it looks like it is the end of my teaching stint at IIM, at least, so long as the Bhartiya Janata Party remains in power at the centre.      

 I had got an inkling of things to come even during my month long last stay on campus during June-July, 2023. For the first time, guests, including a retired High Court Judge, were not allowed to enter the campus to meet me. A Harvard scholar was told that he could enter the campus only on the condition that he would not see me. I had to take a film making team which had arrived from Mumbai, after they waited at the main gate for more than a couple of hours on a rainy day, to conduct an interview on the practice of prostitution by a community in a village in my work area as an activist in Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh, to Ahmedabad Management Association campus across the road from IIM old campus. I was told by the Chief Administrative Officer of IIM Ahmedabad that this could not be considered an academic activity. My argument was that I was invited to teach this course because of my experience as a grassroots activist and hence for me it was part of my academic activity. To bolster my argument I also told him that I could use the film in my class one day, when it is made, in a session on women’s rights. But he would not listen to any reason. I invited filmmaker Bedabrata Pain, a former distinguished NASA scientist who was visiting from the United States, to screen a film about the impact of neo-liberal economic policies on the American farmers and connecting it to the Indian farmers’ movement against the three laws in 2020-21. Peasants’ movements is a topic formally covered in the course. However, the permission to screen the documentary was withdrawn with only an interaction of filmmaker allowed with students. I was also told that only students registered for the course could attend such an interaction. In the past I’ve been inviting scholars and students even from outside the IIM for open discussions on topics covered during the course and even outside of it as I thought it provided a broader perspective to students. It is quite common for even unenrolled students to sit in the class of a popular professor in the universities abroad. The idea of using boundary wall and security at the gates to prevent an interaction of the outside world with academic institutions would be considered juvenile and scoffed at at western institutions. Compare this to the Berkeley campus of the University of California where any outsider can set up a table and say and distribute the most seditious of materials everyday at Sproul Plaza. The famed free speech movement in the 1960s earned this right on this campus.

I’ve not known the restraints now being imposed on the academic freedom to exist on the IIM campus during the last five years, since I taught here for the first time in 2018. When I came here to teach, initially I was apprehensive. This was the first time I was teaching at an IIM and my impression of Ahmedabad campus was that of an epitome of corporate culture. I had been to jail twice in 2003 and 2004 in a struggle of farmers against Coca Cola where the company was depleting the water table in a rural area of Mehdiganj in Varanasi. I was invited in 2005 by two dozen academic campuses and communities in North America to share the experience of the movement, including at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, which houses the international headquarters of this soft drink manufacturer, where the Head of Coca Cola Water Resources was also present in the meeting. Free discussion in U.S. academic institutions was possible until the beginning of ongoing Israel-Palestine war but India had started changing much before that. I was expelled from Banares Hindu University in 2016 because I had decided to screen the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ produced by BBC after the Nirbhaya rape incident, which was banned by the Government of India, in the context of an incident of sexual harassment of a female student by a Professor of Management Department on BHU campus, in a course on Development Studies. The U.P. High Court had rejected the charges of me engaging in anti-national activities and ordered my reinstatement saying that the dispute between me and university authorities arose because of belief in different ideologies. The honourable judges quoted two amazing statements which summarise the judgement. One was by the founder of University, Madan Mohan Malviya, ‘India is not a country of Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, Christians and Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of different communities in India live in mutual goodwill and harmony.’ Second was a quote by Voltaire, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’

Institution after institution had begun to capitulate under the BJP rule and academic freedom or fundamental right of freedom of expression was being squeezed out from campus after campus. But I used to boast to my friends that IIM Ahmedabad had a strong culture of autonomy and decentralised decision making. For example, at other institutions, IIT Gandhinagar or IIT, BHU where I had taught I had to meet the Director to finalise my assignment but at IIM Ahmedabad I met the then Director Errol D’Souza, by chance, in my fifth year of teaching, as we happened to be teaching in neighbouring classrooms and we were face to face during a simultaneous tea break.

However, centralisation in decision making at IIM Ahmedabad has begun with the change of Directorship. The power to appoint the Chairperson of Board of Governors, which until now was a prerogative of the Board only, has been usurped by the Government and from now on the Director would be appointed by a Board which will be headed by a person favourable to the government. By extension the Director would also be a person favourable to the government. In the present context s(he) has to be a person who has the approval of the ruling BJP or its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.

All these years I’ve also known IIM Ahmedabad students for their steadfast progressive thinking, remaining immune to the political atmosphere in the country, compared to students at other institutions who appeared to be more vulnerable. Once I was told by a Professor here that IIM Ahmedabad believes in exposing its students to variegated ideas and then leave it to their judgement. But for the first time in six years there were murmurs in my class under the influence of pervading ideology of religious nationalism. During a discussion on the right of women of menstruating age to enter the Sabrimala temple, which is backed by a Supreme Court judgement, a student suggested that I should not take up controversial traditional issues for discussion in class. I had to point out to this student and the class that if we were to accept everything in our tradition uncritically then probably only Vaishya students should be studying at IIM and only Brahmins should be teaching as we would have to abide by the caste system.

The incidents on IIM Ahmedabad campus don’t bode well for the academic freedom of IIMs, the last such institutions left in the country, maybe excluding the South of the country, which could lay that claim, and in general for the health of the academic community.

Academia is all about freedom of thought and an academic would fight to the last to preserve his/her right. Only in institutions which have honoured such freedom has there been meaningful academic activity and true research. If this freedom is curbed then the tendency would be to do things which would appease the rulers or at least not displease them. Such considerations guiding the academic activity would lead to farce. It would be result in regimentation on academic campuses which may produce degree holding individuals who would be beholden to the powers that be. They would not serve the larger humanity but only the government of the day or the dominating ideology.

I will continue to fight for the fundamental right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution outside IIM Ahmedabad now. My friends in the larger academic community have to  stand up to face the assault on their academic freedom, lest their institutions are taken over by an ideology which will make free thinking subservient to authoritarian regime. The quality of Indian academic institutions, of whatever worth it is, cannot be pawned to a regressive ideology.

Sandeep Pandey is presently teaching the course on ‘Social Movements’ at NALSAR, Hyderabad along with another one ‘Why Gandhi Still Matters.’ He is also the General Secretary of Socialist Party (India). E-mail id: [email protected]

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