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Has political interference eroded academic freedom?

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Is the Indian government interfering in the academic freedom of the Australia India Institute leading to 13 Fellows resigning? I imagine you might be somewhat perplexed to read this question. You probably don’t have any idea what it’s referring to. That’s because this story has hardly got any attention in India. In Australia, however, it’s been widely covered. Since it concerns India’s standing and image, it’s worth finding out more about it.

The Australian paper, The Age, and a website called SouthAsianToday.com.au, have reported that 13 Fellows of the Institute have resigned and, in their letter to the vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, alleged interference by the Indian high commissioner by trespassing upon their academic freedom. This has “led to some events relating to India being discouraged, or not supported, on the grounds that they were likely to be controversial”, they have said.

One of the 13, Ian Woolford, tweeted, “I have resigned my affiliation with the Australia India Institute, due to concerns over government interference and restrictions over academic freedom”.

Together, The Age and the website, cite three examples of alleged interference. First, in 2019, a publicly advertised event was downgraded to a private invitation only seminar upon the intervention of the high commissioner. This was on the subject “Keywords for India: Violence” and discussed violence by Hindu nationalist groups against Muslims. Second, the Institute refused to publish an academic piece by two Fellows attempting to explain attacks on Mahatma Gandhi and the decapitation of his statue in Melbourne. Third, the Institute refused to include a podcast entitled “Caste and the Corporation, in India and abroad”, by the same two Fellows, on its website.

The Age writes, “The academics claim there was a reluctance to publicise commentary on caste and race, and that official events had ‘carried the flavour of propaganda’. They say events on India that were ‘likely to be controversial’ have been discouraged.”

As far as I know, neither the government nor the High Commission in Australia have refuted these reports. However, in a statement, the University of Melbourne has said it “respect(s) the decision of the Academic Fellows who recently tendered their resignations”. To this the high commission added that the university had “responded suitably to the story”. But the critical allegation of interference was not denied.

This is, surely, inexplicable. Does it suggest the reports are accurate and can’t be denied? Last week, I put those questions to the Institute’s founding director, Amitabh Mattoo. He still serves on the governing body. Mattoo began by describing the reports of political interference as alarming but, simultaneously, was very reluctant to accept their veracity. It seemed he was walking a tightrope between outrightly questioning the Australian media accounts and forthrightly defending the high commissioner against the charge of interference.

Mattoo also claimed the Fellows had not resigned but their tenure had ended. However, the university statement accepts they resigned. The tweet from Woolford also confirms that. “I have resigned”, it begins. The reason he gives is blunt and unequivocal – “due to concerns over government interference and restrictions over academic freedom”.

Mattoo insisted no such interference happened when he was director. He also said he had checked with the present director, Lisa Singh, and she’s told him there’s been no interference during her time. But, then, he added this could have happened during the tenure of the director who served between Singh and himself. So, does that mean there’s been interference but it’s stopped? Lisa Singh’s term only began on September 8, that’s just seven months ago.

As I end, I want to raise two questions. First, why is our media almost entirely silent about this? Second, why has the government not directly refuted the charge that the high commissioner has been interfering? The position that this is “not a matter for the high commission of India to comment on” is ludicrous. When the high commissioner is accused, who else is to respond?

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story 

The views expressed are personal

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