Hindutva Continues to Erode Academic Freedom in India by Silencing Debate on "Scientific Temper"

Recently the department of anthropology at Hari Singh Gour Central University, Sagar, Madhya Pradesh collaborated with Montclair State University to host a two-day seminar on 30/31 July 2021, "Cultural and Linguistic Hurdles in the Achievement of Scientific Temper". Among the invited speakers were two Indian public intellectuals, Professor Apoorvanand, Delhi University, and scientist, poet and film-maker Gauhar Raza.

The term "scientific temper", note Gauhar Raza and Surjit Singh, was embedded in 1976 in the Indian constitution as a "duty", with the hope that the freedom to think and to reason for oneself and the freedom and capacity to reject superstition becomes integrated in the post-independence Indian citizen's social self. But today, the ideology of Hindutva, whose founder was inspired by Nazism and which was often considered a "fringe" movement, has taken centre-stage. Its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by prime minister and spokesperson-in-chief Narendra Modi has now been at the helm of the Indian state for seven years. And Hindutva is diametrically opposed to the individual freedom to think, to question. The populace needs to be kept in their place through their absorption of received wisdom that draws on myths and superstitions. This has been at heart of the government's public messages while those arguing for scientific temper are increasingly silenced by state-endorsed bullying and violence.

Just hours before the online seminar was due to commence, however, the Indian university pulled out while the American university hosted the seminar. The background to this is something we should all be very worried about.

On 22 July 2021, the student organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) issued a notice to Hari Singh Gour University that they were "concerned" about Apoorvanand and Gauhar Raza, that they were known to espouse "anti-national" views and the university should not invite such individuals to speak on their platform.

This was followed by a brazen notice issued by the local police superintendent on 29 July stating that views expressed in the seminar might instigate a "law and order" problem, and if they went ahead and communal violence ensued, the police would file a case under Section 505 IPC against the organisers and that “it is advisable that before holding this webinar, there is clarity and consensus over the topic of discussion and the content”.

Under such pressure and with no response from the Ministry of Education, to which the organisers had written for permission as requested (ordered?) by the university, the university administration asked the organisers to withdraw their collaboration. Both speakers still took part in the seminar, which was then hosted on Montclair University's platform. But the millennial generation students of Hari Singh Gour University were not allowed to hear them, to take part in the debate on scientific temper.

Reading between the lines the threat is clear: the university needs to seek approval from the Ministry of Education and/or the local police and/or the ABVP on potential speakers before holding an (international) webinar/seminar on "sensitive" topics. Although it seems that even evidence-based science debates now may now be considered sensitive and likely to disturb societal "harmony".

In their interviews with Neelu Vyas, the current affairs editor of the digital platform on 1/2 August 2021, Gauhar Raza said this unconstitutional development -- where a local police officer considers it his duty to response to a memorandum issued by a student body in the form of a diktat to the university -- is clearly “the ultimate nail in the coffin of academic freedom”.

Raza noted that on joining the police, the officers take an oath on the constitution, the content of which they should be familiar with: that it is the duty of citizens to develop and uphold scientific temper. That a police officer feels able to issue a threat of slapping a case on the university even before the event has happened based on a spurious possibility of discomfort on the part of one section of society speaks volumes about the rapid fall of democracy in India.

Apoorvanand said that it was a sad moment in the history of a university that was founded by one of India’s foremost educationists and social reformers and upholders of good governance, Hari Singh Gour. Increasingly the Indian nation’s intellectual horizons are being bounded by the RSS through the “super sensor” function of its affiliated bodies that are embedded in educational institutions, such as the ABVP.

How should institutional heads response in such a situation? Should they resign in protest or give in to unconstitutional assaults on the academic freedom of their institution. The responsibility is enormous and today’s decisions will impact the intellectual growth of India’s future generations. We should all be worried.

Lotika Singha

Honorary Research Fellow, University of Wolverhampton, UK

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