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The International Academic Community Must Respond to Repression in India

As so profoundly articulated by Lilla Watson, our freedoms and un-freedoms are bound together. Otherwise one can never claim freedom, because such freedom comes as the cost of un-freedom of another. One day that might be us.


This article was first published on 24 March 2021 on Academe Blog, and is reproduced here with the permission of the authors.


Words fail, as everyday India sinks to new depths of cruelty, injustice, and sheer apathy under the Modi administration. India counts today for almost one-third of the deaths from COVID-19, with people reduced to frantically chasing after a cylinder of oxygen, dying because they failed to get to a hospital, and those who survive have to go on living after they have seen loved ones die gasping for breath. Arundhati Roy has called it a “crime against humanity,” Ravish Kumar “a genocide”—not only because of the willful neglect of the government in preparing for it, but also because of its continued denial of the extent of the crisis. For the Modi government, COVID-19 is still mainly a problem of PR management.

Universities are caught in the sweep as well, with faculty, students, and staff struggling to cope, like everyone else. In the last two weeks, Aligarh Muslim University has reported the deaths of thirty-four faculty, both teaching and retired, in just eighteen days (Indian Express, May 10, 2021).


However, the numbers of the dead do not even begin to tell the horrifying nature of the totalitarianism that is unfolding. This regime and its collaborators—the media and the courts—are using this pandemic to simply kill off their dissenters. And, academics, at least those who take their responsibility for independent thinking seriously, find themselves in jail for serving this critical role in society. The government has charged students, faculty, journalists, and activists under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act); a dreadful law that allows detention without trial for any number of years. What is it, if not deliberate murder, if dissenters remain un-convicted and without trial in overcrowded jails lacking medical care in the midst of a searing pandemic?


The list of faculty in jail include: Anand Teltumbe, professor of management at the Goa Institute of Management; Shoma Sen, the head of the English literature department, Nagpur University; Sudha Bharadwaj, visiting professor at the National Law School, Delhi; Hany Babu, professor of language and linguistics at Delhi University; G. N. Saibaba, professor of English, Delhi University, now fired even from that job. Then, there are the brilliant, idealistic, young students—Umar Khalid, Meeran Haider, Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Gulfisha Fatima, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita—many in the midst of their graduate, postgraduate, and doctoral studies.


Among these are sixteen (generally known as the BK16) academics, intellectuals, and human rights activists who have been arrested on what is now becoming clear is fabricated evidence. The “evidence” of their “anti-national activities” were a set of letters which included a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi and associated them with a banned Left organization. On February 10, 2021, the Washington Post published the findings of Arsenal Consulting, a forensic firm in Boston, concluding that all the letters claimed as “evidence” by the Indian state were in fact planted by an external agent that had infiltrated Rona Wilson’s laptop for a period of twenty-two months using a commercially available malware called Netwire Remote Access Trojan (RAT). Rona Wilson is a graduate student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a member of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), and one of the first of the sixteen to be arrested. He has been in prison for nearly three years now.


On May 11, 2021, Natasha Narwal, a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi bid farewell to her father Mahavir Narwal at the crematorium, the court having refused to grant bail in time for her to meet him as he fought COVID-19. If nothing else, this image should sear our brains. She was in full PPE gear because her bail was only for three weeks and the gear is to protect others in prison.


The international academic community must take note or we will be answering future generations, who will ask: Where were you when those who had raised their voices in warning against the advance of neoliberalism and Hindutva were locked up in prison? The virus, we all know, does not respect national boundaries. Its spread in India will have global impact.


As members of Insaf-India (International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India) we ask that you become aware of the situation and express solidarity by signing our open letter for the release of all political prisoners here: https://www.academicfreedomindia.com/campaigns.


Jyotsna Kapur is professor of cinema and media studies and director of the University Honors Program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.


Neepa Majumdar is associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.


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