In the latest incident to speak to the embattled state of higher education in the country, a law college principal in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, was forced to resign. His decision, by all accounts, was precipitated by pressure exerted by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing affiliated with the RSS. Hours after putting in his papers, the academic was booked for promoting enmity amongst religious groups along with three of his colleagues. His travails began on December 1, when ABVP members submitted a memorandum, alleging “religious fundamentalist thoughts being promoted by four Muslim teachers of the college”. A day later, the activists took offence to the presence of a book, Collective Violence and Criminal Justice System, in the institution’s library. Portions of the book, according to them, showed the RSS in poor light. The principal’s defence that the book was acquired by his predecessor and a retired judge is investigating the allegations did not seem to have cut any ice with the protestors. Such strong-arm tactics have a chilling effect on academic freedom in the country.
Almost every education policy document in the past 50 years in India has underlined the importance of universities as spaces of critical thinking. The New Education Policy 2020 too has emphasised this objective. But academic institutions in the country have rarely enjoyed complete freedom from government interference. In recent times, the status of universities as self-regulating bodies where decisions are shaped by intellectual debates — and not political pressures — seems to be under even more duress. The Indore law college incident indicates that academic autonomy seems to have eroded to such an extent that an institution’s discretion to keep a book in its library shelves is being questioned. Most education institutions have internal processes to requisition books for libraries. That teachers have the freedom to refer study material in classrooms is also cardinal to academic freedom. Of course, curriculum literature must not be shielded from criticism. Student-teacher debates enhance the creative quotient of education institutions and universities should, in fact, find more spaces for engaging with a diversity of ideas and books by writers of myriad persuasions — including those who espouse the RSS’s principles as well as those critical of them. But the ABVP protestors seemed to have gone by a cancel culture playbook that’s inimical to a healthy relationship between the two linchpins of the system.
The NEP 2020 lays great emphasis on creating an enabling atmosphere for teachers. That should be enough to reason for the government to intervene and restore sanity in the Indore law college.