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Issue 10

Unpacking History: The Nexus Between Politics and Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is defined as the freedom of thought and inquiry granted to faculty and students of educational institutions to pose questions and think critically about subjects of academic importance. The reason this freedom is granted to the academic community is that universities, and institutions of education, in general, are considered to be spaces that probe the truth, and for true intellectual activity to flourish, they need freedom of thought and expression. However, another reason why academic freedom is stressed is because of the dangers it faces – from the state and from the larger public. As the world is inching towards authoritarianism with a number of right-wing populist governments at power in some major countries, the question of academic freedom is as pertinent as ever. With the recent resignation of two prominent scholars from Ashoka University, the question is driven home with discussions about academic freedom in India. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-time phenomenon, in either India or other democratic countries. It has been the case for decades that the ruling dispensation in most democratic, as well as autocratic countries, has been wary of the academic community and has tried to stifle its voices. Time and again, the freedom of universities, faculties and students in places around the world has come into question by the state and has often been curbed through laws and regulations. In some instances, even violence has been used to clamp down on the freedom of these voices. This piece shall explore some historical instances of academic freedom, or the lack thereof, in different countries around the world at different times. Through it, we wish to shed light on the chequered history of academic freedom and the role of the academic community in fighting for their right to freedom of thought and expression in academic settings. 


Recent Events at Ashoka University
In a dramatic turn of events, academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation under dubious circumstances has brought Ashoka University’s integrity under the scanner. Mehta wrote in his resignation letter that the founders of Ashoka had made it “abundantly clear” that his association with the institution was a “political liability”. Following Mehta’s exit, renowned economist Arvind Subramanian also put down his papers, citing the fact that “Ashoka can no longer provide a safe space for academic expression and freedom”. The resignations have garnered global attention with a large number of accomplished academics signing a petition expressing solidarity with Mehta and disapproval of Ashoka’s founders’ and admin’s handling of the issue. Calling it a “gross violation of academic freedoms”, students of the University announced a two-day boycott of classes to protest against these developments. Pertaining to the fact that this is not the first time that a faculty has been mired in controversy due to their political opinions, students and faculty are now apprehensive of the wider implications that external political pressures on the University will have on their freedom of speech and expression. There is also growing scepticism regarding the inevitable downfall in the quality of education that the University promises if this continues.   

The History of Academic Freedom 

Academic freedom as a concept emerged during the Middle Ages, with scholars and philosophers in Europe asserting their right to enquiry and stating independence from the monarchs of the day. However, the universities of the period in both Europe and America were heavily influenced by the Church, and were also dependent on it for funding. As time progressed, a form of mixed system developed in America in the 18th century where colleges were dependent on private donors as well as states for funding, but the faculty still did not have a strong say in the running of universities or in matters of academic freedom. It was only during the American Civil War that academic freedom as a concept was used by academics, and was seen as just as important as civil liberties. 

Academic Freedom in The United States

The question of academic freedom in the United States was extremely important during two periods of history – first during the Cold War in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism, and then again after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which led to the War on Terror. These external political circumstances had a deep impact on the academic community and there were issues about what was being taught, and by whom. At the height of McCarthyism, the Red Scare of communism enveloped most of U.S. policy and behaviour in the 1950s, and university professors were targeted by the FBI for having connections with ‘subversive’ organisations, namely the Communist Party. Faculty at colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and the State University of New York, to name a few, had to sign documents stating they weren’t affiliated with Communists, or they ran the risk of being removed from their teaching positions. This was protested by many for infringing upon the First Amendment rights of the professors as well as the larger academic freedom of these universities. While in 1967 this academic freedom was codified in the Constitution of the U.S. after the case Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967), it routinely came under threat even after that period. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in America, the country adopted a stringent foreign policy known popularly as the War on Terror and took action against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and other regions. While universities had always criticised U.S. foreign policies, the period after 9/11 saw harsher consequences for those professors and intellectuals who dared question or criticise the government’s policies. From news anchors to senators, there was major pushback against academics who tried to speak or write against government policies, with emphasis on the need to “support the war”. There was also a grave fear among presidents and administrators of the universities about the consequences of this criticism, which is why many of them distanced themselves from the faculty and students that engaged in this criticism. Academic freedom was therefore not guaranteed in either public or private universities in the U.S. and was subject to popular perception, government policy and the political atmosphere of the period. 

Academic Freedom in Turkey 

The strained relationship between academic freedom and political pressures can also be understood by analyzing the case of Turkey. The country has had a contentious history with respect to ensuring academic freedom in higher education – exhibited through selectively granting the freedom to explore certain fields of inquiry while barring others and restricting faculty interactions with the press on certain subjects without official permits that are rarely granted. Moreover, a culture of self-censorship has persisted in Turkish academia, which becomes apparent when analyzing the restrictions placed on academics in terms of determining teaching materials, evaluation, and teaching techniques. It is interesting to note that these flaws in Turkey’s academic landscape have existed prior to the wave of right-wing populism that swept the nation upon President Erdogan’s appointment. While Erdogan’s tenure has been marked by stringent crackdowns on the activity of academics beyond the classroom, his government is not solely responsible for the poor state of academic freedom in the country.

Indian Universities and the Fight for Academic Freedom

What has been observed in varying degrees across the world, has been a part of India’s political landscape too. Although, traditionally, India has had a long tradition of academic debate and peaceful dissent such as in the Nalanda University in the 5th Century BCE, recently, academic freedom has evidently been on the decline. In the colonial setting in which contemporary Indian universities originated, the question of academic freedom was closely tied up with one’s position on political freedom. In an article for Economic and Political Weekly, Nandini Sundar notes that “while some educational institutions like Presidency College, Calcutta, Elphinstone College, Mumbai, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh, and St Stephen’s College, Delhi were embedded in the colonial project of inculcating English knowledge among the natives, there were others like Jamia Millia Islamia, Visva-Bharati, or the Vidyapeeths set up by Gandhi which had an explicitly nationalist project, wherein the ideas of political freedom coalesced with the ideas of pedagogic freedom.” Even in the other regional colleges, both students and faculty periodically strayed to the nationalist cause, especially during the non-cooperation movement of 1921–22 and Quit India Movement in 1942, boycotting classes, or participating in strikes. 

However, in the postcolonial matrix, the idea of universities as spaces of academic freedom was subordinated to the idea that educational institutions are sites of nation-building. This was embodied in the setting up of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), as “institutes of national importance” where its reputation and ideals were perceived to be closely linked to the state’s aspiration. 

The coming of the BJP government in 2014, however, has created a credible threat to academic freedom in India, with the state actively suppressing any narratives that don’t align with its own ideology. According to the recently published International Academic Freedom Index, India scored an abysmally low score of 0.352, followed by Saudi Arabia (0.278) and Libya (0.238). The police brutality against students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2019 in Delhi has further raised concerns about the state of academic freedom. When this is taken in context with the anecdotal accounts of researchers in India complaining of book bans, cancelling of a particular seminar, change in the curriculum by the state, and filing of criminal cases against political leaders – a grim image of the future of India’s academia emerges.

The Way Forward

An obvious question that emerges from this is how can we reimagine the future of India’s academia in the wake of rising state interference in academia? Such a challenge will not only require far-reaching structural changes but also a commitment to fiercely defend values and ideals of freedom. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is a step in the direction of structural change by envisioning academia without political or external interference. For instance, the policy states that the faculty will be provided with the “freedom to design their own curricular and pedagogical approaches within the approved framework, including textbook and reading material selections, assignments and assessments.” However, what remains to be seen is how well these policies are implemented on the ground and whether they live up to their promise. In the meanwhile, the solidarity extended to Ashoka University and resilience showed by academicians both in the country and abroad can be a guiding example of how as a unified community, one can fiercely defend the values that academia stands for – dissent, dialogue and democracy. 

Picture Credits: Shreya Sharma 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

Whose language is it anyway? A critique of linguistic imposition by the NEP

The Government of India in 2020 rolled out the National Education Policy with much fanfare, claiming that the reforms would revive the nation’s flagging education system. The need for reforms cannot be denied. An article in The Economist this week, noted, “Only about 55% of the country’s ten-year-olds can read and understand a simple story, reckons the World Bank. The last time India’s children participated in internationally comparable tests, they ranked almost last out of 74 countries.” The NEP seeks to introduce changes at all levels of education, and one way it proposes to improve the level of Education and literacy in India is by stating that “the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language/regional language”. As someone who was only educated in English, I was, at first, rather optimistic about such a shift. I had often resented the lack of exposure to the literature of the language most of my family spoke, Hindi. English education meant that I knew neither English nor Hindi very well. To not have to do one, the language that seemed most alien felt like a decent escape from having to struggle through both. But in almost no time, optimism gave way to scepticism, and soon after, to worry. 

The policy advocates for the use of the “mother tongue,” or a regional language, as a medium of instruction wherever possible. In a diverse nation such as ours, the lack of specificity of the term ‘mother tongue’ only leads to confusion. Is ‘mother tongue’ the tongue of a student, or the tongue of a region? Won’t there be situations where the tongue of the student may not be the language of the region? Had the policy been around when I was in junior school, for instance, I would have been educated (‘if possible,’ as the policy notes) in the Kumaoni dialect, since I live in the Kumaon region. However, the composition of my district is nearly entirely native Punjabi speakers, resettled to what we now called Uttarakhand. The languages spoken within 30 kilometres of my home are Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English, each understood by a separate demographic. And my village is not an exception to the rest of India, but it is the rule. Most of India is polyphonic, and like the poet Walt Whitman, can boast of containing multitudes. In the situation that the recognised regional language becomes the official medium of education in a particular school, its usage will only mirror the imposition of English. That is, the hegemony of English will be replaced by the hegemony of another regional language, whichever may be dominant in the area, or in the vogue with a particular government. For a policy aiming to make education more accessible and inclusive, the NEP seems to achieve the opposite.

For the masses, school is where several students are exposed to a new language, especially one like English. For many, learning English is the sole aim of starting school. And whether we like it or not, English does open doors. Most of the vocabulary of Science and Technology is in the language. It has, since the national movement, been a language that has allowed non-Hindi speakers to communicate further. Wouldn’t such a policy end up making opportunities less accessible for the students in government schools? And I stress on government schools here, because for private schools, bypassing such a policy is easy, and the ‘English Medium’ is emphasised. This could widen the gap in the education received at public and private institutions and reinforce class hierarchies amongst those who attend them. For most students, their exposure to their regional languages is through social interactions largely outside the classroom. English is taught to many only in schools. 

What also complicates the NEP is that it does not list English as an Indian language, even though English is constitutionally recognized as a national language. While many Indians may not speak English, it cannot be denied that English is a widely spoken Indian language. Indian writers have made English their own, Indian films and television use English liberally. In an op-ed in the Hindu, K Chidambaram argued that English is an Indian Language and that it is aspirational, useful, and should not be done away with in such a manner. The Poet and translator, Ranjit Hoskote, too, views English as a language that has become Indian, and does not see it as a borrowed tongue. 

Even if everything with the policy is ironed out and every region is given as inclusive a language as possible, the logistics remain complicated. Education is a concurrent subject, legislated upon by both Central and the State governments. Even in college student governments, the shifting of responsibility between hierarchies prevents much work from being done. Between disparate regimes at the Center and states, this may be a recipe for disaster. 

While the importance of including more regional languages in syllabi cannot be denied, we must be mindful of how the Indian languages are taught, and that they are not taught at the cost of one another. The way to promote the regional languages is not to replace English as a medium of education and entirely disregarding its utility, but rather, to include the practice of communication and appreciation of regional languages and literature, to encourage students to be critical by employing the languages they are taught in, and to teach them in a way that the process of education does not make learning more difficult and stressful. This means that for students whose homes are not familiar with English, there is a greater responsibility with their teachers to communicate material with their students in the language they understand. 

To change subject material without altering the pedagogical approach will continue to limit students in one way or another. It may be more freeing to consider ways to incorporate the thinking of Paulo Friere and restructure education or “men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation”. This could be done by training teachers to adapt to the needs of polyphonic classrooms, by introducing practices of translation, or by making conversation a greater part of the experience of learning. 

Swati Singh is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. They are a member of Sandhi, the languages society at Ashoka University, and are interested in translation. 

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Uncategorized

National Education Policy 2020: Implications for Students with Disabilities

By Monika Bhalvani

Since its inception, the Indian education system has been primarily built on an ableist framework. A multiplicity of factors, including inaccessible infrastructure, lack of inclusive teaching and learning practises, rigid academic curriculum, have played a contributing role in systematically leaving out a majority of students with disabilities from the education system early on. The detrimental effects of these are shown through a steep decline in the enrolment and retention rate of students with disabilities after completing their primary school. Because of this, about 45% of people with disabilities are uneducated and  62.9% of them between the ages of 3 and 35 have never attended regular schools.

While this form of an education system structurally denies students with disabilities their basic right to education, the recently drafted National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) provides a ray of hope. The draft states, “Children with disabilities will be enabled to fully participate in the regular schooling process from the Foundational Stage to higher education.” This focus on creating a thorough support system right from an early age opens up multiple avenues for students with various forms of disabilities to be integrated into the regular schooling system. The new NEP is built on the foundational pillars of access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability, that promises a learning environment that is conducive to the learning needs of students with various disabilities. 

The NEP 2020 endorses the recommendations from the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016, and states, “Barrier free access for all children with disabilities will be enabled as per the RPWD Act 2016”. This recognition of the RPWD act and its provision to enable an inclusive system that is adapted to meet the learning needs of students with various forms of disabilities is in itself a major form of victory for the disabled community. Along with this, the draft explicitly talks about how the inclusion of students with learning disabilities will also be ensured, and teachers would be helped to identify such learning conditions early on. The emphasis laid on the need for developing an inclusive education system that caters to the needs of students with both visible and invisible disabilities prompts that we have indeed come a long way in our fight to promote inclusion in the education system.

Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons ( changes made)

While laying this foundation stone for inclusion, the NEP 2020  brings forth certain points that would be taken into consideration during the planning and implementation process. Some of the important recommendations include recruitment of teachers with cross-disability training, usage of assistive devices and appropriate technology-based tools to integrate students with disabilities into classrooms, providing flexibility for all students with different disabilities to learn and grow at their own pace with appropriate assessment and certification. While enabling this, it also gives due importance to training teachers on inclusive pedagogies that cater to the varied needs of students. Focusing on the need for implementation of peer sensitization programmes, it says, “The school curriculum will include, early on, material on human values such as respect for all persons, empathy, tolerance, human rights, gender equality, non-violence, global citizenship, inclusion, and equity.” Implementation of all these points could create a stimulatory environment for students with disabilities to integrate and grow in a regular classroom setting. 

While we have come this far in terms of policy documentation and it’s surely a welcome step, there is still a long way for us to go. Given the complex nature of how different disabilities manifest, we need to take into account multiple factors at both the planning and implementation stages in this process. In doing so, we need to take into consideration a lot of issues that the NEP 2020 misses out on, and discuss how it can be tackled and developed further. 

Firstly, the NEP emphasizes on how teachers will be trained and students will be sensitized. However, what is majorly lacking here is the involvement of students with disabilities themselves in the process of devising policies. Time and again, the disability rights campaign, “Nothing about us, without us”, has emphasized the need to allow full and active participation of people with disabilities while developing or implementing any policies for them. Thus, it is extremely crucial to actively involve students with various disabilities in understanding the specific areas of concerns and plan strategies to tackle that during the planning phase. 

Secondly, we need to pay utmost attention to the way the changes in NEP 2020 pertaining to students with disabilities will be implemented. Our existing education structure, built on an ableist framework, provides very limited scope for students with various disabilities to engage and fully participate in any classroom setting. There needs to be due thought and consideration given to how the proposed changes in the new NEP will be integrated into the existing education structure that we have in place. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, the NEP 2020 completely misses out on the various intersections that exist in the disabled community itself in terms of gender, caste, class, and socio-economic backgrounds. While making a comprehensive policy for students with disabilities, it is important to ask questions that cut across all these aspects. For instance, given that gender is one of the big determinants of increase in drop-out rates from school, we need to consider the provisions that will be made for female students with disabilities to retain them in the education system. Therefore, using an intersectional lens to rethink the existing education policies and the NEP 2020 would help in bringing about desired outcomes in the education system. 

It can be said that the quest for developing an inclusive education system has just started, but there is a lot more that needs to be achieved moving forward. After all, it is the inclusive mindsets and increasing focus on grassroots-level research in this area that would determine if we are moving in the right direction in building an inclusive education system– a system that embraces the differences that each student brings and fosters positive growth right from the beginning.

Monika Bhalvani is the assistant manager of the Office of Learning Support at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).