India at a crossroads: Addressing an issue much larger than academic freedom or cultural nationalism

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Updated: Apr 02, 2021 12:18 PM

Broader empirical evidence suggests that democracy is more supportive of economic growth, though one hears arguments that authoritarianism pays off through economic growth

Arvind Subramanian Image ReutersFormer CEA Arvind Subramanian resigned from his position at Ashoka University in protest of the University bowing to political pressure over Pratap Bhanu Mehta's writings. (File image: Reuters)

The resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University, apparently due to political pressure, has made international headlines because of his high profile, and the supposed values of his employer, which seem to have been violated. The immediate resignation in sympathy of Arvind Subramanian, who has been known for his economic expertise and not for any criticism of government policies in the political arena, magnified the impact. Faculty and students of the university were quick to react against the violation, and the university’s founders have been in damage control mode, with the two ex-professors also seeking to help them reaffirm an institutional commitment to academic freedom.

Is academic freedom just an elite issue? Should the average Indian care? Answering these questions seems to be important. First, to unpack what is happening in India, there are two different forces at work. One is a strong and somewhat narrow version of cultural nationalism, which seeks to homogenise the country in an unprecedented manner. The other is an authoritarian approach to governance, which seeks to centralise control, whether with respect to the states of India, or with respect to decision-making within the national government itself. Of course, the second impulse directly supports the first, even if they are conceptually distinct.

Authoritarianism can be a means to multiple ends, and the Centre seems to view it as supportive of its economic development objectives, as well as its non-economic ones. But this impulse also has a life of its own, since it can lead to a conviction that there is no alternative, that dissent and diversity of views will damage everyone. A few decades ago, it led to a prominent politician stating “India is Indira. Indira is India.” The recent attack on the US Capitol building was an outcome of the same phenomenon. When the leader or enough of their followers confuse the rulers’ welfare with that of the nation, to the point even of ignoring facts, the outcome can never be good.

Sometimes, one hears arguments that authoritarianism, even if it costs citizens something in terms of certain freedoms, pays off through economic growth. Many of the East Asian success stories had little or no democracy when their growth took off. And China seems to be doing fine, even as it expands the scope of its centralised, authoritarian approach: Witness events in Hong Kong, along with Xinjiang and Tibet. But the broader empirical evidence suggests that democracy is more supportive of economic growth than its absence.

In assessing the current situation, it is also good to keep in mind that academic freedom has not been a robust phenomenon in India. Even in the West, it has evolved and strengthened slowly, especially in the decades after World War II. Money, power and social connections always matter, even in academia, and they can shape the intellectual life of universities. Scientists and engineers, in particular, depend on government and corporate funding, which can influence what kinds of research questions are asked and answered. In India, government funding and control of universities has always had an impact. Even starving everyone of resources represents an effect on academic freedom. Private universities funded by wealthy individuals started to provide an alternative, but they tended to be driven by the economics of demand, focusing on job-relevant skills.

In this sense, Ashoka University is different: An attempt to create a world-class university that would provide a cutting-edge educational experience, in the broadest sense of that concept, and funded by a large enough group so that no individual could shape its mission and how that mission was conducted. This is supposed to be a model for the future of higher education in India. The apparent breakdown of that ideal is what is concerning. And lest one think that what philosophers, or even academic economists, do and say is unimportant, it is not unimaginable that political pressure can corrupt the conduct of scientific inquiry—one only has to think of the case of Trofim Lysenko under Stalin. There are shades of this tendency in India, and it would be too easy to destroy confidence in all aspects of India’s academia, including science and technology.

It is also useful to reflect on the timing of what has happened. An unconfirmed report suggested that the university faced obstacles to a planned expansion, unless its vocal professor was pushed out. So perhaps it was the case that an opportunity to use leverage arose. But one can also conjecture that the recurring protests in the streets and on the highways, especially the ongoing farmers’ protests, have revealed a unity between the writings of a political philosopher and the songs and poems of the protest. One of these, in translation, asks, “Why so much terror of us, That you don’t even want to hear our voices? When we are speaking of rights, Then you wish to silence us. Now this is our free country…” Certain videos have been banned, journalists and activists arrested—pushing out a prominent professor from his job may not silence him, but it reinforces a message that a diversity of opinions is undesirable, and will have consequences. This is a much larger issue than academic freedom or cultural nationalism. It often stays submerged in India, but is now in the open, for many reasons.

The author is Professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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