Academic freedom under pressure as India tackles Gaza debate

Criticism of lecture shows close link between government foreign policy and attacks on freedom of expression, according to scholars

December 1, 2023
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Scholars are facing new restrictions on their academic freedom in India, researchers say, as concern over the war in Gaza collides with domestic politics.

Achin Vanaik, a fellow with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, faced criticism online after delivering a lecture at O.P. Jindal Global University titled “The History and Politics of the Palestinian Present”. Clips of the talk shared on social media suggested that Professor Vanaik, formerly professor of international relations at the University of Delhi, drew parallels between Zionism and the Hindutva ideology associated with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the creation of Jewish and Hindu states.

This prompted Naor Gilon, Israel’s ambassador to India, to write to O.P. Jindal vice-chancellor C.J. Raj Kumar, asking him why an event “delegitimising the state of Israel” was held at the private university, which is home to India’s only centre for Israel studies.

In response, university registrar Dabiru Sridhar Patnaik wrote to Professor Vanaik, asking him to “express regret” for his remarks.

Professor Vanaik subsequently clarified that his words had been “taken out of context”. He said that, while he stood by his lecture, he regretted the misinterpretation of it.

He told Times Higher Education that public discourse in India was being “directed and shaped primarily by the forces of Hindutva, in and out of government, through threats of possible legal reprisals against public and private universities”.

The circulation of clips of the lecture online had led to Professor Vanaik being branded “anti-Hindu” and “anti-India”.

The risks posed by social media posts of the “deliberate distorting type” were “getting worse”, according to Professor Vanaik, who had a subsequent lecture at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay cancelled. Two days before this, the institution also called off the screening of a 2004 documentary about a theatre for children in Palestine.

“To strive for a more democratic and humane India, and for greater academic freedoms, means we have to keep carrying on in the struggle to promote truth and decency,” Professor Vanaik resolved.

Unlike in the US or the UK, recent attacks on academic freedom in India relating to the Gaza conflict were not driven by concerns about antisemitism, Islamophobia or security, said Nitasha Kaul, professor of politics, international relations and critical interdisciplinary studies at the University of Westminster.

Instead, it was “due to administrations not wanting to go against the...right-wing government’s very clear pro-Israel position, nor wanting to invite the wrath of Hindu right-wing activists”.

India’s foreign policy shifted to being pro-Israel under the rule of its current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who took office in 2014. Historical governments had abstained from support on the grounds that it might have been “hypocritical” to support the partition of Palestine considering the reluctant partition of India under the British, said Navras Aafreedi, a professor of history teaching Jewish studies at Presidency University, Kolkata.

The historian added that India had a minuscule population of Jewish people – roughly 5,000 – which meant that much academic understanding was based on secondary sources.

Similarly, with no “conspicuous” Palestinian population either, Professor Kaul said that there was a polarised understanding of Israel-Palestine issues between a right-wing government and the left-leaning academia the country retained.

“There are few or no platforms that can permit sharing of competing ideas without name-calling and the call for recognition of all suffering,” Professor Kaul said.


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Reader's comments (1)

Censorship is always wrong including interference by a foreign embassy. However academics have a responsibility to be correct on facts. This was not the case as there has been denial by a few people as to whether the Hamas attacks actually took place.