Academic walkout raises questions about university thinktanks

Melbourne institute’s mission to heal relations with India clashes with academics’ desire to spotlight subcontinent abuses

April 26, 2022
Supporters wearing masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dance as they celebrate on the vote results day for India's general election to illustrate Academic walkout raises questions about university thinktanks
Source: Getty

An exodus of academics from a Melbourne institute has illustrated the difficulties universities face in hosting diplomatically oriented thinktanks in a conflicted world.

At least 13 affiliates have left the Australia India Institute (AII) after claiming that it was muzzling them at the behest of Indian diplomats. The institute has denied the claims and blamed the walkout partly on a poorly communicated “refresh” of its academic fellows.

The AII was established at the University of Melbourne in 2009, amid intense media coverage of violent attacks against Indian students in the city. The education minister at the time, Julia Gillard, committed more than A$8 million (£4.6 million) towards the institute ahead of a visit by an Indian minister “to hear first-hand” about the students’ troubles.

Melbourne, La Trobe University and UNSW Sydney helped bankroll the institute, which received further federal funding in 2014 and 2018. But in a 2020 letter to Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor Michael Wesley, 24 academic fellows urged the institute to assert its independence and “respect for scholarly dissent” in response to India’s deteriorating human rights environment.

The institute’s activities had “carried the flavour of propaganda, celebrating the current Indian government and its dominant culture”, the letter said, while institute plans had been modified following intervention by Indian diplomats, with a public lecture on Hindu nationalist violence downgraded to an invitation-only event.

These concerns escalated after Lisa Singh, Australia’s first female MP of South Asian heritage, became chief executive in late 2021. Ms Singh’s long-standing advocacy for a deeper Australia-India relationship earned her the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, the highest honour Delhi confers on overseas Indians.

Arguing that academic ties must be nurtured “by focusing on shared priorities”, she drew up a new strategic plan rallying the institute’s work around three “impact themes”: “bilateral economy”, “cultural diplomacy” and “security and geopolitics”.

Critics said this left little room for issues such as the “oppression and marginalisation” of minority groups. The 13 fellows resigned in another letter to Melbourne vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell, which was sent last month.

Ian Woolford, head of La Trobe’s Hindi language programme and one of the recent resignees, said the two letters had cited only the most easily documented cases of interference. While such incidents might appear minor in isolation – for example, the institute declining an article that was subsequently published elsewhere – collectively they amounted to “death by a thousand cuts”, he said.

“It’s very easy for someone to say: ‘That was just an editorial decision. That’s not what we’re focusing on right now.’ When you connect all these things together, you see how the mission of the institute is being deployed to sideline certain opinions.”

Dr Woolford said an improved bilateral relationship was a “laudable” aim, but it was “very difficult” for a university to host an institute that focused its research only on areas of mutual government priority.

“We’ve been raising concerns with the university for years. The rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in India has raised the stakes. A primary motivation for my resignation was a sense that the institute was pushing aside the work of scholars who are shining a light on this,” he said.

An AII spokeswoman said there had been no diplomatic interference in its activities. “We have hosted events tackling difficult topics and facilitated academics’ publications that contribute to the public debates on such issues,” she said.

While research was “core” to its work, the spokeswoman continued, the institute was “not a research institute or an academic organisation. We sit outside the faculty system and are not entitled to receive research grant funding. The external funding we seek from government and corporates enables us to undertake our work as a policy thinktank, and aligns with the approach of similar think tanks connected to universities.”

But former institute fellow Priya Chacko said the institute was “whitewashing” controversial issues. “Propaganda for the Indian government…has no place at a university institute, which should be upholding standards of intellectual honesty,” she said.

She said a focus on “shared priorities” had “no place at a university” if it entailed “research that only cheerleads for India, Australia and the relationship while spinning narratives about shared liberal democratic values”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles