Academic freedom in our society today is confined to or delimited by pressures of two kinds. The first is that academics themselves do not exercise the freedom which can be legitimately claimed by them: to this extent we academics tend to subordinate ourselves even where this is not necessary. The second pressure is that of political or governmental interference which seems to be on the increase judging by the large number of occasions when such interference is apparent.
In a sense neither of these pressures has been absent in the Indian academic and university system and would seem to be endemic to the system since its very inception. Indian universities were not established as they often were in Europe either as supports to theological seminaries or later as centres of dissident opinion. Indian universities when they were started in the nineteenth century functioned as schools for producing professional groups to service British institutes in India. They also incidentally became a channel for access to middle class status. Basically they still perform the same function and contrary or dissident opinion is not encouraged as part of the system.
The one exception so far has been the voicing of nationalist sentiment in the 1920's and 1930's particularly in the humanities. But after this phase there has been little nurturing of dissident or unorthodox views except of a sporadic kind. Today even nationalist inspired views have become part of the orthodoxy. The ideological and foundational infrastructure of the university system in India has not therefore been one which has laid much emphasis on academic freedom.
Added to this were the post-independence problems. The expansion of university education became part of the process of economic development and the consequent spread of education. But this expansion was not centrally geared to the function and role of higher education since universities were often established from other considerations in which political factors were prominent. Where local political factors played a major role in the establishing of a university, the question of academic freedom was a marginal consideration and such universities, overwhelming the majority, came to be manipulation is also sought in the argument that the State, whether in the form of the Central or the state government, finances the university and therefore academics are quasi government servants.
That universities are State financed has also sought to be used as an argument in support of government interference. The most recent example of this has been the intervention by the Government of West Bengal in changing the composition of the governing bodies of colleges with persons supporting the Government. Even where such direct intervention is absent, there are other channels through which the State exercises pressures. The University Grants Commission rarely asserts its right to refuse financial support to sub-standard institutions and frequently, instead of acting as an arbiter of quality, it falls into line with the wishes of the Government. Major budgetary cuts from the UGC fall most often upon library grants, the single most significant sector of a university. It is rarely understood (or else deliberately so arranged) by those who handle the administration of universities that it is better to do away with the post of a Vice-Chancellor if need be and run a university courts are often mouth-pieces of government. Even key posts in research foundations in this country change with a change of government!
State interference is not always identical with political interference which comes from various political parties and groups who use the university as a means of demonstrating their patronage and power or as a threat to certain actions. Such interference can be at a subtle level such as in making appointments. At its grossest level it can also be seen in attempts by political parties to control the students' unions and the karamcharis' unions. Both these types of unions have created major changes in the functioning of universities in India in the last decade. Student's unions are not trade unions but are treated as such.
They are frequently controlled by national or regional political parties and even the more radical students' unions are not independent and are often student wings of political parties. It would be worth investigating the experience of students' unions in the functioning of universities in India in the last decade. Students' unions are not trade unions but are treated as such. They are frequently controlled by national or regional political parties and even the more radical students' unions are not independent and are often student wings of political parties. If would be worth investigating the experience e of students' unions in the functioning of our universities, as the general impression one has is that, with few exceptions, far from inculcating changes of an innovative kind in courses, curricula and the serious content of university life, they have more often been agencies for the continuation of conservative opinion, if not obstacles to any radical change.
Student and karmachari unions have made their presence felt more evidently than have teachers' associations. There is generally a tendency on the part of university authorities, towards a greater appeasement of the former two bodies since they can indulge in strikes, loci-outs and gheraos which are described as expressions of 'immaturity' and tolerated but which forms of expression would never be permitted to teachers. The student and karamchari unions can also be used more easily as avenues of corruption and sources of indiscipline because of their being able to hold the university to ransom. The crisis points are generally at the time of admissions and of examination; in the one case relating to the forcible admission of non-qualified students and in the other seeking for means to postpone examinations; or to condone those caught cheating. The crises coming at the initial and terminal points of the university process is not altogether unrelated to the broader question of the value of university degrees, both academically as well as in the form of instruments towards employment.
I have raised these points as a premble to what I have to say about the crisis at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) because they have a bearing on the situation. The crisis was not merely over a newspaper interview given by one of the faculty members, Professor Irfan Habib, but has deeper roots in the conditions at the AMU in terms of its relation with local political parties and the government. It is also a clear example of the political parties using the Students' Union and pressurising the Vice-Chancellor in a show of strength. The events which led up to the crisis involved trouble over admissions pertaining to students who did not qualify or those involved in criminal activities as well as trouble over students caught cheating in university examinations.
Professor Habib who took an active part in exposing these maters was first sought to be silenced by an attempt at using physical violence against him which failed. Professor Habib discussed these problems in an interview which he gave to the Indian Express. This was regarded as an act of misconduct and an attempt to malign the AMU and he was issued with a charge sheet by the Vice-Chancellor. This was an absolute travesty of the very principles on which a university functions and a gross attack on the right of an academic to comment in public on the functioning of his institution. What was even more reprehensible was that the AMU seemed to have totally lost any sense of propriety in issuing a charge-sheet to one of the most distinguished historians and intellectuals of this country. The treatment of an intellectual of his calibre in this fashion was inexcusable.
In his interview Professor Habib stated that the AMU had suffered a decline in administration in the last decade and that there were goonda elements among its students. This is a comment which many academics have made in private and public about virtually every university in this country. In this case even the district administration had admitted that some AMU students were involved in criminal activities. Curiously, two weeks prior to the issuing of the charge-sheet the same Vice-Chancellor had said that there was no prima facie case against Professor Habib. Obviously the charge-sheet resulted form the pressure from local Muslim political groups whose real grouse against Professor Habib was that he was a man of liberal views, opposed to communalism in any form and was respected by those who had a secular and rational view of India's history and society. Perhaps the Vice-Chancellor was also unaware that according to the AMU Teachers' Code drawn up in 1976, every faculty member has the right to express himself in the Press on the functioning of the University. That the pressures were those of Muslim communalism was clear from the letter written to the Vice-Chancellor by the President of the Students' Islamic Movement of India, in which he wrote:
" . At the time of Independence minorities in India were given the right to establish institutions of their choice and to run them according to their own wishes so as to enable them to preserve their identity. But in practice the Government tended to nullify these rights given to minorities
" It has often happened that for ensuring these things (distinguishing Muslim institutions) we have not only used the legal provisions but have done so by making use of loopholes of the law. The Government has also chosen to ignore these violations of law by us. If instead of doing this, we had talked about legality or illegality, or had referred these issues to commissions of enquiry for decision within a legal frame-work, we could not have succeeded in preserving any of the above features of the University. On the contrary we would have been obliged to erect temples alongside mosques; and we would have had to start our meeting with chants from the Ramayan along with recitations from the Holy Quran. Such a state of affairs would have been intolerable for us
" We want that every teacher of the University should be loyal to the Islamic faith and community. He must not do anything that should be detrimental to the interests of Islamic culture, Community and this University. Not only the present statement of Irfan Habib, but this attitude in the past as well, was always enemical (sic) to Islam and the Community
" Therefore, in this case, taking advantage of loopholes in the law we have to throw him out of the University. This question cannot be decided conclusively on the basis of apparent legal principles. This action is a necessity for which we will have to find ways of circumventing the law
" .You should also keep in mind the danger that if you falter in taking action on this occasion, then all those who are always determined to harm the Faith and Community would come into the open. If you fail now, there would arise not one but hundreds of Irfan Habits from amongst our staff who, for currying favour with the government would start giving anti Islamic statements, and you would be rendered helpless; and those people would openly turn against this University and the Community".
If the crisis at AMU is rooted in the more wide ranging problems of that university it is also not unique to AMU. It is part of a more widespread phenomenon which has been on the increase since the 1970's. It is seen in efforts by local political groups, regional parties and even central political parties to prevent academics from maintaining views of an independent kind with regard to the study of Indian society and culture. This has been especially noticeable in the discipline of history and not surprisingly since history plays a major role in the creating of new social identities and in the self-perceptions of cultures and groups aspiring to power.
Thus we have had the suspension of a historian at Marathawada University at Aurangabad for writing a critical piece on Shivaji; the suspension of two historians at Dibrugarh for quoting in a researched article the views of nineteenth which were unappreciative of the society; a historian at Punjabi University, Patiala who drew the anger of orthodox Sikhs for his innocuous views on one of the gurus; and the national debate on school textbooks published by NCERT which were attacked for being anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim, pro-Marxist and what have you by RSS, the Arya-Samaj and various Hindu communal organisations. All these are attempts to throttle dissident views and those which do not conform to what is now regarded as the received version of Indian history and definition of Indian culture.
This danger becomes even greater when universities themselves are converted into factories for upholding particular views. An example of such a change relates once again to the AMU in the AMU Act of 1981 to ensure its minority character. What was originally meant to be just a change in nomenclature has now taken on the dimensions of a major change in the very essentials of the University. All power will vest with the Vice-Chancellor and the University Court which by its composition according to Muslim institutions will represent conservative Muslim opinion. One wonders where liberal Muslim faculty members will go once this change come in. The even more heinous aspect of the Act is that by converting the AMU into a minority character institution it implies giving full rights to the University to dismiss any faculty member it wishes to and the person dismissed cannot file a writ in a court of law against the dismissal. It thus converts a state university into virtually a private institution and yet even after such drastic changes in its statutes the AMU will still be called a central university - a neat way of ridiculing the concept of a central university. It is also a moot point how any government or political party which upholds secularism can support such a change and yet most of the political parties in this country seem anxious of support it.
Doubtless after the AMU Act, there will be a spurt of demands for minority character universities from the Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes, not to mention majority character universities wishing to exclude students from minority groups who will then have their own universities. Such a situation will contradict the universal character which has always been help up as the chief quality of a university.
These issues are pertinent at this point because of communal, chauvinist and obscurantist tendencies becoming the perceived a venues of self-identity and the exploitation of these tendencies by those either in power or aspiring to power. The question of academic freedom cannot be circumscribed by the need of a particular group within a particular community. The right of individuals to hold and express diverse views on any aspect of life cannot be denied, especially in an academic institution. The attacks on individuals in universities should not be treated as isolated instances affecting the particular university but as trends which may further damage a deteriorating situation.