Will the ideals that NEP 2020 talks about regarding academic autonomy in the research apply in practice? wonders Sadat Hussain

Sharda University as part of their curricula for BA Political Science (First Semester) teaches a course titled ‘Political Ideologies’.  As part of the Programme outcome in the course ‘Political Ideologies’ the university (as mentioned in their official website) wants the students to explore “theoretical differences among the various authors discussed and considerable attention is devoted to the practical implications of their competing arguments.”

In the midterm examination of a course titled “Political Ideology” of BA Political Science (Hons), a question was asked which led to a ‘controversy’. The question was: “Do you find any similarity between Fascism/Nazism and Hindu Right Wing (Hindutva)? Elaborate with arguments.” The teacher is suspended and the university constituted a 3-member committee to probe the matter. The registrar of the university said they are looking into the possibility of bias in the question asked. As reported by the Registrar, the committee issued a detailed show-cause notice to Mr. Waqas Farooq Kuttay, Assistant Professor (Ad-hoc). The committee recommended that the specific question was found prima facie objectionable and advised the evaluators to ignore the question and award full marks to the students. UGC also found it ‘objectionable’ and wrote that such a question is against the spirit and ethos of the country.

This was not the first case in the Indian academia. In 2021, Gilbert Sebastian, Assistant professor at the Department of International Relations and Politics, Central University of Kerala, was also subjected to target for calling Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) “proto-fascist” in an online class on “Fascism and Nazism.” The University administration had later sent a warning letter to faculties of the university to refrain from making ‘anti-national’ remarks in t classrooms.  They can be read in the three dimensions and can be more:

  1. Fact Check: How far is Nazism/Fascism connected to Hindutva?
  2. Underlying challenge in teaching social sciences in the context of NEP 2020 and the current ruling dispensation.
  3. Academic freedom and the idea of University.

Fact Check: How far is Nazism/Fascism connected to Hindutva?

Many political scientists and theorists have written about the Nazism/Fascism and the Hindutva ideology. Endless papers and studies have been published on this subject, in which the ideologies like Nazism/Fascism and Hindutva have been compared and contrasted. The similarities and differences between these ideologies have been part of political science subjects in this country. Some of the arguments presented by the political scientists on this topic are: due to the paramilitary nature of RSS and the aspiration of RSS to establish Akhand Bharat (Greater India), Hindutva groups (Sangh Parivar) make strong resemblance to Fascism. One more argument is about the relationship between RSS ideologue and Mussolini and other fascists of Italy in the past and these sets of political scientists call the ideology of RSS an Indian variant of Fascism for having Sanskrit characters and their relationship with the Italian fascists in the past.

Chepal Sherpa, who teaches political science at the University level, says, “The university should first explain and prove historically with facts how there are no similarities between Nazism and Hindutva ideology because the ideologues of Sangh and Hindutva themselves have openly stated their admiration for National Socialism in Germany during 1930-40s. B.S. Moonje who was a member of Hindu Mahasabha visited and met Mussolini.”

But there are popular political scientists and historians like Christopher Jaffrelot, Paul Brass, and Chetan Bhatt who have disagreed with calling RSS a fascist organization and denied the theory of interlinkage between Fascism and RSS. Dawa Sherpa, a Research Fellow from JNU and having experience in teaching critical topics of social science, says, “People may have different opinions on the two right-wing phenomena of two different societies and different timelines but the question is still valid within the larger study of political ideology.” He adds, “To say that you should not ask this question or to prevent this question itself and thought policing within the University space is undesirable.”

Scholars and academicians have been publishing papers on this subject in indexed journals on the national and international levels. Ironically, many indexed journals which are on the UGC care list have published papers on this subject. Will UGC remove all those journals which have published papers on the subject mentioned above? So, the subject of Hindutva and ideology has been studied in political science and it is important to teach the subject in courses like “political ideologies.” In the context of the above question, there can be responses in the form of assertion or negation. The objective study of burning social science topics is important for the process of teaching and learning.

Underlying challenges in teaching social sciences in the context of NEP 2020 and the current ruling dispensation:

Teaching social sciences to students from diverse socio-political groups must be challenging for the teachers in a diverse country. In this case also, as news reports suggest, before the administration students objected to the question and complained against it. Though NEP talk about the autonomy of administration and academics, in practice, the system of higher education follows financial autonomy, not academic autonomy. One can find the lack of autonomy in teaching, learning and research of social sciences. The process of availing of ICSSR fellowship can be one example where the selection process depends upon the topic of the research and researcher has to justify how his/her research will contribute to the national development and national integration. In the absence of scientific temper among the student community and lack of objectivity to teach and learn the modern social science, some topics like political ideologies, caste, region, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation and many more such topics become sensitive. In this regard students beating up students and students calling some syllabus objectionable become frequent.

Academic freedom and the idea of University:

One of the many ideas of the University system was to critically engage with the current ideas of research and knowledge and keep expanding the boundaries of research and knowledge. Dawa Sherpa perceives University as a place where students and teachers can discuss every topic under the sun. He says, “University should be a space where students and teachers teach and learn every topic and subject under the sun and there should not be any restriction to doing so.” Increasing censoring by the state and non-state actors in academia is a worrisome development. In his understanding, the university is not immune to what is going on outside the society. The very concept of the university is a kind of insular and sacred isolated institution where one can have those kinds of debates which you can’t do in a larger society.

Many education commissions have talked about academic freedom and the generation of vibrant knowledge. However, these recurring incidents in academia raise the question of Academic freedom in the University space or institute of higher learning. Lately, many academicians and scholars have pointed out lack of academic freedom in the sphere of University education. The attack on the academic community for imparting certain topics of social sciences shows a lack of objectivity and openness to discuss, learn and teach critical academic topics. The absence of such character among any of the stakeholders of the University system may hurt the expected spirit of critically engaging various strands of knowledge.

On one side the higher education system in India is being upgraded technologically (the emergence of the concept of Metavarsity is one such example where online education will be taken to another level) and on the other hand, when it comes to the basic ethos and spirit of teaching and learning critical knowledge has become endangered by endangering the academic freedom. The attack on the culture of pedagogy of critical knowledge happens in the name of internal security, national unity, national spirit, etc.

As documented by the organisation Scholars at Risk which was quoted by Professor Nandini Sundar in her paper on Academic Freedom and Indian University (EPW), between 2011 and 2015 333 students and faculty of higher educational institutions were attacked and only in 2016-17 257 attacks happened in 35 countries.

It is interesting to note that, National Education Policy 2020 in July has talked about academic autonomy and in November 2020 India could manage to score only 0.352 Academic Freedom Index (AFI). India was closely followed by Saudi Arabia (0.278) and Libya (0.238). India lagged behind countries like Malaysia (0.582), Pakistan (0.554), Brazil (0.466), Somalia (0.436) and Ukraine (0.422). The reason for low performance is because of India’s performance in institutional autonomy, campus integrity, freedom of academic and cultural expression and constitutional protection of academic freedom. Attack on the top-ranked universities in the last eight years can be the reasons for it.

AFI is a mechanism to quantify the autonomy and freedom of scholars to discuss politically and culturally controversial topics, without fearing for their life, studies or profession. It should be a matter of concern for the academic community and the country because the recent incident of academic policing may affect the AFI of India in the future. Will the ideals that NEP 2020 talks about regarding academic autonomy in the research apply in practice?

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