What South Asian University’s undertaking for students say about the pitiful state of academic freedom in India

Written by Firasha Shaikh

On July 28, as reported in The Indian Express, an undertaking form issued by South Asian University to its students attracted criticism. The words of the undertaking are quite telling. Among the list of provisions, the form requires students to promise that they will not join any protest, agitation, or strike “for the purpose of forcing the authorities of the University to solve any problem”.

The administration is trying to effectively nip in the bud avenues for accountability by preemptively banning protests. This is the antithesis of the idea of academic freedom. This measure is especially concerning since students protested with a demand to increase the stipend amount for masters’ and PhD programmes among other things. Reportedly, the amount was decreased, given the financial troubles the administration was facing. Students should not have to pay the price for mismanagement on the part of authorities.

The other provision in the undertaking that drew flak was one requiring students to declare that they “are not suffering from any serious/ contagious ailment and/or any psychiatric/psychological disorder”.

This is an especially strange requirement. As if those who have disabilities, are differently-abled, neurodivergent, or struggling with chronic physical and mental health issues, do not deserve to pursue their academic dreams. It reeks of ableism and echoes the exclusionary impulses of the broader society that views people with disabilities or chronic illnesses as “burdens”.

The case of SAU is a microcosm of some of the larger issues plaguing India’s higher education sector. Since the 2016 #OccupyUGC movement, students have been protesting against high cutoffs, increased fees, reduction of seats, fellowship cuts, etc. SAU’s case is yet another example of how higher education is not a priority for the government anymore.

It may be argued that requiring students to give an undertaking is standard procedure — part of ensuring discipline and a safe environment in the institution. But what does this “discipline” achieve? And whom is that safe environment benefitting? Asking a struggling student to make do with a meagre amount in stipends while dealing with academic responsibilities seems hardly conducive to a “safe” environment.

This urge to preemptively prevent any political activities on campus is in line with the Foucauldian nature of India’s education system. “Discipline” is often just a codeword for a stifling system of unreasonable rules and regulations meant to make students conform and kill critical thought, fostering an environment where there is little room for accountability.

The chilling effects of penalising any attempt to raise grievances or hold authority accountable have implications that extend beyond just the university.

Throughout our lives we’ve been taught to never question authority and were penalised whenever we did. Is it any wonder then, that in our democracy the lack of accountability and transparency from political authorities remains a constant theme?

India is among the countries with the lowest academic freedom in the world according to the Academic Freedom Index. It is not just students’ futures that are the casualties here but culture and politics itself. A nation of complacent and disillusioned people will only go on to choose leaders who enforce the same norms.

How can empowered, confident and enlightened individuals who engage in critical thought ever hope to emerge from conditions such as these?

It is quite ironic that universities once flourished in the ancient world and were considered among a civilisation’s greatest achievements. In today’s capitalist world, with its claims to “democratise” and “revolutionise” education, the university has become an extension of the Gramscian manufacture of consent — a graveyard of aspirations left unfulfilled and squandered potential.

If education is indeed to be the practice of freedom (Paulo Freire), if the classroom is to be the most radical space of possibility (bell hooks), then the concerns raised by students and educationists need to be taken seriously by government authorities.

If we are ever to escape this life of contradictions (B R Ambedkar), addressing the pitiful state of academic freedom has to become a priority. Civil society must make the revamping of higher education an electoral issue, especially in the run-up to the general elections next year. Elected representatives should be compelled to prioritise the concerns of students, especially ones raised by those from marginalised backgrounds.

The writer is Research Associate, Centre for Study and Research (CSR), New Delhi, and holds a postgraduate degree in Political Science

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