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Stunting Intellectual Growth in Institutions of Higher Learning!

Dr. G. Ramachandram Dr. G. Ramachandram
05 Feb 2024

In recent times, academic freedom in universities across India has deteriorated. We read how the dissenting opinions were crushed in varsities - public universities such as the Central University, Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia, Jadavpur University, Visva Bharati, and private universities like Ashoka University and the Symbiosis International University, Pune, to name a few. These universities were in the news for stifling free academic discourse within their campuses.

However, what is still more disturbing is how free expression of academic views is suppressed by an elite institution of India - the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. The elite Institute, having invited a month ago Prof.Ganesh Devy, a recipient of the Padma Shri Award-has, at the last minute, cancelled his lecture on The Crisis Within: On Knowledge and Education in India, scheduled on 31 January, "due to unforeseen circumstances". They also recently cancelled a lecture on Palestine: The Historical Context by Prof. Achin Vanaik and a conference on Cultures of the Political Left in Modern India.

Per the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, 2023, IIT Bombay ranks 1st in India and 172 globally. The Institute has a score of 86.5 in employer reputation, 55.1 in citation per faculty, 53.3 in academic reputation, 76.7 in employment outcome, 25.8 in faculty-student ratio, 3.9 in international faculty, 58 in international research network and 1.6 in international students, all scores out of a maximum of 100 points. Among these nine parameters, Employer Reputation indicated the strongest one for IIT Bombay, with a global rank of 86.5.

There is a mismatch between the world rankings and academic autonomy and freedom of expression in the institutions ranked; the extent of academic intolerance is not reflected in the ratings. These ratings are calculated based on specific parameters, which are not rational and universally true and partial to the Western concept of higher education that primarily caters to the requirements of the corporate world. It is inexplicable why Indian universities are so crazy about chasing these ratings when the education ecosystem in India is vastly different.

The IIT Bombay, of late, has gained notoriety. It is the first Institute that recently segregated the students in the hostel mess based on their vegetarian and non-vegetarian food preferences. And now it has come out with a gag order curbing freedom of academic expression on campus.

A scheduled lecture on 'Israel-Palestine: The Historical Context' by a retired Delhi University Professor Achin Vanaik, organised by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), was cancelled at the behest of a protest by some right-wing students. Professor Sharmishtha Saha of the Department organised a documentary screening and guest lecture by theatre artist Sudhanva Deshpande. A PhD student, Omkar Superkar, recorded the guest lecture on the Palestinian situation on his mobile and posted it online. It led to a protest by an obscure right-wing outfit-Vivek Vichar Manch. Subsequently, a group of students from the Institute filed a complaint at the Powai Police Station, alleging that Deshpande praised Zakaria Zubeidi, associated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a coalition of Palestinian armed groups. Anonymous phone calls and posts on social media platforms called Professor Saha a traitor, and death threats were issued to her.

Subhasis Chaudhuri, the Institute's Director, instead of taking action against the student who recorded the lecture, despite objection and shared it with the outside extreme right-wing outfit and the other students for sullying the image of the institution, the Institute has now issued draconian guidelines for the faculty and the students. According to the guidelines, public events organised by faculty should be approved by the head of the academic unit; hereafter, authorities will clear invitations to external speakers and screening documentaries, even for academic purposes. Students cannot organise any event except through the bodies recognised by the Institute. Protest marches or gatherings on campus require prior permission from the Institute and police. Violation of these guidelines will invite disciplinary action.

What is happening to our vibrant academic culture in institutions of higher learning? What is the use of getting a high ranking when the institutions do not understand and acknowledge the importance of different points of view? What is the purpose of higher learning if the mind is controlled and not allowed to express freely? How can students grow intellectually if they cannot express a contrary view? What will the students do? "Bury their heads in the computers and never look up!"

Evidently, the national premier institute - IIT Bombay - prioritises political patronage over the pursuit of knowledge. What is its purpose if the humanities and social sciences department cannot invite guests who speak on burning national and international issues, irrespective of political connotations?

This conditioning of thought processes and intolerance of opinions contrary to that of the political establishment spells doom for our Higher Education. Irreparable damage is already done to HEIs, with persons owning allegiance to a particular political ideology appointed to run them. The academics and professional organisations are occupied with organising seminars and conferences to glorify the virtues of NEP, extending unquestioned support to its votaries - UGC and Education Ministry - and preferring to remain silent on the real issues afflicting higher education. The nation will pay a heavy price for this indulgence. Higher learning is reduced to a farcical exercise of an unimaginable magnitude.

The IIT Bombay has brought disrepute, a blot if considered a serious institution for exchanging ideas and intellectual discourse. Its authoritarian streak demonstrates poor academic and administrative leadership and a lack of vision. It is sidestepping the objective that "an institution of higher learning must be a safe place where students must not be intellectually mollycoddled or corralled. Different views can only widen their worldview and sharpen their cognitive process. Taking the easy way out - making political discussion verboten will hurt the Institution". The institution should remain the centre of authentic learning, where students can access different views, examine them and question all assumptions. After all, politics is part of any intellectual exchange.

Students in many US universities and elsewhere have protested against Israel's bombing and killing of civilians in Gaza. It is unthinkable that an elite Institution in India doesn't even allow a free discussion on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, uncharacteristic of an academic institution. This is McCarthyism-using McCarthyist tactics against Palestinian sympathisers.

And "when even elite institutions succumb to prohibitions so easily, it speaks very poorly for the prospects of free inquiry, that should, in fact, thrive in the scholarly ecosystem. Think about how unpopular the ideas of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin were in their own time. At a time when extreme polarisation is doing widespread harm to the social good, universities are uniquely placed to teach young citizens how to listen to discomfiting opinions instead of only occupying echo chambers". Our institutions of higher learning are stunting the intellectual growth of students in their attempt to be politically correct, doing a disservice to their profession.

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