India, Free Speech and Academic Freedom

One of the most disheartening events of this past summer on the Academe blog was the rise of invective in the comments that started with our posting of a guest commentary by a group of scholars with particular connections to–or interests in–India. The vituperation exhibited astonished me, and it came in the dozens and then hundreds (to date, there are over 450 comments on that first post, the majority of them angry). I wrote about this in a posting a week or so after the first–and found myself embroiled in a debate that I knew next to nothing about. An article for the UK publication The Register on the controversy included this: “Academeblog executive editor Aaron Barlow has also weighed in, saying he’s a bit worried by comments calling for things like ‘violent brutal purging’” of those behind the first post.”

Writing for the New Delhi publication Outlook, University of Pennsylvania professor Suvir Kaul, one of the signatories to the original post, wrote that “The level of invective has been so worrisome that Aaron Barlow, the Executive Editor of The Academe Blog, where our letter was published, felt the need to write a special commentary saying that he had never before seen such name-calling and even threatening responses to any published article.”

By trying to live up to the principles of academic freedom, at least in relation to this blog, I had, instead, found myself in the middle of a controversy that, as far as I could tell, had more to do with religious fundamentalism than with the privacy concerns at the heart of that first post.  Kaul provided detail to the picture I was now seeing, teaching me a little about this unfamiliar debate:

In this paranoid vision, anyone who writes critically about Modi attacks Hinduism and by extension, a Hindu India. A Hindu India that ought to be closed to people like us, they say, for we are saboteurs waging “war on India’s development.” So writes a well-known Hindutva-vadi commentator, who also sees us as anti-democratic because we dare question an elected Prime Minister (as if such questioning is not a fundamental right, indeed obligation, of democratic citizenship). Not surprisingly, his comments are a prelude to a more sinister threat: “it is always worth remembering the names of all those who are ready to subvert India.”

This last is the most common theme of the comments following that first post, expressed most kindly as, “This is a great service you have done listing all haters names in one place. Now we know whose opinions do not count, whom we don’t have to care about and also avoid the supporting universities and/or the departments.”  The  comments contain much more hate than the post, but it is the signatories who are called “haters.” The threat to them, in this particular comment, is tame compared with many.

I am reminded of all this by an op-ed in The New York Times today by the writer Sonia Faleiro, “India’s Attack on Free Speech.” The article orients me even more to the debate in India (which is as violent as the comments had made me suppose). It ends:

The attacks in India should not be seen as a problem limited to secular writers or liberal thinkers. They should be recognized as an attack on the heart of what constitutes a democracy — and that concerns everyone who values the idea of India as it was conceived and as it is beloved, rather than an India imagined through the eyes of religious zealots. Indians must protest these attacks and demand accountability from people in power. We must call for all voices to be protected, before we lose our own.

That’s not only true of India–which brings me back to the concerns represented by academic freedom: We in the United States already face an emasculated reality of academic freedom. It applies only to tenured faculty and their numbers continue to dwindle. A concept once at the heart of academic endeavor and the institutions that support it is now being pushed aside by a corporate vision that sees faculty as nothing more than assembly-line workers, infinitely replaceable and of limited value.

We also have our own threats from religious fundamentalists who, if they recognize academic freedom at all, only see it as operating within the constraints of their religious vision. The movement Faleiro warns of in India is not far different from its cousin in the U.S. The attacks she writes on may be more blatant and severe in India, but they certainly can happen here, too.

In general, we Americans tend to see academic freedom as unique to our own culture, though recognizing its German and more broadly European roots. We take pride in it, flattering ourselves that even the idea of it somehow makes us better than academics in other nations. But academic freedom needs to be seen as a universal. Even domestically, we need to stop seeing it as a right of the privileged few but as a major component of the success of our universities–and that it is necessary for universities everywhere. Like freedom of speech, it is a necessary element of democracy, though it may not be as broad (academic freedom is not needed by those who are not academics).

That threats to academic freedom and freedom of speech are coming home to us from other cultures–as the comments on our posts here attest–and should make us even more concerned about its future here. Our response, though, should not be to concentrate on home, or even to concern ourselves first with the threats to the academic freedom of we few, we tenured few. We need to be looking outward, to developing ways of extending academic freedom to adjuncts and other contingent academic hires here–and to the faculties in other lands, many of whom face the same problems we do–only amplified a hundredfold.

They are our colleagues and allies. I am a bit ashamed of how little I still know of what is going on in India in particular (but elsewhere, as well), for my focus on academic freedom has been almost exclusively American. It is time for that to change–for all of us connected to colleges and universities in the United States, for ourselves and for the future of our profession.

8 thoughts on “India, Free Speech and Academic Freedom

  1. “In this paranoid vision, anyone who writes critically about Modi attacks Hinduism and by extension, a Hindu India.”

    It is the kind if things said that are of concern. There is the same problem with some of the attacks on Netanyahu and Israel. People saying these things feel anything should go when they are mad about something or are sure wrongs are being done.

  2. “I am a bit ashamed of how little I still know of what is going on in India”

    The reason for this is probably our parochial news media.

    Beyond academic freedom, there are major problems with U.S. freedom of speech. At the political conventions, protesters more often then not are arrested– the 2000 convention was especially heinous. Beyond the arrests there is a U.S. news blackout about the repression. The most obnoxious innovation in all of this has been the so-called “free speech” zones. These are large caged areas where demonstrators can have their protest.

    • — At the political conventions, protesters more often then not are arrested

      Of course they are arrested. Political conventions are invitation only events and protestors weren’t invited. You aren’t entitled to just show up and express an opinion at the national convention. The place where you are entitled to just show up and express an opinion is at the precinct level. If the people protesting want their opinions represented at the national convention they need to be elected by the people of their as a state representatives to the convention. You aren’t entitled to hold office, including convention rep, just because you have an opinion.

      That has nothing to do with free speech. Free speech in this is the right to run at the precinct level on whatever platform you choose and for the media to cover you however they choose without governmental interference.


      Edward since you are big into anti colonialism I am however going to use this to comment on Salaita. The accusation against Modi was that as governor he was condoning the violence not that he was directly involved. The claim (probably true) is that he encouraged the police and government officials publicly to hand over lists of Muslim-owned properties to the rioters. Those lists were used by the rioters to destroy only the “right” property and of course when the Muslim owners resisted they were often raped or killed. What Modi is accused of, is precisely the same kind of incitement against Jews that Salaita has made his career on. It is precisely the kind of incitement you were defending. Now obviously while Salaita is a successful political activist Modi is orders of magnitude more successful. Salaita doesn’t have one child burned alive he can take credit for yet, while Modi has dozens.

      But what you are defending Salaita for, is precisely the same act that the original academics were arguing should keep Modi out of the country. The accusations that Modi denies are the same acts that Salaita brags about. The only difference between the two is the number of their followers at the time. But I’m sure when Modi was Salaita’s age he had less followers than the did in 2002.

      I get that you approve of inciting anti-Jewish violence on American campuses and likely disapprove of inciting anti-Muslim violence in India but this thread makes clear what the Board of Trusties was worried about and how hypocritical it is to argue that Modi shouldn’t be allowed in the country while arguing that Salaita should be rewarded with lifetime employment.

      • Protesters are entitled to show up in public spaces outside a political convention, and that’s the right that was violated. As for comparing Salaita to Modi, the notion that Salaita is guilty of incitement is completely ludicrous. You’re arguing that Modi, as a public official, worked to hand over lists to rioters for ethnically targeted vandalism and murder. And you’re saying that’s the equivalent of some guy in the US tweeting that he wishes settlers on the West Bank would disappear. To call that “precisely the same kind of incitement” is just insane.

  3. @John

    — You’re arguing that Modi, as a public official, worked to hand over lists to rioters for ethnically targeted vandalism and murder.

    No I’m not. I’m saying Modi is accused of being approving when the officials below him were handing over said lists. This is really key. No one has every accused Modi of handing a list to anyone. No one has ever accused Modi of directly doing any violence. All he did was express a political opinions laying the groundwork for the violence and when the violence broke out spoke approvingly of it. Which sent a clear message to the police to cooperate and focus the activities of the rioters. According to you all advocating for “people to disappear” is no big deal, harmless.

    No one was ever accused Modi of directly handing over lists of people to be subjected to vandalism and murder, he just was an enthusiastic spokesperson for vandalism and murder (essentially ethnic cleansing) before it occurred and when it was going on. Similarly Salaita is a well known enthusiastic spokesperson for and advocate for vandalism and murder on a scale well beyond what happened Gujarat. The total number of victims in Gujarat: murder, rape, kidnappings, non fatal weapons attacks are in the low thousands. The total number ethnically cleansed in Gujarat was 150k. Salaita wants at least 200x that many murder victims and about 50x that many ethnic cleansing victims. The victims in Gujarat had somewhere to flee to, they weren’t driven into a desert or ocean to die. Salaita’s victims if he is successful in his political program will not have the same geography as those of Gujarat. And of course Salaita has always spoke approving of anti-Jewish violence.

    Clearly Modi was more effectual as Governor of Gujarat in achieving his aims that Salaita has been. I said as much above. But when Modi was Salaita age he was just a minor state assemblymen arguing for Hindu nationalism, his ethnic rhetoric had killed 0 people by that point. It takes time to achieve what Salaita aims for.

    As an aside Modi since then btw hasn’t been using much ethnic violence at all against India’s Muslims at best you can say he imposed mild sanctions. Nothing comparable to the full economic collapse and total loss of self determination that Salaita’s advocates for Jews.

  4. It is hard to get accurate information about what happens in the United States. It is much harder with the media in India. It sounds like Modi is being accused of behaving like a Republican. I don’t know what the evidence is. What Salaita did is not in dispute. The contention seems to be that many Jews are concerned about something which is no problem. So yes. The situations are different in all kinds of ways.

  5. — Protesters are entitled to show up in public spaces outside a political convention, and that’s the right that was violated.

    First off Edward spoke about protestors “at political conventions” not those lawfully protesting on public spaces.

    Take the 2004 Republican convention which is what most people recent think of when they talk about conventions. Certainly the people who broke in were arrested. They were trespassing on property owned by The Madison Square Garden Company, a subsidiary of Cablevision. That’s not public property.

    Others nearby did things like hanging a banner over the front of the Plaza Hotel (again private property) without the owner’s permission.

    There were some charges on public property but mostly they were ticketed for things like obstructing traffic, which is also not allowed. To deliberately obstruct traffic you need to have a permit.

    The largest set arrested were arrested for refusing to obey fire department instructions: the protestors had accidentally set a float on fire and the department needed other protestors to move to get control of the fire before it spread.

    I’m not saying the police were perfect. Clearly there were police who lied under oath and fabricated charges against protestors. What I am saying is there was no diminishment in legal protections. The police did a so-so job of handling a mass protest. And certainly didn’t just arrest everyone as Edward had claimed.

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