A severe blow to academic freedom - GulfToday

A severe blow to academic freedom

BRP Bhaskar


Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.


The decision to restrict areas of research in terms of national priorities came to light through a circular issued by the Central University of Kerala.

The Indian government has asked universities to limit research to topics related to national priorities.

Since it is the prerogative of those in power to determine the nation’s priorities and research institutions are dependent upon the state for funds, the move is a mortal blow to academic freedom. Decision-making under Prime Minister Narenda Modi is a process shrouded in mystery. It is not unusual for decisions to emanate from the Prime Minister’s office rather than the Ministry concerned.

The decision to restrict areas of research in terms of national priorities came to light through a circular issued by the Central University of Kerala (CUK) at Kasergode to the deans of the schools under it and the heads of all departments.

Dr Meena T Pillai resigned from CUK’s board of studies in protest against the decision. CUK said the decision was taken at a meeting of university vice-chancellors held in New Delhi to review the implementation of the tripartite agreement among the universities, the Ministry of Human Resources Development and the University Grants Commission.

The circular was explicit. It asked each head of department to prepare a shelf of projects to be taken up for research in the light of national priorities. The research student can choose one from the shelf. Research in irrelevant areas must be discouraged, it said.

Considering that funds are limited, the decision to set priorities for areas of research cannot be faulted. The problem lies in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led administration’s warped thinking and its leaders’ poor understanding of academic matters.

Modi’s educational qualifications are under a cloud. He claims to have obtained a Master’s degree from Delhi University but the university administration has turned down applications under the Right to Information Act seeking information about his academic record. A purported certificate released by the BJP showed his post-graduate degree was in “Entire Political Science”.  Modi’s first Minister for Human Resources Development, of which Education is a part, was Smriti Irani, the lead actress of a popular Hindi television serial. Though not a university graduate, she claimed to be a Yale alumna on the strength of her participation in a programme at its campus.

The BJP’s ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has a keen interest in educational policy. Smriti Irani placed men associated with RSS in key positions and they began tampering with textbooks and syllabi to further the Hindutva cause.

When the RSS’s student affiliate fomented unrest in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, and the Central University of Hyderabad, Smriti Irani played a supportive role. Modi, however, found it necessary to shift her to another ministry.

Gujarat’s BJP government went one step beyond the Centre. It sent to universities in the state a list of 82 subjects and said researchers should be asked to pick from them for their PhD thesis. The list was drawn up by the Knowledge Consortium of Gujarat (KCG), a body set up by Modi when he was the state’s Chief Minister, to oversee reform of higher education.

The topics listed by KCG include Modi’s Swach Bharat (Clean India) programme and various state government projects. Justifying the decision to encourage research on such topics, KCG Director AU Patel said independent analysis by researchers would help the government to improve the projects.

However, not all educationists were impressed by the argument. One scholar pointed out that if the government wants an independent analysis it should commission a study by a competent academic body like the Sardar Patel Economic Research Academy and not force it on research students.

Who decides national priorities, asked Dr Meena Pillai, whose criticism of the government move received national attention. She said faculty members of central universities were not speaking out on the issue fearing reprisals. She pointed out that those who criticised university administrations on various issues had invited suspensions and inquiries.   

In a feeble response to her criticism, CUK said the term “national priorities” was used to denote topics that would benefit economic, social and technological advancement of the nation and society. It added, “The research areas may include latest developments in nano technology, nano medicine, artificial intelligence, space research, nuclear science, sustainable development, climate change, organic farming among others.”

The university’s flaunting of new frontier themes must be viewed in the context of the peddling of pseudo-sciences by BJP leaders, led by Modi himself. Addressing an Indian Science Congress session, Modi had claimed ancient Indians knew the techniques of organ transplant and in-vitro fertilisation. He cited Hindu god Ganesha’s elephant head as the work of an ancient plastic surgeon and the 100 Kaurava siblings of the epic Mahabharata as test-tube babies.