Academia and state

November 10, 2018


The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

ON Oct 13, Prof K.N. Panikkar sounded the alarm. As reported, India’s University Grants Commission let all central universities know some time back that service rules that were applicable to union government servants should also be relevant to central universities and “Criticism of government will henceforth constitute a violation of service rules”.

The Central Civil Services Conduct Rules asserts: “No government servant shall, in any radio broadcast, telecast through any electronic media or in any document published in his name or anonymously, pseudonymously or in the name of any other person or in communication to the press or in any public utterance, make any statement of fact or opinion which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy of the central government or a state government.” This will reduce teachers to servants of the governments.

A professor pointed out that “Academic freedom in class for a critical discussion on policies may suffer; something that disciplines like law, political science economics or journalism, may bear the brunt of.”

Teachers should not be bound by the same rules that govern civil servants.

The Federation of Central Universities Teachers’ Associations said, “Several of the new central universities created by the Central Universities Act, 2009, have adopted the CCS Conduct Rules. The Central University of Kerala recently invoked CCS Conduct Rules to suspend a faculty member for a Facebook post criticising the university administration for getting a student arrested. Now, the net is being cast wider to include the older central universities — the most recent case being the imposition of CCS Conduct Rules in Jawaharlal Nehru University.”

The Aligarh Muslim University is very much a ‘central university’. The University Grants Commission seems not to have the faintest conception of academic freedom. Its fiat is shockingly archaic.

Britain’s Education Act, 1986, is an instructive model. It imposes duties on the governing bodies of universities and colleges. It imposes on the governing bodies “[t]he duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with (a) the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or (b) the policy or objectives of that body”. This applies to teachers, students and visitors.

The supreme court of the United States witnessed a similar upheaval during the McCarthy era. In a series of decision it upheld the independence of the academia, justice William Douglas wrote: “Where suspicion fills the air and holds scholars in line for fear of their jobs, there can be no exercise of the free intellect. Supineness and dogmatism take the place of inquiry. A ‘party line’ — as dangerous as the ‘party line’ of the Communists — lays hold. It is the ‘party line’ of the orthodox view, of the conventional thought, of the accepted approach. A problem can no longer be pursued with impunity to its edges. Fear stalks the classroom. The teacher is no longer a stimulant to adventurous thinking; she becomes instead a pipe line for safe and sound information. A deadening dogma takes the place for free inquiry. Instruction tends to become sterile; pursuit of knowledge is discouraged; discussion often leaves off where it should begin.”

Justice Abe Fortas wrote specifically on state-run educational institutions. “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are ‘persons’ under our constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the state. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the state chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.” So, too, are the teachers. They are not bound by the curbs that govern civil servants.

A university is a community within the larger community of civil society. It has its own duties and freedom. The US supreme court has frequently declared that freedom of expression is particularly necessary in the academic context if the university is to perform its function. This consideration applies to the faculty member as citizen as well as to the faculty member as teacher and scholar. He cannot be restricted in one capacity without destroying his freedom in the other. The University Grants Commission’s fiat is unconstitutional. At a time when, the world over, the independence of academia is prized, it is disheartening to see a reverse trend in India.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2018