Tensions over academic freedom at the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute have led to allegations of Indian government interference in academia world wide, with 16 academics quitting the Institute since March 29.
As stated in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Personnel, “academic freedom lies at the very heart of higher education and provides the strongest guarantee of the accuracy and objectivity of scholarship and research”. It is defined as the freedom of teachers, students, and academic institutions to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without undue or unreasonable interference.
The resignation of 13 fellows affiliated with Melbourne based Australian India Institute (Aii) with regards to impingement of this very academic freedom has become a major point of debate in Australia and India in the last few weeks. The fellows had resigned on March 29, citing concerns for academic freedom, alleging interference by the Indian High Commission in Australia.
According to reliable sources, three more fellows affiliated with Aii have resigned since the story first broke on March 31, taking the total resignations to 16.
The resignation letter signed by the 13 fellows purported that the Indian High Commissioner to Australia has intervened in the institute’s activities time and again, in an effort to discourage research and views that were uncomplimentary to India’s image.
Aii had been started in 2008 by the University of Melbourne as a centre dedicated to promoting support for and understanding of the Australia-India relationship. The Labor government led by Kevin Rudd had given the university a grant of $8 million to set it up amid reports of attacks on Indian students. The institute continues to be funded by the Australian and Victorian governments.
Serious allegations of interference have cropped up against the running of the institute and the encroachment upon academic freedom. One instance given by the fellows who resigned is of a public event that was “downgraded to a private invitation-only seminar, following an intervention by the Indian High Commissioner”. Speaking to The Age, one of the academics said this was a 2019 event titled “Keywords for India: Violence”, that was to discuss the violence being perpetrated on Muslims in India by vested political groups.
One of the fellows, Ian Woolford, lecturer in Hindi studies at La Trobe University and an expert in Bhojpuri and Maithili folk songs, took to social media and tweeted: “I have resigned my affiliation with the Australia India Institute, due to concerns over government interference and restrictions of academic freedom,” he wrote.
“Universities create space for academics to think, write, and dissent. When academics have reason to fear, universities provide support. Many of my colleagues in India have reason to fear but have no support. Many have been prosecuted for thinking, writing, and dissenting.
“Witnessing this situation makes me reflect on the global fragility of academic freedom and the power of fear over us all. I stand with my incarcerated colleagues and call on all universities to uphold their foundational commitments to academic freedom and scholarly dissent,” he further added.
There were frantic efforts made to counter these allegations and in a 25-minute interview with The Wire, Professor Amitabh Mattoo, founding director and CEO of Aii and a current member of its governing body, tried to allay the seriousness of the allegations. He denied almost every accusation made against Aii during the interview. He even went on to suggest that “most of these fellows’ tenure had expired and they were not really in a position to resign because once the term ends then they are disconnected automatically from the institute.”
When questioned by the interviewer about the veracity of the allegation of interference by the Indian High Commission, he said that it certainly did not happen during his tenure as director nor during his close friend and current director Senator Lisa Singh’s tenure – but could have taken place when Professor Craig Jeffrey was director. Professor Mattoo described Professor Jeffrey as “an Oxbridge dyed-in-the-wool academic” and then added “though scholarly, they often lack spine”.
When Ian Woolford was asked by The Wire about this description and the comment that academics lack spine, he said:
“If the alternative is being a smarmy, spiny politician type who knows how to move from position to position without ever upsetting the boss upstairs, then honestly I would like a spineless dyed-in-the-wool-academic t-shirt made up for me, I would have worn it today……I wish that more powerful people in India, who I know are dismayed by this, I wish they’d stop bragging about their spine and actually show them. So, if you ever have the chance to question him again, ask Professor Mattoo why the Indian government is afraid of dyed-in-the-wool-academics but not afraid of him.”
Woolford also refuted claims by Professor Mattoo that most of the fellows’ tenure had expired, saying the ex-director must be confused but as a member of the board, Professor Mattoo must know who to call to get his facts in line.
About the mass resignation from the Aii, Woolford said he had valid reasons for voicing concern since he feels the mission of the institute has changed over the years and it was becoming more of a think tank, oriented primarily towards promoting bilateral engagement between governments keeping their priorities in mind over critical inquiry. He also expressed unhappiness at the arbitrary termination of affiliations of certain fellows by the institute the month before, without even the courtesy of notifying them.
Woolford was unapologetically furious when asked about the Indian High Commissioner’s interference, saying that not only in Australia, one needs to ask academics in New Zealand, Canada and the United States what it means to get ‘the call’ from the Indian high commission and it would become evident that academics are dealing with more than government interference when one considers the kind of relentless online abuse they have to face from Indian right wingers on social media as well.
At the end of his interview Professor Mattoo did concede that if intervention from the high commission has happened, as the 13 academics who have quit Aii are saying, “it is extremely short-sighted” because the one thing one learns is that “do not interfere with universities, especially universities like the University of Melbourne which has a great sense of self-esteem and a great reputation”.
As a response to The Wire’s interview with Ian Woolford, Aii posted a link to a webinar titled ‘Invisible Inequalities in Business and Society: Why Should We Care?’ and tweeted – “Webinar on caste inequalities was aired and posted 4 Nov 2021 and has never been removed from website.”
As of now, there has been no official rebuttal to the charges brought against it by the 13 fellows, other than this social media post.
Woolford’s response to this has been quick. “We are asking for an independent investigation into a serious matter of global importance, not a squabble over a single webinar that I never mentioned. In the Interview, I discussed the assassinations of our colleagues Gauri Lankesh, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, and M M Kalburgi. I wish the Institute had responded instead with a commitment to organise a conference exploring the ideas of these slain writers and academics.,” he told NRI Affairs.
According to The Age, University of Melbourne has released a statement saying that it respects the decision of the Academic Fellows who recently tendered their resignations. It also underscored the importance of the Australia-India relationship, saying that it was “deeply committed to growing and building our ties with India.”
“The University of Melbourne is committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech. They are central to our core values and identity. The University has been working on strengthening our policies in this area for the past two years and take any allegations of this nature very seriously,” the report in The Age has quoted.
The Age has also reported that the Indian High Commission has also released a statement saying the University of Melbourne “responded suitably to the story” and that the issue was “not a matter for the High Commission of India to comment on.”