The Indian government says media reports that “we saw dragging India or High Commissioner to Australia into this are very unjustified.”
Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi said, “We have seen media reports which are actually not accurate. I think there are two different aspects here. First, our missions routinely engage with various academic institutions and think tanks in Australia and everywhere and elsewhere other countries with the objective of deepening India’s relations with foreign countries and promoting understanding between India and the foreign country.”
“Now, as regards the specific case of the Australian Institute in Melbourne, I would like to highlight the Institute was set up by the Australian government in partnership with the University of Melbourne. It is funded entirely by the Australian government and Australian institutions. I think the state of Victoria, as well as the University of Melbourne, are among the funding institutions. Let me stress that the Government of India does not fund the Institute in any way, and neither does the Government of India have anything to do with the decision making of this Institute. So the report that we saw dragging India or High Commissioner to Australia into this is actually very unjustified,” Bagchi said responding to a question at the weekly media briefing in New Delhi.
Severe 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”.
Stanford Prof. of South Asian Studies & Anthropology, Prof. Thomas Blom Hansen, says his May 2019 lecture at Australia India Institute on Hindu nationalist violence was downgraded because it was “too controversial”; the call came from the Indian Consulate.”
Speaking to The Wire about the last-minute downgrading of his lecture, which was cited by 13 fellows of the Institute in their resignation letter, Prof. Thomas Blom Hansen says he believes this was done after a phone call was made by the Indian Consulate in Melbourne. Craig Jeffrey, who was the Director of the Institute at the time, told him one day before the lecture: “I’ll have to change the status … it’s too controversial.”
In a 30-minute interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, Prof. Hansen, who is the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of South Asian Studies and Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University in America, spoke in detail about what happened.
He said, “I was invited to the University of Melbourne to give a series of lectures, including one at Deakin University, which is next door … Craig Jeffrey invited me … these lectures were on keywords for India … I chose violence … I sent an abstract of the lecture in advance … one day before, Craig said he will have to change the status … he told me it’s too controversial.”
Prof. Hansen said this was a result of a phone call, which he believes was made by the Indian Consulate in Melbourne. At the time, the Indian High Commissioner was A. M. Gondane. Prof. Hansen said he was not clear if the phone call was made directly to Craig Jeffrey or to higher up authorities at the University of Melbourne.
In an interview with The Wire, Amitabh Mattoo, the Founding Director of the Institute, had claimed that the lecture was downgraded for security reasons. Prof. Hansen refuted the claim. He said he had made a very similar lecture a day or two earlier at the University of Deakin. “It was open to the public, and there were no security concerns,” he added.
The resignation of 13 fellows affiliated with the Melbourne based Australian India Institute (Aii) regarding the impingement of this very academic freedom has become a significant 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.
The resignation letter signed by the 13 fellows purported that the Indian High Commissioner to Australia had intervened in the Institute’s activities time and again to discourage research and views that were uncomplimentary to India’s image.
Aii was 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.
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.