Whoever wins the election, political attacks on Indian HEIs must end

The BJP’s ideological pressure is causing religion and politics to intrude into academia, risking a disastrous brain drain, says Eldho Mathews

May 6, 2024
Devotees gather near an effigy of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the Ram Mandir Temple to illustrate Political attacks on Indian HEIs must end
Source: Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a party defined by Hindu nationalism, the controversial construction of the Ram Temple on a site formerly occupied by a mosque has become a focal point in the re-election campaign of the BJP Party led by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

In the months leading up to the seven-phase general election, which concludes in June, the Modi-led government has orchestrated an elaborate celebration of the temple’s consecration at the disputed site in Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. And while you might think that this has nothing to do with higher education institutions, their involvement – willing or otherwise – in the project is emblematic of the extent to which the BJP’s political agenda has reached into the sector.

For instance, in commemoration of the temple’s inauguration, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, launched a dedicated website about the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu text. And numerous prestigious public institutions funded by the central government have been involved in the temple’s construction. Various forms of technical assistance have been provided by the likes of the Central Building Research Institute, the National Geophysical Research Institute and the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, for instance.

Moreover, in April, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology, found itself involved in the “Surya Tilak Project”, which reportedly tasked its researchers with calculating the sun’s position, designing and optimising an optical system, and performing the necessary integration and alignment to ensure that sunlight fell on the forehead of the Ram Lalla idol at noon during the Ram Navami festival in the Hindu month of Chaitra.

While the religious and cultural significance of such events is undeniable, the involvement of a premier scientific institution like the IIA in facilitating this specific ritual raises questions about the potential dilution of the institute’s core scientific mandate and academic integrity.

But it is far from an isolated case. Since long before the Ram Temple was inaugurated, India’s higher education institutions – and especially those under the central government – have been taking specific steps to conform with the political and ideological leanings of the ruling party, such as revising curricula, making strategic appointments and modifying policies. Another Indian Institute of Technology, IIT Kharagpur, has for several years been publishing a calendar widely criticised for promoting a false theory of Indian ancestry that depicts India as the cradle of global civilisation.

It is unsurprising to see such moves multiplying as opinion polls indicate that a third consecutive term in government for the BJP is inevitable. Since it came into office in 2014, the party has appeared keen to depict universities as its ideological enemies, promoting flashpoints for political mileage and politicising appointments. One example is the labelling of prestigious but traditionally liberal Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi as “anti-India”. Another is the suspension of K.S. James from his role as director of the International Institute for Population Sciences after he reportedly resisted political pressure to suppress health survey data that cast the government in an unfavourable light. And a third is the contentious appointment, sparking student protests, of TV actor and BJP member Gajendra Chauhan as the chair of the Film and Television Institute of India’s governing council despite his stature paling in comparison with that of the preceding chairs.

Then there are the recent violent clashes between Indian and foreign Muslim students in universities in Gujarat, the deportation without explanation of the UK-based anthropologist Filippo Osella, who studies Indian society and social movements, and the University Grants Commission’s directive to establish Narendra Modi selfie points on campuses. Taken together, such incidents convey a grim picture of the state of Indian higher education to various stakeholders beyond the BJP faithful – especially students, academics and employers, both domestic and international.

These perceptions have the potential (alongside various other unforeseen challenges that have emerged) to overshadow the unprecedented expansion that India’s higher education sector has undergone in recent decades. They risk prompting a brain drain that would be a significant threat to the sector’s – and the country’s – global competitiveness.

Policymakers seem to overlook the reality that when India tries to expand its soft power through the establishment of international branch campuses in Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates, students and parents in these host countries rely heavily on hearsay to make informed decisions about whether to enrol. A persistently negative media portrayal of the quality and credibility of India’s higher education sector will inevitably affect recruitment to these outposts. More generally, international students and faculty may shy away from considering Indian institutions, hampering those institutions’ global competitiveness.

It is time to end the political pressure and attacks on universities. Whatever the election result, it is of paramount importance that all stakeholders acknowledge the gravity of this situation and take proactive measures to rebuild trust and confidence in a higher education sector whose good global standing is vital to the nation.

Eldho Mathews is programme officer (internationalisation of higher education) at the Kerala State Higher Education Council, Thiruvananthapuram.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles