ISA statement concerning academic freedom and violence in India
March 22, 2016
We, the members of the Executive Committee of the International Sociological Association, express solidarity with students, teachers, writers, creative artists and activists in India fighting for the rights to freedom of expression, life and liberty, in the context of increasingly virulent attacks and mob violence against all opposition to right wing fundamentalist violence and discrimination. We are particularly concerned about mob attacks on minorities and the curtailment of food freedoms (falsely posited as a “beef ban”) in India. The conversion of a large section of the electronic media into propaganda machines in support of right wing majoritarian nationalism and the systematic and violent targeting of intellectuals, students and advocates through unethical reporting and profiling is unprecedented and particularly worrying. The position of students from vulnerable social groups – especially dalit-bahujan and minority students – is a matter of immediate concern.
We support the view that the Constitution of India sets out a plural framework and refuses any scope to define the country in religious terms.
In an environment of anti-intellectualism, and majoritarian attacks on individual and collective attempts at informed debate and social critique both within and outside institutions of higher education, our responsibility as members of a professional association is especially grave. As sociologists we believe that allowing the untrammelled use of the charge of sedition to quell dissent and freedom of expression, amounts, to reiterate Amartya Sen’s words, to be too tolerant of intolerance.
We endorse the petition submitted by over 200 sociologists across India to the President of India, protesting against the attacks on sociologists, Professors Vivek Kumar and Rajesh Misra, by students belonging to the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Universities are meant to provide a space for free and informed debate and mutual learning. The growing turbulence on university campuses and the shrinking space for open and free debate especially intolerance of opposition to the agendas of Hindutva is a matter of serious concern to the international community of sociologists committed to fundamental freedoms and free speech.
In the aftermath of the death by suicide of Rohith Vemula, a doctoral scholar in the School of Social Sciences in the University of Hyderabad in January 2016 (the ninth case of suicide by a doctoral scholar belonging to a dalit bahujan social group in this university) after being evicted from his hostel along with four others, and facing social boycott within the university campus is a sign of how deep rooted systemic discrimination is and the tragic toll it has taken. While there has been a growing disquiet on university campuses across the country for a few years consequent on the growing presence of students from socially vulnerable groups in higher education, the death of Rohith Vemula has triggered an unprecedented protest within the country and abroad, most importantly among students, especially dalit bahujan students, who bear a disproportionate burden of the weight of the most insidious forms of discrimination within the education system.
We commend and support the efforts of teachers and students in several small colleges and in universities across India to question caste discrimination and majoritarianism by promoting an understanding of anti-caste philosophies and lifeworlds both within academic institutions and outside in the face of virulent attacks from the right. The experience of noted Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, a college teacher, who was forced to leave his town and move to the state capital is but one example. We also celebrate the eloquence and deep understanding with which young research scholars like Rohith and several like him have developed sustained critiques of Hindutva politics and its far-reaching consequences, fashioning a new tradition of protest drawing creatively from the rich array of resistance in the sub-continent.
We extend our support to the struggles of the students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University and commend their efforts to sustain a public debate on the complex question of nationalism through open lectures. We place on record our appreciation of their commitment to building upon the struggles of Rohith Vemula and students and scholars like him from campuses across the country – putting in place new signposts for a transformative sociology that interrogates disciplinary boundaries and exclusions within institutions of higher education thereby building bridges between the academy and the world outside.