AKSHAYA ELIZABETH JOSE, PARIS
Sympathizing with student protests in India proved costly for one leading academic. The world’s largest democracy is stifling dissenting voices, and it is not just business as usual.
On December 19, 2020, the Indian scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta—internationally and domestically acclaimed for his work in political theory, intellectual history, constitutional law, and international politics—wrote a column sympathizing with India’s recent student protests. “The ground of protest is clear,” he wrote.
India cannot be a Republic founded on discrimination and a pervasive sense of fear. It cannot exclude or target anyone simply on the basis of their identity. It is hard to predict the shape of any movement. We left the current generation of students a tattered constitutional legacy, weak institutions, an uncertain economic future, a poisonous public discourse and a corrosive politics. We left them insecure and weak leaders or those whose divisive passions are their only policy.
“Violence will not help any cause,” he concluded.
But when the state discriminates and calls it justice, when it stokes fear and calls it citizenship, and when it exercises control and calls its freedom, when it confuses prejudice with policy, it sets the seeds for disorder.
Mehta is a liberal academic, in the traditional sense. His doctoral thesis, submitted to Princeton University in 1994, was titled, The natural career of the imagination: Themes in Adam Smith’s moral and political philosophy. He has for many years considered significant ideas in moral and political philosophy with care and rigor. In the context of India, his comments were not truisms: He was expressing the dismay of a significant segment of the Indian public with the instincts of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the BJP. Indirectly, he criticized Hindutva, a particular view of the proper Hindu way of life, which the BJP would see dominate the subcontinent.
Mehta is a scholar of no inconsiderable repute. Educated at the most elite college of Oxford and then at Princeton, he has taught at NYU’s School of Law, Harvard, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s most prestigious university. In 2017, he accepted the vice chancellorship of a newly-established private university in a remote corner of Haryana State. Ashoka University was explicitly established to rival educational institutions such as Stanford and MIT. The founders assigned a code name to their plan: “Project Nobel.”
Mehta’s column gave rise to a political firestorm, then to his resignation from the university. Why, precisely? And why now? His foray into controversial political commentary was not new. Mehta has long written about passionately debated issues in moral philosophy and jurisprudence, such as caste-based positive discrimination. Nor were the themes of his column new. Indian social scientists, along with the Indian media, often discuss discrimination, authoritarianism, prejudice, state power, religious animosity, and student protests.
Nor, for that matter, is censorship new: India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and it did so before Iran’s fatwa. It is a cliché to say that India is a paradox, but it is true. Freedom is enshrined in India’s constitution, but historically, it has been known to fail its democratic principles and its religious minorities.
In agreeing with the students that India requires one law for all, Mehta was saying nothing new, either. Since the early 1950s, many in India have proposed that such matters as marriage, divorce, and adoption be regulated under a common civil code, rather than a divergent hodgepodge of religious traditions. Indeed, many would argue that the rejection of this idea has been key to the BJP’s electoral dominance.
The BJP’s philosophical progenitor was the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. Formed in 1925, the far-right movement has made steady inroads into politics, elections, education, and society. The BJP’s leadership has made no secret of its desire for an India governed in accordance with Hindu traditions and no one else’s. In the general elections of 2014 and 2019, for example, the BJP made the building of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya a key electoral plank.The Hindu god Ram, Hindus say, was born in Ayodhya. In the 16th century, Babur—the first Mughal emperor—built a mosque in Ayodhya. Whether he destroyed a temple there is historically unclear, but … Continue reading
None of this is new.
THE SHOCKING COMPARISON
What made this column different was the comparison Mehta drew between India’s present circumstances and the Emergency, a moment widely understood as an outright democratic rupture. Between 1975 and 1977, facing the prospect of losing her parliamentary seat, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrogated to herself powers reserved in the Constitution for wartime, including the authority to curb civil liberties, rule by decree, and suspend elections. For much of the Emergency, Mrs. Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned. The press was censored. Following student protests, she briefly shut down Jawaharlal Nehru University.
These were the words, in particular, that were shocking:
In some ways, the fight during the Emergency was simple. It was a fight for the restoration of democracy against authoritarianism, joined by all kinds of forces. At this fraught moment there are two battles. There is a battle against state authoritarianism, its attempts to exercise pervasive control. But there is also the battle against communalism, the attempt to divide society and unleash passions that relegate minorities to second class citizens. They are two sides of the same coin—the government is fomenting both processes. But in society, the two can work at cross purposes.
What Mehta means is that Indian society, not just India’s government, is in play. Through democratic means, the people have put in power a government that seeks illiberal ends. Now, liberal democrats face a fight on two levels: At the bottom, they confront an organic groundswell of hatred and discrimination toward Muslims, Christians, and members of other religious groups. At the top, they face a government ideologically inclined to nourish and exploit these sentiments.
“A CHILLING PRECEDENT”
Mehta’s defense of liberalism clearly rubbed some organ of the government the wrong way. In early March, he resigned from Ashoka University. In his resignation letter, he wrote that the university’s founders had made it “abundantly clear” that he had become a political liability. “Nietzsche,” he wrote with asperity, “once said that ‘No living for truth is possible in a university.’ I hope that prophecy does not come true.”
He wrote, too, that a liberal university could only flourish in a liberal political and social context.
By deferring to the BJP’s sensibilities, he implied, university authorities were, in effect, clamping down on fundamental freedoms on the government’s behalf. No Emergency is needed, after all, if people do the censoring of their own accord.
Swiftly thereafter, Mehta’s colleague, Arvind Subramanian, resigned in protest and in solidarity with Mehta. Subramanian had only recently served as chief economic advisor to Modi’s government. In his resignation letter, Subramanian called it “ominously disturbing” that even Ashoka—a private university, financed by private capital—could no longer protect academic freedom and expression.
The university faculty released a statement of support for Mehta. They described the circumstances of his resignation as “a chilling precedent.” Students at Ashoka protested. So did prominent intellectuals and academics across India. Persuasion, an American newsletter devoted to countering illiberalism in all its varieties, organized an open letter that described the events as “a dangerous attack on academic freedom.” It was signed by hundreds of prominent academics around the world.
The university was embarrassed. On March 18, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, one of the university’s founders, sent an email to the whole student body to inform them the university had asked Mehta to withdraw his resignation. The administration issued a communiqué expressing “deep regret” about the events, with the usual allusions to “lapses in the institutional processes” and promises to rectify them. They affirmed the administration’s “commitment to academic autonomy and freedom.” The Chancellor released a letter stating, unequivocally: “The founders [of Ashoka] have never interfered with academic freedom.”
Too little, too late. Mehta replied directly to the students, who found his letter moving. “The underlying circumstances that led to the resignation will not change for the foreseeable future, in my case, at any rate.’ He would not come back:
We live in complicated times. India is bursting with creativity. But the dark shadows of authoritarianism are also hovering over us, putting us all in often uncomfortable and sometimes dishonourable positions. We will have to find principled and intelligent ways of overcoming this condition. Most of us are reduced to lamenting this looming darkness. … We don’t simply need people who cry darkness. We need someone who can shine the light. I am confident, all of you can and will.
A LARGER TREND
The uproar in response to Mehta’s resignation suggests—perhaps—growing disquiet about the stifling of dissident voices on campuses throughout India. The incidents have been numerous. In late 2019, police stormed and lathi-charged students at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, injuring 125 of them so badly they needed medical treatment. The students were protesting amendments to the Citizenship Act that would favor Hindu over Muslim immigrants. In early 2020, BJP loyalists violently attacked faculty and students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. The standoff lasted days; the faculty and the media accused Delhi’s police of failing to intervene.
Audrey Truschke is a historian of medieval India at Rutgers University. In early March, right-wing politicians and activists declared war on her oeuvre, which they deem Hinduphobic. They swarmed and attacked her online. Rutgers faculty did the decent thing, issuing a public statement to the effect that it was essential to protect the “principle of academic freedom and practice of critical enquiry” from political pressure, but a stern scolding by the faculty of Rutgers University isn’t what it used to be these days.
About two weeks ago, the dean of India’s top business school thwarted the Education Ministry’s efforts to block a doctoral candidate from graduating. The student’s offence was describing the BJP as “a pro-Hindu upper caste party” in his doctoral dissertation. This offended a member of parliament who claimed not only that it was untrue, but that it echoed British historians who, he held, propagated such views to undermine the idea that India was a single, united society. The dean told the ministry that it was none of its business. The problem, however, is that members of parliament sincerely believe that it is.
Again, it is not news that the RSS and BJP are intolerant of views that contradict their mythological understanding of Indian history. In 2008, under a coalition government led by the Congress party, the BJP’s student wing trashed the office of the head of Delhi University’s history department for including on a course syllabus an essay by the late scholar and linguist A. K. Ramanujan, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.You may consult it here to see what the fuss was all about.(The rampaging students pronounced the essay “malicious and offensive to the belief of millions of Hindus.”)
But it’s the BJP’s electoral success—and the absence of a strong opposition party, with strong ideas to match—that has changed the context of these events. Now, these things are happening with the enthusiastic backing of the state. That makes all the difference.
In 2019, India’s largest opposition party won a mere 51 seats. The BJP won 303. A few days after the government was returned to power, Ram Madhav, then the BJP’s national secretary, described the party’s ideology and ambitions in the Indian Express:
Those accusing Modi of using “nationalism” for electoral ends must remember that nationalism is not just an election issue, but forms the very identity of the BJP. Modi has many achievements in the past five years to showcase, reaffirming his nationalist credentials. That is what Modi and the BJP did during the campaign. In fact, this mandate is a proud reaffirmation of the people’s commitment to nationalism. It is, in a way, an answer to all those critics, both domestic and international, who called Modi a divisive figure. It is the most expansive and inclusive mandate in support of the nationalist idea of India.
He proudly likened Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Napoléon, noting that like Napoléon, Modi “had mastered the art of using propaganda.” He noted that Modi grasped, as Napoléon had, that “What counts is what the people think as [sic] true.”We have found no evidence that Napoléon said this. Henry Kissinger, however, did say, “It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.”
“Nothing short of building a New India is his goal,” wrote Madhav, and this new India would reject—and ruin—what Modi and his intimates call the “pseudo-seculars” or “liberal cartels,” which in their view enjoy a sinister stranglehold over India’s intellectual and policy establishment. Under the next Modi government, he wrote, “the remnants of that cartel need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape.”
Strong stuff. Hard to misinterpret.
It is not just academia. Amnesty International was forced to shut its offices in India last September. In Freedom House’s 2021 assessment, India’s status declined from “Free” to “Partly Free.” Freedom House explained the demotion by appeal to a “multiyear pattern” of the government and its allies presiding over “rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population,” and cracking down on “dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.”
So India’s state and society alike are engaged in this ideological battle. It is not a fight between “the left” and “the right,” as some national news channels—and foreign observers—have put it. It should be understood as a broad attempt by the ruling party to encroach upon public and private spaces so as to force upon the nation a single identity—the “new India”—while leaving no space for heterogeneous ideas.
This outcome will determine whether India, the world’s largest democracy, will be a liberal democracy, in the traditional sense, or an illiberal one—an authoritarian nation-state with the trappings of democracy, driven by communal politics—very much, alas, in the modern sense.
Akshaya Elizabeth Jose studies international security and the geopolitics of South and Central Asia at the Sciences Po, in Paris.
|↑1||The Hindu god Ram, Hindus say, was born in Ayodhya. In the 16th century, Babur—the first Mughal emperor—built a mosque in Ayodhya. Whether he destroyed a temple there is historically unclear, but many Hindus think so. In 1992, Hindu mobs destroyed the mosque, leading to no inconsiderable bloodshed.|
|↑2||You may consult it here to see what the fuss was all about.|
|↑3||We have found no evidence that Napoléon said this. Henry Kissinger, however, did say, “It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.”|
Do the Cosmopolitan Globalists realize the the illiberalism they bemoan in India has been raised to an art-form in the United States by “elite” institutions like Harvard?
As just one example, consider the case of former Harvard Professor, Subramanian Swamy. In July, 2011, Swamy, who had taught at Harvard for more than a decade, penned an article in the Indian Daily News and Analysis suggesting ways to “negate the political goals of Islamic terrorism in India.”
After wails of torment from the usual crowd of bratty students, the university agreed to investigate. Despite the fact that Harvard administrators initially defended Professor Swamy’s right to engage in controversial speech, the faculty, who were even more ignorant than the students (hard as that may be to believe), voted to fire the non-tenured Subramanian Swamy. The Professor was never informed about his dismissal; he learned about it from newspaper accounts.
The case of Subramanian Swamy is eerily similar to the case of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, but the perpetrators were not conservative nationalists as in Mehta’s situation but progressive windbags who aligned against Swamy. Both Mehta and Swamy commented on the religious controversy in Ayodhya, but from different points of view. Like Subramanian Swamy, Mehta’s defender, Arvind Subramanian, worked on economic and financial issues for the Modi Government.
You can learn more about the Subramanian Swamy controversy here,
The nationalists in India may be intolerant of dissent, but when it comes to stamping out dissent at all costs, they’re amateurs compared to the thugs on the faculty at Harvard.
“The nationalists in India may be intolerant of dissent, but when it comes to stamping out dissent at all costs, they’re amateurs compared to the thugs on the faculty at Harvard.”
Ah yes, when the thugs of Harvard were attacking dissenting students and professors with cricket bats, it showed how they would act at any cost. Or when groups of Harvard alumni were lynching people in the defense of cows in Southie. Or maybe these things were done by Hindu Nationalists and you’re completely out of line.
I’m not going to defend Harvard for the decision to fire Swamy, but I’m certainly not going to watch another Dramatic Retelling of the News without comment. If you’re so angry at the Ivy Leagues that you’re going to spout this sort of absurdity, maybe it’s time to step back before you become completely divorced from reality. Either that or we can study Elite Derangement Syndrome from posts that extend beyond hyperbole.
Matt, the article was about an Indian professor being fired for his political beliefs. The reply I shared about Subramanian Swamy was about an Indian Professor being fired for his political beliefs. The parallel could not be more uncanny. The only difference was the political attitude of the perpetrators. Professor Swami never advocated attacking people with cricket bats. He was fired solely because of the intolerant attitudes of the Harvard faculty almost all of whom would self-identify as cosmopolitans and globalists.
The idea that nationalists are particularly intolerant or prone to authoritarianism is simply not supported by the facts.
Subgroups on opposing sides of a political issue can use the same illiberal tactics. There’s no doubt. But the aspiring theocracy in India isn’t neatly contained in the act of firing a professor. Not even the worst actors at Evergreen State compare to the literal lynch mobs that are being ginned up across the subcontinent. To then compare (specifically) the Harvard faculty with (broadly) Hindu nationalists and call the members of Harvard “thugs” “stamping out dissent at all costs” is ludicrous. Whiny college professors aren’t remotely on the same level as Modi’s government trying to extend greater control over the education system, let alone your gasp that Harvard is surpassing the Hindutva. Unclutch your pearls. Drawing parallels is not the same as proving equivalency.
I never brought up India’s ethnic and religious conflicts. Surely there’s plenty of blame to go around. Hindu’s have massacred Muslims and Muslims have massacred Hindus. Few atrocities were as heinous as the 2008 Mumbai Massacre that went on for 12 days and killed nearly 200. It was the Mumbai Massacre that inspired Subramanian Swami to write the article that got him fired. There’s no doubt that outrage over the massacre was in part responsible for Modi’s victory a few years later.
Matt, I didn’t compare Harvard Professors to the rampaging mobs of Hindus or Muslims. I did compare the behavior of the thugs at Harvard to the behavior of the powers that be at Ashoka University who acquiesced in the sacking of Mehta.
The Cosmopolitan Globalists are quick to notice authoritarianism of nationalists but reticent to recognize the exact same behavior in the compatriots.
I wonder why?
You didn’t bring up the ethnic aspects of the conflict specifically, but why would you? You’ve got your axe to grind, you’ll be damned if they’re not thugs, and you’re not going to let the big picture of Indian politics get in the way.
Modi and the Hindu Nationalist project cannot be separated from its ethnic and religious roots. It’s in the damn name. You call the censorious Harvard faculty “thugs,” so what the hell kind of language are you going to reserve for the ethnonationalists who are attempting to remake India? I’m sure that kind of name calling plays well in some comment sections, but I think a more discerning audience will sniff out your emotional loading.
I’d be willing to bet I know the positions of at least some of the CG on censors and free expression, but I leave that for them to defend.
The difference is the involvement of the state.
Here is the article:
Thanks for finding the original article, it brought me some shame that I didn’t scout it out myself. That man is the sort of politician real thugs can get behind.
An out-an-out lunatic. Who should be given tenure because … ? The parallel between the cases does not seem “uncanny” to me. One is a liberal, the other a lunatic; cf. Popper on the paradox of tolerance in “The Open Society and Its Enemies.”
He taught economics at Harvard for decades. There was never a complaint lodged against him. He writes one politically incorrect article in the aftermath of a massacre committed by Islamic extremists who entered India from Pakistan and you think that’s enough to justify his dismissal. There’s nothing “liberal” about your point of view, Claire. And there’s nothing liberal about the faculty at Harvard. Universities should be protecting faculty who promote unpopular opinions. That’s what real liberals believe but I guess it’s not what Cosmopolitan Globalists believe.
Just read Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy. Draws similar conclusions in Hungry and Poland. Illiberal one party states becoming the norm with elected Govts putting incompetent party faithful on all important positions.
Akshaya Elizabeth Jose bemoans the “rise of authoritarian nationalism” but fails to tell us what the alternatives are. Has she looked around the neighborhood Indians live in?
To India’s south, just off its coast is Sri Lanka. How many years ago was it that Sri Lanka savagely destroyed the insurgency led by the Tamil Tigers and killed huge numbers of innocent ethnic Tamils in the process?
To India’s west is Pakistan, a country so corrupt, backwards and dangerous that it competes with Iran as the world’s leading state exporter of terrorism. How many attacks on Indian territory have been launched from Pakistan? How many innocent Hindus have been massacred by Islamic extremists with the support, tacit or otherwise, from the Pakistani government?
Not bordering India, but a hop, skip and a jump away is Afghanistan, a nation even more dysfunctional than Pakistan and on the verge of falling to the Taliban.
On India’s east is Bangladesh. The country spent the past several days consumed by riots; Is this what Bangladesh needed given its chronic food shortages, primitive healthcare infrastructure and corrupt military dominated government?
Also on India’s east is that paradise of ethnic peace, Myanmar. How many Rohingya have been murdered and exiled in the past few years? How many protestors did the Government murder last week?
To India’s north is China; home to the Uighur Genocide, the trampling of Hong Kong and the ethnic cleansing of Tibet. Not to mention the periodic incursions made by the Red Army into Indian territory.
India also borders Bhutan and Nepal; I guess they’re nice.
Against this backdrop, the Cosmopolitan Globalists are shocked, just shocked that Prime Minister Modi isn’t living up to the standards set by the American founding fathers, democratic ancient Athens or the preternaturally talented European leaders who talk a good game about tolerance and pluralism but can’t seem to figure out how to distribute simple inoculations.
Respectfully, the Cosmopolitan Globalists need a dose of reality. Compared to every other leader in South Asia, Modi is the region’s Mahatma Gandhi. His Government is as liberal and pluralistic as is possible under the circumstances.
Kvetching that he’s an autocrat just makes the Cosmopolitan Globalists look silly. Instead of telling us how crestfallen you are that he’s no fan of dissent, celebrate the fact that he’s no Xi Jinping.
Oh come on brother, if he lived up to the standard of Nehru that would be adequate. It’s been done before in India.