Open letter for the immediate release of jailed academics and civil liberties activists in India

We, the undersigned, as members and allies of academic communities around the world, strongly condemn the repression of academic freedom in India by the Indian state and its representatives, including the unlawful arrests of academics, scholar-activists, students and artistes against the charge of “sedition”. We note with deep concern that several of the arrested academics belong to oppressed caste and minority backgrounds. Many have been active as educators in raising awareness about the damage done by developmental and corporate-friendly policies to rural communities and the urban poor, Dalit and Adivasi communities in particular.

We demand they be immediately released, and all charges against them dropped.

Following the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has seen a steady rise in the repression of dissent and critique, culminating in an unprecedented assault on academic freedom and democratic institutions under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the 2018 Bhima Koregaon incident of caste violence in the Western state of Maharashtra, dozens of Indian academics, public intellectuals, student activists, poets and artistes, journalists, lawyers and community leaders have been arrested on nebulous grounds such as incitement to mob violence, terrorism, sedition, Maoism and involvement in conspiracies to assassinate the prime minister. A number of these arrests have taken place without evidence or due process since the outbreak of the pandemic, notwithstanding the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Indian prisons, or the age and health condition of the persons concerned. Others have been in prison for more than two years already without any hearings. These include scholars like G.N Saibaba, who have been writing about issues such as caste-based discrimination and land rights, human rights violations in Kashmir and northeast India, and violence against women. Some, like Hany Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen, have occupied professorships in prestigious academic institutions. Junior scholars including Mahesh Raut have been recipients of government bursaries in the past for fieldwork related to rural development, which then galvanised their involvements in social struggles. These arrests have taken place under the ‘Unlawful Activities Prevention Act’ that criminalises dissent and protects corporate entitlements. Among the latest to be arrested is the 83-year old Jesuit priest, Stan Swamy, a community leader and public intellectual with a record of decades of civil liberties work with Adivasis in eastern India. In addition, a number of students and doctoral researchers have been detained and interrogated, and face the threat of arrest.

The arrests are an alarming development in a country that is struggling with the public health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic. They are part of a larger picture in which voices dedicated to the critical observation of India’s democratic executive power structures are being silenced. The repression of academic freedom is, moreover, affecting educators at all levels – for example the cancellation of a play on the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) in a secondary school in Karnataka, repressions against Adivasi school teachers, sanctions on research in Kashmir and governmental interventions in rewriting text books and language policies (see annex 1).

Along with Indian scholars and students, non-governmental organisations are also being targeted. For instance, in early October, the Indian government froze the accounts of Amnesty International’s India office in Delhi, forcing the organisation to shut down its operations in the country. The clampdown came in the wake of Amnesty’s damning report of police brutality in the Delhi pogrom in February 2020 and earlier reports on Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act and rising anti-Muslim violence in India, which provided clear evidence of government collusion in the violence, openly shielding the perpetrators. All these developments are a clear and disturbing indication of a systematic staunching of academic freedom and crumbling of democratic institutions and practices in India.

The international academic community stands in solidarity with academics and students who are targeted by the government of India for exercising their freedom of speech and academic freedom in the service of our society, and InSAF India calls on academics around the world to use all available means to support them. We strongly support preservation of the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions, and demand a complete withdrawal of state interference in higher education institutions. We condemn the Indian government’s unquestionably authoritarian, politically motivated and indefensible actions, and demand the immediate release of all imprisoned academics and civil liberties activists in the country.

We appeal to fellow international academics and organisations to unite to:
– demand the immediate release of all arrested scholars and civic activists
– demand a complete withdrawal of state interference in educational institutions and
– to address cases of violation of academic freedom in any collaborations with Indian educational institutions and governmental agencies as well as in transnational contexts

Authored and signed by International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India (InSAF India)

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