‘Institute stifles criticism of Indian govt’: 14 scholars quit Aussie centre

Fourteen academics from universities across Australia have quit their affiliation to the Melbourne-based Australia India Institute (AII) over what they allege is its reluctance to discuss issues critical of the ruling establishment in India.

Among others, they cite its decision to “decline” an essay on the implications of the “rise of Hindu nationalism” and pulling the plug on a podcast on the impact of caste in academia and private enterprise in India.

The AII was set up in 2008 at the University of Melbourne with a grant of US$ 8 million from the Australian government to “engage and gain a greater understanding of the two countries through various streams of academic research” in the wake of a series of hate crimes against Indians.

On March 29 this year, 13 academics with affiliation to AII signed a resignation letter addressed to University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor Prof Duncan Maskell. The letter accused the AII of promoting Indian government “propaganda”, “overlooking” a crackdown on dissent and “marginalisation of Indian minority”. Later, another academic fellow resigned.

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“Following some criticism on an AII fellow’s talk on invisible inequalities (touching on class and caste), the AII declined to support the publication of a piece aimed at discussing the attacks on Gandhi (in view of the attempted beheading of his statue in Melbourne) prepared by two AII fellows (including one who gave the talk). It was communicated to them that the AII has decided to “stay away from the topic a little longer”,” the letter stated.

“We also noted that an Ear to Asia podcast entitled Caste and the Corporation, in India and abroad by these two fellows has also not been included on the website of Aii, although those by others have been included,” the letter said.

Both the essay and the podcast were projects of Prof Hari Bapuji, Professor, Department of Management and Marketing, and Prof Dolly Kikon, both from the University of Melbourne. Bapuji is among the 14 who have resigned.

The essay, “Understanding Modern Attacks On Gandhi”, seeks to examine the possible reasons behind the targeted attacks on Gandhi, including vandalism of his statues.

“The life of Gandhi and his vision for the future is associated with India’s principles of secularism and rights for all religious groups. The right to religious freedom is actually enshrined in the Constitution of India. But these principles are now losing favour as Hindu Nationalism gains currency and the possibilities of changing the constitution are also now being considered,” states the essay, which was later published by Pursuit, a platform of the University of Melbourne.

The 47-minute podcast, “Caste and Corporation, in India and abroad”, traces the genesis of the caste system, and its effect on various fields, ranging from academia to private corporations, and the bureaucracy.

When contacted, a University of Melbourne spokesperson told The Indian Express: “The University of Melbourne and the Australia India Institute respect the decision of the Academic Fellows who recently tendered their resignations. The University stands firmly in support of the strategic direction of the AII, its Board and Chief Executive Officer. The University of Melbourne is committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech. They are central to our core values and identity.”

The spokesperson said in the emailed response: “The University has been working on strengthening our policies in this area for the past two years and takes any allegations of this nature very seriously.” However, some of the academics who resigned disagree. “It strains credulity to characterise the AII’s decision as benign editorial judgment. The mission and orientation chosen for the AII sits uneasily with work that might be viewed unfavourably by the Indian government. Moreover, there has been a consistent pattern of the AII supporting events and content that have carried the flavour of propaganda, celebrating the current Indian government,” one of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Indian Express.

Another signatory told The Indian Express that 14 of the about 40 academics affiliated to AII resigned because the institute “might have lost the plot in other respects and departed from its own past history and legacy”.

Apart from University of Melbourne, the 14 academics represent University of Western Australia, University of New South Wales, College of Business University of Alabama in Huntsville, Australian National University, University of Technology Sydney, La Trobe University and University of Adelaide. One of the fellows, Dr Ian Woolford, Lecturer (Hindi Language), Department of Languages and Cultures, La Trobe University, posted on Twitter that he had resigned his “affiliation with the Australia India Institute, due to concerns over government interference and restrictions of academic freedom”.

According to an Indian official, who was involved in the process of setting up the institute, many of the academics, under founding director Prof Amitabh Mattoo, were initially chosen on an ad-hoc basis to “build a community” of scholars dedicated to the study of the two nations. One of the academics who resigned said that “none of these academic fellows are funded in any way by AII”.

In their resignation letter, the fellows also questioned the process through which former Australian senator Lisa Singh was picked to lead AII in 2021. Singh did not respond to requests for comment. In December 2020, 24 fellows, including 12 who recently quit, had raised other issues in a letter to University of Melbourne. In that letter, they claimed that a “publicly-advertised event was downgraded to a private invitation-only seminar, following an intervention by the Indian High Commissioner”. The Indian High Commission in Canberra did not respond to requests for comment.

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