University Campuses in India Will Be a Tool in the Hands of Hindu Nationalists

Elite international universities have announced plans to open campuses in India. Yet Narendra Modi’s government has made it clear these won’t be oases of academic freedom — rather, they’ll help Hindu nationalists impose censorship even outside India's borders.

Narendra Modi waves to the supporters during a public rally in Ahmedabad, India. (Atul Loke / Getty Images)

In 2022, sixteen academics based at the University of Melbourne resigned from their posts at the Australia India Institute, citing interference from the Indian High Commission. The complaint wasn’t just about Indian authorities themselves — for they also cited a lack of support from their own university authorities in protecting academic freedom.

Over in Canada, the Indian High Commission pressed the organizers of a student film festival sponsored by Toronto Metropolitan University to remove a documentary from the program because it hurt the sentiments of Hindus. The sponsoring faculty member and university administrators capitulated to the pressure, censoring the student’s work.

Again last year, there were suspicions of similar interventions when the University of Chicago withdrew an invitation for the head of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel, to deliver a lecture on campus. He tweeted “[I] asked if someone close to the govt of [I]ndia had pressured them. [N]o response yet.”  His passport was then confiscated by government authorities, and he was prevented from leaving India to deliver other invited lectures at US universities.

In India itself, attacks on academic freedom and government repression of students and faculty have increased dramatically since Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014. There has been a rash of government policies targeting academics who refuse to promote — never mind oppose — Hindu nationalism in the classroom and in their research. New “anti-terror” legislation has brought rising numbers of arrests of academics and students.

Student organizations linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) not only openly hurl threats and abuses at academics researchers, but have attacked faculty members as well. In the most serious cases, scholars on the Left who have opposed the extremist ideology of Hindutva have been murdered.  Studies of poverty, caste discrimination, women’s rights, Dalit politics, and histories of Muslims and Christians are viewed as direct threats to a glorious Hindu history, and increasingly prohibited.

In the midst of this academic landscape, on January 5, the University Grants Commission (UGC) in India unveiled its plan to allow foreign universities and institutions to establish campuses in India. According to the UGC, any university listed in the top 500 of global rankings is open to apply through a formal process. As university administrators and financial officers start modeling price/cost ratios for opening campuses in India, it’s vital to keep in mind that India today is experiencing the most profound and troubling education crisis in its history, one closely tied to the government’s ever more repressive policies — and the broader democratic backsliding they represent.

Silencing Critics

Indeed, according to the V-Dem Institute, one of the leading measures of democracy, India now ranks in the bottom 10-20 percent on its Academic Freedom Index.

To cite only the most recent example, in January, the government deployed emergency powers to ban the recently aired BBC documentary India: The Modi Question because of its criticism of the prime minister’s role in the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots; when students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi organized a screening of the film on campus, the university administration cut the electricity, and the students were attacked by thugs associated with the Hindu right. At other campuses, students were arrested or suspended for watching it.

The government’s long-term plan clearly seems to be the replacement of all administrators and academics who object to Hindutva. The other tactic is to shut down institutions, as demonstrated in the case of the prestigious Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. The UGC has already eliminated topics at universities that are considered “anti-national” and “seditious.” Syllabuses are censored to remove histories, texts, and ideas that do not promote Hindutva. More broadly, academics, journalists, filmmakers, comedians, and NGOs have been warned that they would be the new targets of the state if they did not celebrate the greatness of Hindus.

We have already seen how direct attacks, censorship, and even expulsion of foreign academics occurred without any pushback from New York University (NYU) and other university administrations in China and the Persian Gulf, prompting universities to act like “careful guests” afraid to offend their hosts’ sensibilities. At NYU Shanghai, to take one example, there is a specific agreement to respect the laws of the host country, which in China’s case would clearly include prohibiting criticism of the government or conducting research on topics deemed too sensitive.

Further, in 2017 the United Arab Emirates denied visas to two NYU scholars who were invited to teach at the university’s Abu Dhabi campus; thereby, causing a furor within the US academy about academic freedom and censorship. There is little reason to imagine universities would behave differently in India, which would only further legitimize and reinforce such policies, to the detriment of students and the academic community alike. In these circumstances, opening a campus in India would be tantamount to giving a thumbs up to large-scale government-imposed censorship in the world’s most populous country.

The presence of elite US universities will only legitimize the ongoing crackdowns in higher education at a time when India now views its civil society as an “internal enemy.” The new security and military agreements between the United States and India will also provide a cover for increased violence and restrictions on free expression, peaceful assembly, and other basic rights guaranteed by India’s constitution. US universities’ involvement will legitimize increasingly aggressive policing of the speech and activities of “overseas” academics conducting research on India, as they are already regularly monitored and even threatened.

Israeli Precedent

The paradigm for this dynamic is the US-Israel relationship, where an increasingly close military, economic, and political partnership emboldened the Israeli government over several decades to intensify its repression of Palestinians, deepen its occupation and settlement program, and gradually wear away whatever democratic protections were previously the norm at least for Jewish citizens.

Indeed, the centrality of higher education and research to the US-Israel relationship made it a focus of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, precisely because of how powerfully the normalization of academic collaboration with Israel has functioned to deflect criticism of systematic Israeli human rights abuses, censorship, and violations of academic freedom, both within Israel and in Occupied Territories.

So-called “Israel supporters” have systematically worked to deny jobs, fellowships, and even tenure to critics of the government’s policies. The strong-arm tactics that led Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to rescind the invitation to former Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth to take up a prestigious fellowship, and the donor-led pressure that successfully blocked the hiring of renowned human rights scholar Valentina Azarova as director of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program are just the most recent high profile examples.

Most recently, the Supreme Court has let stand an Arkansas law penalizing BDS supporters, despite it being a blatant free speech violation. Not surprisingly, corporations are already pressing states to enact similar anti-boycott laws against the long-cherished citizen-boycott tactics used to pressure corporations to stop environmental and other harmful practices.

There is little doubt that India hopes to replicate the success of Israel and its supporters in the United States, Canada, and Europe in creating a “Palestine exception to free speech” on campuses and in the public sphere more broadly. When Caltech, Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, MIT, Princeton, and a dozen state schools all have collaborative agreements with Israeli universities, most of them involving STEM fields, that buys a lot of good will and support from academia at large, regardless of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians across the “Green Line” where few scholars ever venture.

The new clarion call for the Hindu right is to declare all critics of the Indian government policies as “Hinduphobic.” As India’s ambassador to the UN noted in 2022, Hinduphobia needed to be condemned in line with antisemitism as a form of religious hatred. Indian leaders have looked to the Jewish community as a model for organization since the beginning of this century, while leaders of both diaspora communities in the United States have reached out to each other in recent years to increase cooperation at the communal and, even more important, political levels, seeing their current or ancestral homelands as sharing similar military, strategic, and economic interests that can be bolstered by a united front against critics.

Already, during Modi’s tenure the India-Israel relationship has become increasingly close at the economic as well as security levels. That New Delhi will leverage its relationship with Washington and Tel Aviv to implement ever more repressive policies is no longer supposition; the only question is how successful it will be in doing so. Tellingly, however, the Biden administration has thus far refrained from commenting on the changing landscape facing India’s civil society.

In this context, opening American campuses in India will not just increase the prevalence of dangerous policies there, but further erode academic freedom in the United States. The question is ultimately whether the corporatized bottom line at American universities, which has already done so much harm to higher education at home, will continue to sacrifice academic freedom globally in the quest for ever more revenue.