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13 Australia India Institute Academics Quit Citing ‘Interference’ by Modi Govt

The scholars alleged that the Indian High Commission interferes in AII’s research and views ‘unflattering’ to India’s image are not published.
13 Australia India Institute Academics Quit Citing ‘Interference’ by Modi Govt

Image Courtesy: Facebook/AIinstitute.

Thirteen academics of the Australia India Institute (AII), at the Melbourne University, have quit due to alleged interference by the Indian High Commission in the institute’s work and research and the reluctance to publicise views that are “unflattering” to India’s image.

In a letter sent to vice-chancellor (V-C) Duncan Maskell on March 29, the 13 affiliated fellows alleged that the Indian high commissioner intervened in AII’s activities and commentaries and events on India that are controversial have been discouraged, the Australian daily The Age reported.

AII was set up in 2009 to cement bilateral ties, which were impacted by reports of attacks on Indian students in Australia. The the-Kevin Rudd Labor government gave an $8 million grant to establish the institute, which is funded by the Australian and Victorian governments.

“Some events relating to India” have been “discouraged or not supported on the grounds that they were likely to be controversial”, the scholars, who worked across various disciplines and universities, wrote adding that AII’s official events “carried the flavour of propaganda”.

“As experts on India, we have doubts that [the institute’s] quasi-diplomatic focus is consistent with, and furthers, the mission of the university,” the letter stated.

Giving an example of the shrinking space for freedom at the institute, one of the signatories requesting anonymity told The Age that a controversial public event titled ‘Keywords for India: Violence’, which discussed the ongoing violence against Hindutva groups against Muslims and other minorities in India, was downgraded into a private, invite-only seminar.

Muslims have been increasingly targeted in India in the last few months. It started with the Hijab ban in Karnataka and the subsequent prohibition on Muslim traders from selling their wares around temples in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state, the attack on a few Muslim journalists in Burari, Delhi, and calls to boycott halal meat.

When two AII fellows, according to the letter, prepared a piece discussing the attempts to behead a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Melbourne, AII refused to publish it while another college in the university published it in its journal Pursuit in December 2021. The institute also didn’t upload the Ear to Asia podcast titled Caste and the Corporation in India and abroad’ by the same two fellows on its website.

“We think that those who engage in such critical scholarship despite facing hate from supremacist groups should be supported rather than silenced. In this context, AII not supporting the fellows is deeply concerning,” the signatories wrote.

Pointing to the grim political situation in India, professor Goldie Osuri, a scholar of Indian studies at Warwick University, told The Age that “open season has been declared on minorities, and Muslims in particular. Freedom House’s 2021 report deemed India an “electoral autocracy”.

The letter also alleged a “troubling lack of diversity” among distinguished follows, who are mostly “white men”, with only two of the 11 distinguished fellows being women. AII doesn’t respect fellows with long-standing experience in South Asia, according to the 13 scholars.

Another report by Australian media start-up South Asian Today noted that the letter also raised their lack of involvement in appointing AII’s CEO and Australian MP Lisa Singh. According to the academics, they had reportedly discussed the selection of two “finalists” at length but Singh, who was not in the running, was appointed to the post without any further discussions.

When the AII website was relaunched in March following appointment, the names of several academics were removed from it. AII told one of the academics that it no longer wishes to affiliate with them, South Asian Today reported.

“AII did not think it fit to inform academic fellows of this before removing them from the website. This shows a deep lack of respect, professionalism and collegiality on the part of AII towards researchers and the work they do, which it is claimed underpins the AII’s mission,” the signatories wrote.

According to South Asian Today, Ian Woolford, a former fellow at AII and one of the signatories, had expressed similar concerns about the rising Hindutva extremism. Deputy V-C Michael Wesley countered him in a public correspondence shared between the two on Australian Foreign Affairs February 14 issue. “He will wait a long time before Australia makes human rights or democracy a central plank of its foreign policy. One of the most consistent elements in Australian foreign policy is a willingness to overlook a foreign regime’s foibles if Australia has a strong interest in maintaining stable and positive relations.”

Wesley’s piece Pivot to India: Our next great and powerful friend? In the Australian Foreign Affairs in its 13th issue ‘India Rising?’ bears testimony to Australia’s promise to invest $190 million in India. The two countries also signed the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement on April 2, which will slash the import duties on both Indian and Australian goods.

The signatories have raised major concerns about AII’s ability to distinguish itself from increasing government and economic ties between the two countries. “Research commercialisation, research engagement, research impact, are all only successful if research remains at the heart of the effort. We do not see AII’s approach reflecting this.”

A similar letter expressing concerns about AII’s focus on bilateral ties was getting in the way of scholars engaging with topics which might displease the Narendra Modi government was sent to Wesley in 2020. AII’s scope should be “broader than the bilateral relationship between the governments of the day” rather than carry out “think tank type” activities designed to promote official engagement, the letter had stated.

The 2020 letter also cited the Modi government’s increasing use of sedition laws to curtail free speech and the imprisonment of academics, journalists and human rights defenders without evidence or granting bail.

The university argues that the restrictions on the work of the academics were “not restrictions of academic freedom but rather are an exercise based on editorial judgement as practised by academic institutions everywhere”, The Age further reported.

Expressing its commitment to both “freedom of speech” and “growing and building” of bilateral ties, the university said: “The University of Melbourne is committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech. They are central to our core values and identity. The University has been working on strengthening our policies in this area for the past two years and take any allegations of this nature very seriously.”

The Commission said that the issue is “not a matter for the High Commission of India to comment on”, The Age reported.

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