Academic Freedom: The War on Words

Education is considered to be an integral part of everyone’s lives, but academic freedom is cardinal for educational fulfilment and important to give impetus to creative and academic minds.

  Picture Courtesy : Hindustan Times

“Freedom of mind is the real freedom. A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is a slave, not a free man. One whose mind is not free, though he may not be in prison, is a prisoner and not a free man. One whose mind is not free though alive, is no better than dead. Freedom of mind is the proof of one’s existence.”

-Dr.BR. Ambedkar

Decades ago, this great nation rose to the tyrannical rule of the British who dictated everything we did, read or said after a struggle that lasted for two centuries the British finally left this country and India rose to freedom. While drafting the Indian Constitution the drafters included some fundamental rights to protect the rights of the Indian people and also to ensure that we don’t have to suffer an authoritarian rule like we did for two hundred years.

Decades later the students of Delhi University woke up to find that their academic freedom had been curbed. A large number of students protested against the change in the undergraduate English syllabus in which a story about the 2002 riots in Gujarat and one paper titled “Interrogating Queerness” was removed and in another instance unit constating of a section by Hamid Dalwai’s Muslim Politics in Secular India was removed from the Second year syllabus.

In the words of the eminent jurist A G Noorani, universities being born out of statutes they fall within the definition of “state” under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution and so all the fundamental rights enshrined in Part three of the Indian Constitution are applicable to them. If political parties and political ideologies take rule over what should be taught to these young minds yearning knowledge then we would be teaching robots and not people who are thirsty for knowledge and desire to be taught what they want to.

Our country should realize the importance of academic freedom and should work on getting a working idea for academic freedom and should also work on some exclusive rights in order to implement and better protect academic freedom. The Constitution also lays down the ‘fundamental duty’ of the state and citizens (under Part IV-A) to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform’ (51-A, h) as well as to “strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.” (51-A, j). Both these should enshrine the promotion of academic freedom as a fundamental duty of states and citizens; however, this section of the Constitution is not justiciable. In stark contrast with the Indian scenario academic freedom is protected under Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, it is also provided in the constitutions of Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Portugal. Further the Constitutions of Spain, Belgium and France explicitly guarantee the freedom of teaching.

India must guarantee academic freedom with the only limitation being in order to preserve public order, morality and health care. A person teaching and the person being taught must have an open mind to different ideas and there must be no room for any reservations due to political ideologies, personal opinions etc. Further in an interesting case of Healy v. James, 408 U.S. at 181-82 where the administration denied recognition to a student group on the grounds that the group’s philosophy was antithetical to the college’s commitment to academic freedom on campus. The Court overturned the denial of recognition, believing instead that affirming students’ right to freedom of association was “reaffirming . . . academic freedom.”

A person must be taught everything that the person wishes to learn nothing must be held back because this defeats the entire purpose of teaching and learning. Political opinions, party affiliations and political ideologies must be distanced from educational institutions because these temples of learning must not be open to anything that limits its boundaries to teach. This opinion is rightly captured in the case of the United States of America of Sweezy v. New Hamshire , 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957) where it was said that, “[T]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, and to gain maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.”

Students and teachers must be given an open hand to study and teach whatever they wish to with certain undeniable exceptions which have to be imposed in the interest of the public.

Students must not have to fight to study what they would want to, neither should the faculty have any reservations about what they should teach unless this harms the society in any way. The Supreme Court of our country has time and again protected and guaranteed the right to
freedom of speech and expression of the people of this great nation however it is time that this cardinal freedom come to the rescue of the people by way of protecting the academic freedom of the young learners.

The Indian tradition teaches us that no person who comes to our doorstep must be turned away applying this immortal shloka to the present topic of academic freedom we can conclude that these people hungry for knowledge who come to the temples of education must not be turned away without being taught what they want to. Academic freedom is the cornerstone of any educational system around the globe without academic freedom the very purpose of education might be lost so it is high time that we realise the importance of this area and start working on constructive rights in order to better protect academic freedom.

So it is impertinent to recognize and protect Academic freedom as young minds are like those lumps of clay and educational institutions should act as careful potters as even the slightest mistake might destroy the entire effort. Academic institutions should thus be weary
of putting any curbs to academic freedom.

Spandana Koona is a fourth year law student at National Law University Aurangabad whose areas of interest are Constitutional and Criminal law.