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  • Srijana Siri

Protecting Our State Or The State: Decoding IB's Visit to Ashoka

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

On August 22nd, The Wire reported that the Intelligence Bureau (IB) visited Ashoka University to probe Professor Das’s already controversial working paper titled Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy.

This event was unprecedented and many academicians also termed it “dangerous” not only to academic freedom but also to democracy on X (formerly Twitter). While visits from federal officials to universities are usually neglected, this particular visit draws attention to larger questions about the cost of merely thinking.

Universities, since their establishment operate in a paradox. Despite being an institution in itself, universities have largely been anti-institutional. They question authority. They dissent. They debate. They are politically conscious and choose not to remain apolitical. They are centres of thinking about better and freer ways of living.

In their turbulent history, hardly have universities been so idealistic. While the 1970s saw the Navnirman student movement in Gujrat that protested against corruption and the economic crisis that toppled the state’s elected government, that is not the status quo.

Far from the street march approach of some eras, universities largely engage with thinking about society through research, writing and discussions. The university, through its subtle anti-institutional quality, facilitates and protects different ways of thinking and freedom of expression.

But visits from federal agency officials threaten these attributes of the university space. Intelligence Bureau, which is under the Home Ministry, is dedicated to protecting India’s internal security. It is a counterintelligence department that investigates possible threats to the sovereignty and security of the Indian state.

Their visit to Ashoka University is thus confusing and has far-reaching consequences. Why is the IB even visiting a university? How does the IB visit endanger the quality of the Ashokan University space? How does this influence the future of research and universities?

By virtue of being a research institution, Ashokan students and faculty conduct research. Classes are structured to cultivate and promote a culture of thinking critically. Most assignments are research-based, argument-driven and writing-heavy. Many senior undergraduate students and all Masters students write a research dissertation that they present and defend before graduation. Faculty, along with their teaching, are working on books, research articles and producing their bodies of work.

Visit from the IB to a space where virtually everyone is engaged in research in some form or another creates an atmosphere of fear and intellectual turbulence. The very act of thinking can become scary. It might lead to something that if said can pose a certain amount of danger. Everything that one says even in passing can become an object of scrutiny.

Students and researchers, especially from the humanities and social sciences can begin second-guessing their research interests. Questions like — Is my research going to be controversial? If it is, will my family and I be safe? Where am I safe? — cloud our consciousness. Many begin editing thoughts and ideas before they are fully formed.

Earlier, with respect to Prof. Das’s working paper, it was only the governing body that wanted to evaluate and interfere with faculty research. Now, a new variable—the IB—has entered the equation which goes to show the stakes of research as an activity.

A detail in The Wire report stated that “Ashoka University has often played host to ‘sleuths’ from the state’s local Intelligence Bureau (LIB) – who attend seminars and events to take notes when the topic is even vaguely political”.

Seminars and conferences organised by academic societies on campus are a space where students present their research papers. It is a space of dialogue and discussion about the research papers and engagement with stalwarts from the field. Local IB officials visiting these and other seminars not only signal a doom of academic freedom but also actively puts students at risk with hardly any “administrative institutions” to protect them and their right to research and knowledge.

Healthy discussions with multiple viewpoints will continue to grow absent from higher education. Arguments and positions that present some sense of security will look more attractive. Curiosity will be rare. The ability to ask good, relevant questions will diminish. With these, large parts of reality will be forced into non-existence and non-being.

Although I write in the future tense, such censoring and an atmosphere of fear is very much of our present. Be it the JNU violence in January 2020, the beating of the students in Jamia Milia Islamia or IB visits at Ashoka University. Law enforcement agencies policing student and faculty thought through violence and threats are reflective of the insecurities of the state.

It is when federal agencies like the IB put protecting the borders of the state on the back burner and begin safeguarding the interests of the State, thinking becomes criminal.

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1 commentaire

05 oct. 2023

comparing the IB visit at Ashoka to the violence that has occurred at JNU or Jamia is so incredibly tone deaf and reductive

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