Early in 2016, when I teaching at a US university, traumatic events on the campus of major public universities in India – the suicide of Rohith Vemula in January, and the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar in February – augured a terrifying crisis in the future of liberal education across the country. Among a range of bleak likelihoods, I was forced to think about the freedom of thought, expression, and protest on the campus of the new private universities, emergent at that time, posed to change the prevailing Nehruvian socialism of Indian post-secondary studies by introducing alternatives to state-sponsored education.

The critical question, at that time, felt something like this: would such institutions turn into exclusive bastions of wealth, power and privilege, as that had already happened with Indian secondary education, where private schools have essentially replaced the failed public system for anyone in the middle class and above? What would, then, be the possibility of dissent on such campuses? Would their financial independence assure greater academic freedom? Writing in May, I had little idea that the university of which I was going to be a part beginning that autumn would get caught in a bitter controversy later that very summer, over an online petition against military activities in Kashmir, leading to the resignation of a faculty member and two members of the staff.

In the last seven years, we have learned on this campus that financial independence is at best partial – and for the rest, sometimes a strange kind of illusion. A rude lesson came in 2021, and then again this last month, and again just a few days ago. But the question of whether academic freedom will survive in the new private universities continues to be a crucial one, not driven by any delusion of freedom from government interference, but because of the very nature of their academic ambition, which sets them apart from most public universities in India that trace their origin in British colonial administration.

The concept of academic freedom is inseparable from the idea and reality of the modern research university. The principle of intellectual freedom of foundational disciplines, as opposed to practice-based fields that must follow state regulations was articulated by Immanuel Kant, in his treatise The Conflict of the Faculties, where he distinguished between those he called “scholars proper” and the members of the intelligentsia occupying offices of professional practice. Kant calls the former the “lower faculty” and the latter the “higher faculty” with something approximating a sense of mischief, going on to say that the latter must keep the former at a “respectful distance” so that the “dignity of their statutes” is “not damaged by the free play of reason”. But it becomes quickly clear in Kant’s treatise that the higher faculty, comprising of the professional fields of clergy, law and medicine, do not enjoy the intellectual freedom of the lower, or the “philosophical” faculty (today’s faculty of “arts and science”). The “damaging” power of the “free play of reason” belongs exclusively to the philosophical faculty, which, in due course, would branch out in the different fields of the humanities, social, and natural sciences, constituting the liberal arts as opposed to professional or vocational fields.

Kant’s friend and advisee, Wilhelm von Humboldt built on the Kantian notion of the faculties to set up the University of Berlin modelled on the freedom of scholarly enquiry and the unity of research and teaching, thus setting the precedent for the modern research university. The perpetually unfinished and ongoing nature of scholarly research required that its frontiers never be closed off and that the project of philosophical and scientific enquiry remain ceaseless. It is now well-known that the German research university model made its first appearance in the US at Johns Hopkins University, from where it spread – making the American university the most formidable institution to enact the Humboldtian triad of research, teaching, and professional training.

A key reason why it is so easy to suppress academic freedom in Indian universities without much outrage from anywhere but a minoritised and embattled liberal intelligentsia is a simple one: the idea of the research university that fuses research and teaching has never gained real momentum in this country.

The history behind this is manifold and multi-layered, and the subject of much disagreement among scholars. Andre Beteille has traced the examination-structured, rote-learning-driven character of Indian post-secondary education to the British intent of creating universities as clerk-making factories. While Gauri Viswanathan has elaborated the Macaulayian vision behind this colonial humanistic curriculum, scholars such as Rosinka Chaudhuri and Sanjay Seth have variously questioned the notion of the passive Indian subject colonised by this educational enterprise.

The incorporation of the modern university in India, indeed, is a complex subject and we cannot possibly resolve the multiple origin stories here. But neither is that necessary. Whatever the cause, it is amply clear that research and teaching were, to a great degree, institutionally separated in this country, running counter to the structure and principle of the Western research university. There are exceptions to this, such as the University of Calcutta between the two world wars, which saw an illustrious gathering of scientists, historians and linguists, and important research in certain fields, such as South Asian history, have come from the collegiate system, but on the whole, the institutional separation of research and teaching has significantly shaped the culture of both, most obviously in the various fields of the natural sciences.

This separation is reflected in the way institutions are structured in India. Research institutes are devoted to the creation of new knowledge, mostly in the natural and social sciences. The university and its collegiate system, on the other hand, have rarely meant to be a venue of significant research, but for a few notable exceptions. For the most part, fundamental research has been concentrated in research institutes such as high-powered social science centres such as the CSDS, CSSSC, CWDS, and TISS, along with scientific institutes such as ISI, IIS, and TIFR.

These institutions have little, if any relation with undergraduate education, though some of them are venues for doctoral and postdoctoral research. We have started to see some exceptions to this trend in recent times, at least in the sciences: institutions like the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) and the appropriately titled Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), which has several campuses nationwide. All of these institutes have undergraduate as well as graduate programmes, often integrated with each other. Such developments come as radically innovative in an educational landscape where colleges have traditionally been imagined as places where undergraduate students learn, that is, consume existing knowledge, without any place in institutes where advanced professionals produce new knowledge.

The confluence of research and teaching in the same institutional venue confers a unique significance to both that goes missing when they are practised in separate spaces. It is this unique significance that makes academic freedom both an urgent condition and a requirement for the long-term prosperity of research trajectories. The need for academic freedom is never as obvious when innovative research gets life in the classroom, getting humanised, as it were. Likewise, the need for academic freedom shines clearest to immediate human actors in the process of experiencing the fruits of ongoing research, including its trials and errors. In the absence of this togetherness, it is easy to let freedom backslide, in the classroom as much as in the rarefied spaces of labs, minds, and archives.

It is scarcely coincidental that the loudest dissent against the suppression of academic freedom initially came from a small number of universities that have thrived outside the collegiate colonial model: Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, which was set up in independent India with a Nehruvian vision of social science research and advanced study; Jadavpur University in Calcutta which was set up in the early 20th century as part of a movement of anticolonial nationalism; and Hyderabad Central University in Hyderabad, which was set up in the 1970s. The fact that these three universities were quickly branded “anti-national” has as much to do with their relative fusion of research and teaching as much as the role played by left-liberal students and faculty, who can be found aplenty in other institutions as well.

That academic freedom is under threat everywhere is undeniable, including in the US which has seen the greatest flourishing of the research university. The Republican political machinery has launched a pervasive attack on critical race theory and on measures of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education, intensified in GOP-ruled states. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, by the end of summer 2023, governors of eight states have legislated curriculum-content restrictions; governors in five states signed into law restrictions on diversity, equity, and inclusion; lawmakers in 12 additional states have been similar bills. The happy accident that fused the elite, the populist, and community support to create the formidable institution of the American research university is starting to show large cracks in the local community faith that had upheld its vernacular infrastructure throughout the 20th century.

However, the research university that fused fundamental inquiry with immersive pedagogy never quite existed in India, though they existed well enough in separate spaces. In the absence of this fusion, it becomes easy to blame “activist teachers” or a culture of student dissent, eventually dismissing them as rogue elements inessential to the mission of the university. It even becomes possible to spin the illusion that a university can shape smart interdisciplinary majors experimenting across a liberal span of disciplines without these students demanding the critical freedom to question authority and challenge social inequity. Such is how an important delusion is crafted – that one can study the liberal arts without becoming politically and ethically liberal in character. These are the contradictions under which innovative liberal arts education has come under recent stress across Asia; most striking has been the severance of the highly-publicised collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore that created the short-lived Yale-NUS College.

Real freedom in the classroom, must, in the final instance, be in symbiosis with the freedom offered to the pursuit of research. The recent cloud gathered over the closure of an influential research centre at Ashoka University and due process around the evaluation of a faculty member whose work was rooted in this centre augurs rough weather in this union of research and teaching that has been this university’s declared goal. Any university that aspires to be taken seriously as a research institution capable of producing high-powered graduates must be sharply mindful of the unique freedom that is neither merely about liberty in the classroom nor only about open frontiers in research, but that which resides at the powerful confluence of both, even when that freedom proves explosive in the context of a particular political landscape.

Saikat Majumdar is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. He posts here on X. The views in this article are personal.