A former professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University told me that his vice chancellor once asked to speak to him about the regular commentaries he wrote in the newspapers. He thought that the vice chancellor probably did not want him to waste his time writing opinion pieces and instead use it to produce academic work. But what the vice chancellor said next put his unease in perspective. I can get in trouble for what you write, the vice chancellor told him. The professor returned amused but he was not concerned about the security of his job.

Those were gentler times. A vice chancellor asking a faculty member not to make life difficult for him by criticising the government knew that it was embarrassing to discuss this in the open. If the professor decided not to listen to him, he could do little.

Today, vice chancellors have a reason to shut up their teachers. They are being directed by the University Grants Commission to treat teachers as government servants – bar them from speaking their minds which more often than not goes against the power.

The regulator sent the directive to universities in May. But it is making news now after the JNU administration adopted the directive to make its teaching staff compliant to the Civil Services Conduct Rules.

The JNU teaching community is up in arms, fearing the decision will take away their freedom to pursue their work without fear. The administration is accusing the complaining teachers of spreading half-truths. It maintains that the conduct rules will kick in only where the JNU Act or relevant ordinances are silent. But the laws governing universities such as JNU are silent at many places. For one, they do not explicitly state how faculty should conduct themselves in matters of politics, or public life generally.

Civil servants are not supposed to criticise the government, their employer. This may be understandable even if we now see many civil servants writing or speaking rather freely. Their views can embarrass the government, yet they are being tolerated.

Teachers have enjoyed freedom in this regard. Not only can they air their political views openly, they need not resign to participate in active politics. They can join political formations, organise or lead political campaigns, even fight elections while still in service. The government has now moved to curb this freedom. The UGC, having forgotten that it must act on behalf of universities and chosen to be the government’s post office, has asked universities to frame ordinances to bind teachers to the Civil Services Conduct Rules.

To understand how dangerous this is, look at the Tribal Central University of Amarkantak, which is already implementing the conduct rules. An ordinance issued by the university directs all its employees not to speak, write or publish without prior permission from the authorities. This means no employee will be able to speak critically about the government, the university or the UGC. The rules do allow writing for “purely scientific or academic” purposes but are silent on who will make such a determination. Further, not only are the employees barred from even associating with any political party or activity, they are expected to dissuade their family members from doing so as well.

JNU has also resolved to implement the service rules while the Central University of Gujarat and the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, have already started framing ordinances.

The government has always held the teaching community to be a nuisance, although many members of the ruling class have been teachers themselves. We have often heard bureaucrats wondering how teachers can be allowed to criticise the government when it pays their salaries.

Feeling under siege

Knowledge, in the true sense of the term, is criticism. It questions authority in all its forms. A teacher’s job is not only to facilitate the transfer of available knowledge to the next generation but also to create new knowledge. How can this be done uncritically? How, for example, would a critique of atomic energy or the building of mega dams be treated by the government? When any word against the Sardar Sarovar Dam is deemed sacrilege in Gujarat, or when atomic energy is seen as being essential to national development, how can a teacher discuss them without risking being treated as anti-government or even anti-national?

In any modern democratic society, the academic community has a function beyond the classroom. They are expected to help the public make informed choices, and not only in elections. How else are citizens expected to assess government policies that affect their lives if specialists are prevented from explaining their import without fear or favour. In recent years, we have seen how intervention by economists like Jean Dreze led to the enactment of the Right to Food Act. And it’s constant public intervention by scholars like him that has kept the debate on Aadhaar alive. Scholarship will flee India’s public universities if teachers are restrained from speaking their minds.

In any case, it is not the UGC’s business to keep bombarding universities with suggestions about internal governance. Universities are autonomous institutions governed by their respective acts. The UGC is meant only to ensure that standards are maintained. Yet, in the last few years, successive governments have used the regulator dictate to universities and meddle in their internal affairs. And weak leaderships of universities have allowed it without much protest. Forcing the conduct rules on teachers is the latest assault on academic freedom in India.

In countries such as China, Russia and Turkey, universities are seen with suspicion and, thus, tightly controlled by government. In India, however, campuses have been largely liberal. Academics have been allowed to have their views and no government has dared treat a university teacher as just another of its employees. Until now, that is.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party took power four years ago, leaders of the ruling party and even ministers have frequently denounced universities as dens of “anti-nationals”. Most recently, liberal campuses have been projected as the stomping grounds of “Urban Naxals”. The government has unleashed propaganda that anti-national and “anti-development” elements are operating out of universities, masquerading as teachers. For India to achieve peaceful development, the government says, campuses must be weeded out of such undesirable elements. It appears a wide section of the public is receptive to the idea of purging campuses of people who do not confine themselves to jobs they are supposedly being paid for – and the government is now using this popular sentiment to ensure compliant campuses.

This will greatly damage public universities. Already, some eminent scholars have left esteemed institutions such as Delhi University and JNU for private establishments such as the Ashoka University or the Jindal University. It is wrong to assume they were lured by money. A feeling of being under siege robbed them of their peace. Scholarship cannot take place in this atmosphere. It would be really sad if our society left teachers to fight this battle on their own.