The election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister in 2014 reinforced a declining trend in the country’s academic freedom, a report by an international group of scholars said on Thursday.

The report, titled “Academic Freedom Index Update 2023”, was prepared through a collaboration of 2,917 country experts worldwide and was co-ordinated by Swedish think tank V-Dem Institute and the Institute of Political Science at the Friedrich Alexander University in Germany.

The report identified 22 countries – including India, China, the United States and Mexico – where it said universities and scholars experience significantly less academic freedom today than they did ten years ago.

India is ranked among the bottom 30% with an index score of less than 0.4 among the 179 countries assessed by the researchers. The report has ranked the United States among the top 50% of countries with an index score just below 0.8. China has been ranked among the bottom 10% with a score of less than 0.1.

The index score measures five indicators — the freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy of universities, freedom of academic and cultural expression and campus integrity, or the absence of security infringements and surveillance on campus.

The report said that academic freedom in India began to decline in 2009 with a drop in university autonomy, followed by “a sharp downturn in all indicators” from 2013. “Around 2013, all aspects of academic freedom began to decline strongly, reinforced with Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014,” it said.

The academicians said that what distinguishes India from other countries is pressure on institutional autonomy and campus integrity combined with constraints on academics’ freedom of expression.

The report added: “The attacks on academic freedom under [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s Hindu nationalist government were also possible due to the absence of a legal framework to protect academic freedom.”

The research, however, said that there are sub-national variations in India at the institutional level and across disciplines. “In summary, India demonstrates the pernicious relationship between populist governments, autocratization, and constraints on academic freedom,” it said.

Commenting on the findings, Katrin Kinzelbach, a professor of international politics at the Friedrich Alexander University told The Telegraph: “Without freedom, universities become places of dogma rather than research, academics cannot fulfil their role in society, students cannot develop independent minds.”

In a 2021 report, the V-Dem Institute had declared that India’s electoral democracy had collapsed in 2016, giving way to an electoral autocracy. Its report said that India’s autocratisation process has “largely followed the typical pattern for countries in the ‘Third Wave’ over the past ten years: a gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia, and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent”.