Saturday, January 23, 2010

Police states and academic freedom

with Ujjwal Singh, published in EPW, January 23, 2010, Vol. XLV No 4, 8-9

As social scientists, our research involves field interactions with people, sometimes in conflict situations. Given the importance of relevance and timeliness in our respective disciplines – sociology and political science – we often study issues which deal with politics, and from perspectives which may not be agreeable to the authorities. At all times, however, we strive for objectivity and independence in our research. It can be no-one’s case that such research  should not be done in the social sciences, and that only security think tanks and journalists should have access to conflict areas. Genuine research cannot come out of being embedded with any side. Indeed, the government must positively welcome such independent research by social scientists, because it can provide an alternative view to what is available from other sources.

However, despite the government’s new emphasis on higher education and ‘world class research’ it remains confined to a security mindset, where only certain types of  people can do research and only on certain subjects, or from perspectives the government approves of. National security and national honour are routinely invoked to stymie the most harmless work, especially when it comes to hapless foreign scholars. Coomi Kapoor recently reported in the Indian Express, (20 December 2009) that ‘a Chinese student who applied to do his PhD in a university in Delhi on caste and class in Malgudi, R K Narayan's fictionalised village, was turned down on the grounds that there is no caste system in India ever since reservations were introduced.’ But even those who don’t require visas are hemmed in by people who lack the most basic understanding of what research is all about.  One of us was present at a meeting to discuss research proposals on access to justice in India. Scholars from a reputed law university wanted to compare the ‘people’s courts’ run by Naxalites, the instant justice dispensed by dacoits in the Chambal area, and the regular judicial system, to understand why so many people were turning to the former two arenas. One would have thought this was a matter of great interest not just to the scholarly community but to the public at large and to the judiciary. Yet, the official from the Law Ministry who was present there to ‘advise’ came down hard on the proposal on the grounds that it would legitimize the Naxalites and the Chambal dacoits. Since when has studying something become a way of legitimizing it?

In the last week of December 2009, the Chhattisgarh government took this police mentality to an extreme, by escorting us out of the state. Under the pretext of giving us ‘security’, the Chhatisgarh police effectively had us in their custody for a night and a day. We had decided to use the university winter break to visit Dantewada.  Nandini was doing follow-up research on the impact of the current conflict situation on people’s everyday lives, including evaluating the status of livelihoods for her case before the Supreme Court on Salwa Judum. Ujjwal was doing preliminary research on the civil liberties and law in Dantewada. Both are perfectly legitimate academic and social activities, and indeed, restrictions on the free movement of a witness or complainant before the Court amounts to actionable contempt of court.

We had planned to stay for five days to talk to people and collect material. However, in both Dantewada and Sukma, the police put pressure on lodge owners to deny us accommodation. We were detained in Sukma for checking in the evening of the 30th with no explanation for why they had stopped us, and no questions as to why we were there.  At midnight on the 30th, 6-7 armed SPOs burst into our room at the college hostel where we had taken refuge. The next morning we were followed by seven armed SPOs with AK 47s from Sukma in an unmarked white car, and this was replaced at Tongpal by twelve SPOs in two jeeps. None of them had any name plates.  The SPOs also scared our jeep drivers by taking photos of them and the vehicle. The SPOs followed us one pace behind even into tourist spots in Bastar and shops in Jagdalpur, intimidating all those around us as well, and preventing us from talking to people freely. DGP Vishwaranjan claimed on the phone that it was for our ‘protection’ that we were given this treatment since there was news of Naxalite troop movement, and has gone on to say (Indian Express, 3rd Jan), “anything can happen. Maoists can attack the activists to put the blame on the police. We will deploy a few companies of security forces for the security of the activists.”  The claims by the DGP are absurd considering that that the police was relentlessly ensuring that we got no accommodation anywhere and were evidently compelling us to leave Sukma for Jagdalpur in the middle of the night. The SP of Dantewada, Amaresh Misra, was somewhat more honest when he said he had instructions from above to ‘escort’ out ‘visiting dignitaries.’ The SPOs in their jeeps followed us some way from Jagdalpur to Raipur, even when we were on the bus. In addition, two armed constables and an SI were sent on the bus to ensure we got to Raipur. We overheard the SI telling the armed constables to “take us down at Dhamtari” but fortunately this plan was abandoned.   We flew out of Raipur the next morning, a day earlier than planned, with no work to show for our time there.

Unless academic freedom, as well as the basic freedom of movement within the country is protected, we will only have one-sided research or probably no genuine research at all. This is not just a problem which the academic community at large should be concerned with, but also all those who have the long term interests of the nation and democracy at heart. One of the major causes for public dissatisfaction with states in the former Soviet bloc was the restrictions they imposed on free thought. The media has already been censored on anything to do with the current Operations in Chhattisgarh; and now it is the turn of the University.