Academics quit Melbourne University institute over foreign interference and free speech concerns

Academics quit Melbourne University institute over foreign interference and free speech concerns

The letters allege the Indian High Commission’s interest in the institute had “led to some events relating to India being discouraged, or not supported, on the grounds that they were likely to be controversial”.

One example includes a publicly advertised event which was “downgraded to a private invitation-only seminar, following an intervention by the Indian High Commissioner”. One of the 13 signatories, who spoke to The Age on condition of anonymity, revealed that this was a 2019 talk titled “Keywords for India: Violence”, which discussed violence by Hindu nationalist groups against Muslims.

The 2020 letter expressed hope that the institute’s future would be centred on “the values of academic freedom, independence, impartiality, inclusiveness, quality, diversity and respect for scholarly dissent”. The academics argued this was important in light of the Indian government’s use of “sedition laws to curtail freedom of speech” and its incarceration of academics, journalists and social workers “with little evidence, due process or access to bail”.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.Credit:AP

A scholar of Indian studies at Warwick University, Professor Goldie Osuri, told The Age that India’s current political landscape was grim and “open season has been declared on minorities, and Muslims in particular. Freedom House’s 2021 report deemed India an “electoral autocracy”.

In its statement, the University of Melbourne said it and the institute “respect the decision of the Academic Fellows who recently tendered their resignations”.

“Australia-India relationship continues to be one of the most strategically important international relationships for the University of Melbourne and we are deeply committed to growing and building our ties with India,” the statement said.

The institute’s strategic direction “was developed through close consultation with many of its fellows and stakeholders, and has been endorsed by the Council of the University of Melbourne”, the statement said.

“The University of Melbourne is committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech. They are central to our core values and identity. The University has been working on strengthening our policies in this area for the past two years and take any allegations of this nature very seriously.”

The Indian High Commission said in a statement that the University of Melbourne had “responded suitably to the story”, and this was “not a matter for the High Commission of India to comment on”.

The academics’ protest follows the signing this week of a long-awaited free-trade agreement between Australia and India. On Wednesday, Melbourne University and the Australia India Institute hosted Trade Minister Dan Tehan and his Indian counterpart, Piyush Goyal, who held talks after the signing of the agreement.

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