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'Carries the flavour of propaganda': 13 Academic Fellows resign from the Australia India Institute

Deep concerns about stifled academic freedom have come to light


Thirteen Academic Fellows have resigned from The University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute (Aii), citing growing concerns over its vision. Its vision, as stated on its official website, is to be “Australia’s leading authority on the Australia-India relationship and the principal convener of strategic dialogue between the two nations.” 


In a letter accessed by South Asian Today, fellows write to the Vice-Chancellor expressing a deep worry around the Aii’s restrictions on academic freedom. It backs its apprehensions by disclosing the Aii’s denial to publish a piece written by two Academic Fellows that discussed understanding modern attacks on Gandhi after attempts to decapitate his statue in Melbourne came to light last year. Aii communicated it had decided to “stay away from the topic a little longer”.


The piece was later published by another University of Melbourne publication, Pursuit, in December 2021. It discusses campaigns like ‘Gandhi Must Fall’ aiming to remove Gandhi’s statues like the University of Ghana did in 2018, saying “he was undoubtedly racist”.


In a separate example, the letter notes an Ear to Asia podcast entitled ‘Caste and the Corporation, in India and abroad’ by the same two fellows was not included on the Aii’s website, while those by others were.  


The letter conveys its disappointment with the Aii by stating that “those who engage in such critical scholarship, despite facing hate from supremacist groups, should be supported rather than silenced.”


South Asian Today approached The University of Melbourne for a comment on the matter. A spokesperson said the University and the Institute respect the decision of the Academic Fellows who recently tenured their resignations, adding, “Academic freedom of speech is respected and supported at the University of Melbourne and is central to our values and identity. We are committed to maintaining and strengthening a vibrant, inclusive and respectful campus community in which diversity is recognised, valued and celebrated.”


Both the article and the podcast sidelined by the Aii unpack an India that supporters of the current Modi regime would find difficult to sit with. Matters of caste and Gandhi’s racist ideologies do not compliment an image that the BJP tries to maintain in the west: tolerable, equal and progressive. Dissenters of the government in India have met with assassinations as the alarming killings of Dalit people and Muslims continue. Just two months ago, Karnataka banned Muslim girls wearing a Hijab from entering schools. And this month alone, a Dalit man was killed in Jaipur for donning a moustache - an honour apparently only reserved for upper-caste Hindu men.

 

A bust of Dalit social reformer Dr B R Ambedkar sits on the premises of the Aii


Similar concerns about Hindutva’s extremism raised by Ian Woolford, a former Aii Academic Fellow who is also one of the letter's signatories, were countered by Michael Wesley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor International of the University of Melbourne.


In a public correspondence shared between the two on Australian Foreign Affairs Issue 14, February 2022, Michael wrote, “He will wait a long time before Australia makes human rights or democracy a central plank of its foreign policy. One of the most consistent elements in Australian foreign policy is a willingness to overlook a foreign regime's foibles if Australia has a strong interest in maintaining stable and positive relations.”


This exchange comes on the heels of Professor Wesley’s piece ‘Pivot to India: Our next great and powerful friend?’ published by the Australian Foreign Affairs in its 13th issue ‘India Rising?’ 


The word ‘powerful’ for Australia-India relations does ring true. As recently as March 2022, Australia promised an investment of $190 million in India. The initiatives include more than $25 million for Australian businesses and researchers to tap into India’s space industry, $9.5 million for an Australia-India Innovation and Technology Challenge and $7.8 million to secure the ongoing Australia-India Strategic Research Fund.


Currently, the Australia India Institute is Australia's only leading centre dedicated to promoting, supporting and understanding the Australia-India relationship through academic research.


However, the thirteen resignees have raised significant concerns about whether the Institute can distinguish itself from increasing government and economic ties between the two countries. In their letter, they further state their doubts about any government funding impacting freedom of academic research, adding, “research commercialisation, research engagement, research impact, are all only successful if research remains at the heart of the effort. We do not see the Aii’s approach reflecting this.”

 

The CEO of the Aii, Lisa Singh


Former Australian Senator and the first female MP of South Asian descent, Lisa Singh, was appointed the CEO of Australia India Institute in August 2021. On her appointment, Lisa said, “It’s important we nurture the academic and research capabilities in the relationship. But it needs to be done by focusing on shared priorities. That way partnerships for both nations will be enduring and mutually beneficial.”


In the letter accessed by South Asian Today, apart from worries around the Aii’s approach toward research, fellows have also mentioned their lack of involvement in appointing the new CEO.

 

In March 2021, several Academic Fellows appear to have given their time to detailed conversations with two candidates who they were told were the two finalists. However, they received no further communication until the general announcement of the appointment of Singh as Director -  who was not ever named as a candidate. 


Following Lisa Singh’s appointment, when the Aii’s website was relaunched in March this year, several Academic Fellows found their names removed from it. Upon enquiry, one of the removed fellows was told the Aii no longer wishes to affiliate with them. 


“The Aii did not think it fit to inform academic fellows of this before removing them from the website. This shows a deep lack of respect, professionalism and collegiality on the part of the Aii towards researchers and the work they do, which it is claimed underpins the Aii's mission,” the resignees add.


The fellows have demanded an independent review into the governance and functioning of the Aii. The letter also mentions a “lack of diversity” in the Institute’s composition of Distinguished Fellows “who appear to overwhelmingly be white men”.


South Asian Today approached several fellows for a comment and received a joint statement this morning. It says, “We are awaiting a response from the University to the specific concerns raised in the letter. We have no further comment to make until then.”


The author of this piece is a former employee of the Australia India Institute, ending her two-year work relationship in March 2021. She has never worked under the current CEO.


South Asian Today is an independent media company committed to amplifying South Asian writers and artists. If you like our work, please become a member or buy us a coffee here. Your support enables us to keep our journalism open for all and publish South Asian writers. Please support us by becoming a member and helping us remain free of a paywall. It starts at just $5/month.

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.

 

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