The arrests are an alarming development in a country that already has enough to contend with in the effects of the pandemic on the nation’s health, economy and society. At the start of October, the Indian government froze the bank accounts of Amnesty International in Delhi  and forced the organisation to discontinue their activities in the country.

Amnesty vehemently denies the accusation that it violated the rules on the transfer of foreign money. The organisation is also warning that it and various other human rights groups are being subjected to increasing reprisals for their criticism of the government.


A threat to academic freedom

Babu, like many of the arrested and accused, is a highly respected and well-established figure in his own field. As a member of a Muslim minority from the southern state of Kerala (Moplah), he belongs to the first generation of so-called "other backward castes", who were appointed as university lecturers under the national anti-discrimination programme. As a fellow of the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) he spent three years as a researcher at the University of Leipzig and at the University of Konstanz.

He has spoken actively and vociferously on issues of social inclusivity and caste-based discrimination at universities. As secretary of the Academic Forum for Social Justice, he campaigned for the mandatory recruitment of persons belonging to historically disadvantaged castes and communities in higher education, exposing loopholes in the implementation of reservation policies in universities.

In his opposition to the caste system Babu has been critical not only of the ruling government, closely allied with Hindutva-nationalist socio-political forces such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS, but also of the traditional Left in the country, which he has criticised as implicitly benefitting from upper-caste privileges sanctioned by mainstream Hinduism.

He has also spoken out against the imprisonment of other academics, particularly those from marginalised communities. Since Hany Babu’s arrest, hundreds of his former and current students have spoken up on online platforms, demanding his release. Some of these students have also been detained, interrogated and threatened with detention and other reprisals.

International pressure is necessary

"Outrage is reserved for violations that have a potential to affect the dominant classes," Hany Babu writes in an article published in 2015, analysing how certain kinds of caste-based discrimination receive more public attention than others in India. The statement rings uncannily true in his own case as well as that of countless others in India today. Babu’s bail hearing is expected in the coming days.

The international community must call out the Indian government’s unquestionably authoritarian, politically motivated and indefensible actions. Germany, too, one of India’s most important economic partners, could exert a huge influence by officially calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners in India.

According to the international Academic Freedom Index published by the University of Gothenburg, and current independent Indian reports, there has been a sharp decline in all indicators for academic freedom in Indian universities since 2014.

The restrictions on academic freedom in India are a clear and disturbing indication of the crumbling of democratic institutions and practices in the country.

Sruti Bala

© 2020

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Sruti Bala is associate professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and a member of InSAF India (International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India), an international coalition which is currently fighting for the release of imprisoned academics.

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