There is a widely-held view that places of learning should remain ‘free of politics’ and hence academics should stay politically neutral. Usually neutrality implies academic silence in political debates, which can sometimes have immense social, economic, environmental and public health consequences. The advocates of this neutrality argue that it’s the best course to ensure no section of students is alienated and their education is not compromised.
But can places of learning remain ‘free of politics’ when what they teach is itself determined by political instead of academic considerations? In Indian universities from the textbooks to the curriculum to the policies for selecting faculty to the code of conduct for students - everything is political and ideologically-informed.
Dante, the famous Italian poet, writer and philosopher once said “the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Should a professor of Science remain neutral when a government-backed quack denounces modern medicine in the midst of a pandemic? Is it possible for professors of History to not take a stand on the growing demands from India’s far right to revise history? Can a professor of Constitutional Law remain silent in the face of the current Hijab row? Should a professor of international relations not share his opinion if Russia invades Ukraine?
And more importantly, is silence in the face of political upheaval and social turbulence still neutral? These are some of the questions posed by those who root for academics to openly air their views. However, in today’s hyper-polarized political climate speaking up can have serious consequences. It may entangle an academic in a public controversy they are not equipped at navigating. Further it could alienate some of their students and coworkers. At best it may prove to be a temporary distraction from their research and teaching, and at worst it may result in highly adverse life-changing career outcomes. Many are therefore reluctant to intervene even when they have valuable information and well founded opinions to contribute to a debate.
But is the job of academics only to prepare students to pass exams, obtain degrees and become employable? Do they not have a bigger role to play in society? Especially as we witness rampant misinformation and general confusion should it not be a moral and professional obligation for academics to speak up and not leave the important political discourse “to those who benefit from it”?
Dr. Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, UNESCO Chair of International Water Cooperation, and the Director of Research School of International Water Cooperation at Uppsala University, Sweden. He has written extensively on new security challenges, water sharing issues, environment, conflict and peace, and democratic development issues. He has published 20 books (authored and edited) more than 150 journal articles and book chapters.