Early in the evening on 5 January, more than 70 masked hoodlums armed with iron rods, stones, and sticks entered the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). They set upon teachers and students who were holding a peaceful political gathering, and marched into student hostels, terrorizing and injuring dozens. Panicked students posted videos on social media and called the police for help, which didn’t arrive.
The attack on one of India’s most prestigious universities sent shock waves around the country and is the latest sign that the political forces tearing apart Indian society are also affecting the country’s academic community. Students at JNU, a liberal bastion, had been on strike for months against both a major hike in student fees and the government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), widely decried as discriminatory against Muslims. The attackers appeared to be Hindu nationalists. From the inaction of both campus security and the police, many concluded that the attackers acted with the consent of India’s Hindu nationalist government.
For many academics, the rampage—which came on the heels of a brutal police response to several other university protests last month—felt like an attack on freedom of speech and democracy itself. “It looks like we are living in an era [of] textbook fascist methodology,” says Dinesh Abrol, a former chief scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and a spokesperson for the Delhi Science Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes science. “The space for dissent, free thinking, and contrarian views has already shrunk,” says geographer Sucharita Sen, a professor of regional development at JNU who was hit on the head with a brick during the attack.
Many say they’re worried about being branded as “antinationals” or communists and targeted on television and social media. “I downplay my identity now and don’t express any opinions that may sound political,” says a Muslim scientist at JNU who asked not to be identified.
Although Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, the Indian government’s principal scientific adviser, “unhesitatingly and unequivocally” condemned the violence at JNU, many say politicians themselves have fanned the flames. Days before the attack, Home Minister Amit Shah—to whom the New Delhi police report—said "antinational gang members" at JNU “should be taught a lesson.”
The violence came on the heels of other clashes sparked by the CAA, which became law on 12 January and is designed to provide citizenship to persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Muslims are excluded, which critics say violates India’s secular constitution. (India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has argued that “people are being misled” over the act.) A National Register of Citizens and a National Population Register, which would force every Indian to produce documents proving their citizenship, are expected to follow. Many Muslims fear they will be declared stateless persons.
On 15 December 2019, police beat and tear-gassed students protesting the CAA at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), a government-funded university; one student was blinded. The same day, Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh state was closed after police forcefully quelled a protest. A citizen fact-finding team concluded that tear gas shells, stun grenades, and bullets left more than 100 students “with shattered bones, grave injuries, deep bruises, and severe psychological trauma.” The right hand of a doctoral student in chemistry, Mohammad Tariq, had to be amputated after he was hit by a shell.
India’s scientific establishment, traditionally apolitical, has also spoken out against the CAA. The past months saw protests at leading research centers, including the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, many spearheaded by young scientists. Nearly 2000 scientists and science students signed an open letter in early December 2019 denouncing the bill, including leading researchers such as Sandeep Trivedi, director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and Rajesh Gopakumar, director of the International Center for Theoretical Sciences.
It looks like we are living in an era [of] textbook fascist methodology.
Researchers of Indian descent abroad have spoken out as well, including chemistry Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society. Abhijit Banerjee, a JNU alumnus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who won an economics Nobel in 2019, warned that the attack on JNU “has too many echoes of the years when Germany was moving towards Nazi rule.”
The CAA isn’t the only problem scientists have with the Modi government. Many also abhor the rise of pseudoscience rooted in Hindu nationalism and the budgetary neglect of science and higher education. The central government’s budget for universities has plummeted from 0.6% of gross domestic product in 2013–14, the year Modi came to power, to 0.2% in 2018–19.
Some fear the growing divisions will slow India’s impressive recent progress in science and technology. “Look at where our next-door rival China is going,” says one physicist at JMI. “Instead of looking ahead, this government is taking us hundreds of years backwards, to medieval ages. It’s pitting the entire population against each other and setting the country on fire.”