An exodus of academics from a Melbourne institute illustrated the difficulties universities face in hosting diplomatically oriented think tanks in a world of conflict.
At least 13 affiliates have quit the Australia India Institute (AII) after claims it was muzzling them at the behest of Indian diplomats. The institute denied the claims and blamed the walkout in part on a poorly communicated “refreshment” of its academic fellows.
The AII was established at the University of Melbourne in 2009, amid intense media coverage of violent attacks on Indian students in the city. Then-Minister for Education Julia Gillard committed more than A$8m (£4.6m) to the institute ahead of an Indian minister’s visit ‘to hear first-hand » student problems.
Melbourne, La Trobe University and UNSW Sydney helped fund the institute, which received additional federal funding in 2014 and 2018. But in a 2020 letter to Melbourne Deputy Vice-Chancellor Michael Wesley, 24 scholars urged the institute to assert its independence and “respect for academic dissent” in response to the deteriorating human rights environment in India.
The institute’s activities had “carried the flavor of propaganda, celebrating the current Indian government and its dominant culture”, the letter said, while the institute’s plans had been changed following the intervention of Indian diplomats, with a public lecture on Hindu nationalist violence downgraded to an invitation. – single event.
Those concerns intensified after Lisa Singh, Australia’s first female MP of South Asian descent, became chief executive at the end of 2021. Ms Singh’s longstanding advocacy for a deeper Australia-India relationship won her the award Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honor Delhi bestows on overseas Indians.
Arguing that academic ties must be nurtured “by focusing on shared priorities”, she has drawn up a new strategic plan rallying the work of the institute around three “impact themes”: “bilateral economy”, “cultural diplomacy and “security and geopolitics”.
Critics said it left little room for issues such as the “oppression and marginalization” of minority groups. All 13 fellows resigned in another letter to Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell which was sent last month.
Ian Woolford, head of La Trobe’s Hindi language program and one of the recent quits, said the two letters cited only the most easily documented instances of interference. While such incidents might seem minor in isolation – for example, the institute refusing a paper that was later published elsewhere – collectively they amounted to “death by a thousand cuts”, he said.
“It’s very easy for someone to say, ‘It was just an editorial decision. That’s not what we’re focusing on right now. When you tie all of these things together, you see how the mission of the institute is deployed to ward off certain opinions.
Dr Woolford said improving bilateral relations was a “laudable” goal, but it was “very difficult” for a university to host an institute that focused its research solely on mutual government priority areas.
“We’ve been raising our concerns with the university for years. The rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in India has raised the stakes. One of the main motivations for my resignation was the feeling that the institute was setting aside the work of scholars who shed light on this issue,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the IIA said there had been no diplomatic interference in its activities. “We have organized events dealing with difficult topics and facilitated publications by scholars who contribute to public debates on these issues,” she said.
While research was “at the heart” of its work, the spokeswoman continued, the institute was “not a research institute or an academic organization. We sit outside the faculty system and are not eligible to receive research grants. The external funding we seek from government and business enables us to undertake our work as a policy think tank and aligns with the approach of similar university-linked think tanks.
But the institute’s former colleague, Priya Chacko, said the institute was “whitewashing” controversial issues. “Propaganda for the Indian government…has no place in an academic institute, which should uphold standards of academic honesty,” she said.
She said a focus on ‘shared priorities’ had ‘no place in a university’ if it involved ‘research that only favors India, Australia and the relationship while doing spinning narratives about shared liberal democratic values”.