Australia’s leading India think tank, based at the University of Melbourne, is facing criticism over academic interference and pressure from the Indian government. By Charmaine Manuel.

Behind the scenes at the Australia India Institute

A Caucasian man in his late 30s to 40s in a dark blue suit, pink shirt and blue tie addresses what appears to be a lecture theatre; he is holding note cards
Professor Craig Jeffrey delivers an address as director of the Australia India Institute in 2015.
Credit: Facebook

When Stephen was employed at the Australia India Institute (AII), he often had the sense his workplace was being watched. Stephen is not his real name: he fears repercussions.

“In general,” he says, “there was a sense at the institute that we were being watched by the Indian government and this feeling was expressed by pretty much everyone who worked there. There was a general notion that, while we could do scholarly work, anything that approached deeply critical scholarly work around certain issues in India was touching on the taboo and was something that had to be navigated very carefully if there were to be any public event.”

Based at the University of Melbourne, the institute was founded in 2008 to “change perceptions about Australia in India, promote trade and investment and activate bilateral networks”. Its origin lies in attacks on international students, between 2007 and 2009, which raised concerns about Australia’s overseas reputation and the loss of Indian students.

“India had been in Australia’s focus in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Professor Howard Brasted, a founding fellow at the institute. “But by the 1990s, Indonesia and China had become all the rage. For a time, India disappeared off the academic and political radar. So, the initiative in establishing the AII was a welcome one.”

In March this year, however, the institute came under scrutiny when 13 academic fellows resigned over concerns about academic freedom. The walkout came months after the launch of a new strategy outlining the institute’s vision as “Australia’s leading voice on the Australia-India relationship and the principal convenor of strategic dialogue”. A statement from the university says: “The University of Melbourne met with several of the Academic Fellows earlier this year. Their concerns were listened to, and we thank them for their time.”

The Saturday Paper spoke to 15 people associated with the institute for this story. When sources mentioned perceived threats to academic freedom, they fell into three categories – from the Indian government’s representatives in Australia, from nationalistic elements in the diaspora, or from a reluctance in the broader Australian university and government context to engage with critical questions about India. Those who declined to be named expressed concerns over career reprisals and the risk of losing visa access to India.

“It’s never been clear entirely what the AII is,” says Dr Priya Chacko, one of the fellows who resigned. “Everyone has said that it should have a clearer mission.”

A statement from the institute says it consulted “a wide range of stakeholders” in updating its “vision and strategic plan”. It says the institute is “not an academic centre, but rather has an academic interface through our links with fellows and researchers”.

In interviews, several sources emphasised the role of the Indian diaspora in the institute’s public engagement. One former researcher observed that the diaspora brought a form of “legitimacy” to the institute’s activities. Another felt that multiple stakeholders had led to the institute positioning itself in a “part-university, part-government, part-diaspora role” that was “actually not able to do anything”.

Researchers said that they noticed friction at public events between academic engagement with India, which is often critical and focused on issues of caste, gender and human rights, and sections of the community who wanted to hear about “India rising”, “India shining” and about “assertive, aggressive politics”.

The major issue was the tension between an academic mission and the imperative to push the Australia–India relationship forward against the backdrop of India’s increasingly authoritarian approach to discourse and ideas, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The problem is that, as Hindu nationalism started to get more and more aggressive, then the community themselves started to get mobilised to defend Modi and his reputation,” one former researcher noted. “And that was where it became really ugly. Overlooking the oppression of Muslims or Dalits, or Indians for that matter, is not what any of us wanted to do. So, we were really disturbed about this particular development.”

This researcher summarised the complex interplay of external pressures on India-focused scholars in Australia as arising from “the Indian diaspora’s desire to get political heft” which “has overlapped with Modi’s coming to power, with Australian universities being defunded, but also with Indian students becoming part of this problem-solving for funding”.

Stephen got the sense that the institute “was on some radar” when he attended a seminar on religion and gender. During the event, he became aware of a small group of men in attendance who appeared to be from outside the university community. In the course of the talk, the men started directing hostile questions at the panellists, with one female academic receiving the brunt of their aggression.

Stephen says they were “goon-like, thug-like characters” whose purpose was to disrupt the session and harass speakers who were saying anything “not highly favourable to India’s image”. Another researcher, who was aware of this disrupted talk, noted that these types of incidents were “rampant” in India and that Hindu nationalist elements in the diaspora have been “emboldened to adopt the same tactics when possible”.

Professor Craig Jeffrey, the institute’s then director, was apparently worried about these types of public events. Stephen got the sense Jeffrey may have been unsupported by the university.

Social media posts show that, by 2019, Jeffrey had come to the attention of Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Between 2019 and 2021, Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, head of the BJP’s Department of Foreign Affairs, called out either Jeffrey or the institute six times on Twitter, sometimes tagging the account of the Australian high commissioner to India, the Indian high commission in Canberra or the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

These posts related to Jeffrey’s supposed comments about a terrorist attack in Kashmir and the content of an AII newsletter, as well as an article co-authored by Jeffrey that discussed the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on India’s poorest. On Twitter, Chauthaiwale publicly welcomed Jeffrey’s exit as director and the appointment of former Labor senator Lisa Singh as the institute’s new chief executive. Chauthaiwale did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Questions were put to Melbourne University about threats to academic freedom from nationalistic elements and about the institutional support that the university provides to scholars who face significant criticism and external pressure in the course of their academic activities. The Saturday Paper did not receive a response to these questions.

The Saturday Paper also spoke to one scholar who said a researcher at the institute had warned them that presenting their research there would bring them “to the attention of the BJP”, which the scholar understood to mean via the Indian high commission. “The subtext of this appeared to me that should my work come to the attention of the high commission, there would be negative consequences,” they said. “What these consequences would be were and remain unclear.” The high commission did not respond to a request for comment.

The institute says that the “Indian high commission does not have a say in the activities of the AII” and that “there has been no interference by the mission under the leadership of Lisa Singh”.

This is in contrast to a 2020 letter, signed by 24 academics, that alleges the high commission’s interest in the activities of the institute “has led to some events relating to India being discouraged, or not supported, on the grounds that they were likely to be controversial”. The letter, sent to senior staff at Melbourne University, continues: “AII fellows have been discouraged from including their AII affiliation in opinion articles that are critical of the Indian government. A publicly advertised event was downgraded to a private, invitation-only seminar, following an intervention by the Indian high commissioner.”

This event was a lecture in May 2019 titled “Keywords for India: Violence”, to be delivered by Professor Thomas Blom Hansen from Stanford University. Hansen spent a week in Melbourne giving four different talks – three at the University of Melbourne and one at Deakin University. He says the topic for the Keyword talk was decided in collaboration with Jeffrey, his former colleague at the University of Edinburgh.

“We went back and forth a few times and we settled at violence, because it’s an acknowledged problem,” Hansen says. “You cannot open many books about modern India without finding reference to a history of violence against various communities.”

The lecture was scheduled to take place on May 14, 2019. The Saturday Paper has viewed an email informing institute staff that Hansen’s talk had been altered from a public lecture to a small private seminar. Stephen says that when he read that email the next day, his “immediate instinct” was that there had been “external pressure” on the institute.

Hansen says he received an email on May 9 from Jeffrey, notifying him that the format of the event was changed and that he would provide further details later. On the day of the Keyword lecture, Hansen met with Jeffrey, who was “unhappy” and “apologetic” as he delivered the news of the changed format.

“I understood that there had been some concerns, that it was seen as too controversial, that it could cause tension,” Hansen says. “I don’t recall that I was told in so many words that it was the consulate that had expressed that, but I was led to believe that that was probably the case.”

Craig Jeffrey could not be reached for comment. The Australia India Institute continues to promote its “solid reputation as a convener of bilateral dialogues and a thought leader providing expert advice and policy commentary on India”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "Institutional learning".

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