SEVENTEEN FACULTY MEMBERS—let’s call them G17—present and retired, of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) wrote an “Open letter to corporate India to de-fund hate speech.” Appended with the names of 11 present and six retired IIMB teachers, the letter is undated. It began circulating on social media on August 8. Predictably, some praised and promoted the letter, while others branded it as anti-national and unpatriotic.
Another group of 23 retired high-ranking government servants—let’s call them G23—including former IAS, IPS, IFS, IRS, and armed forces officers. On August 26, they wrote a counter-letter to the chairman of IIMB, renowned heart surgeon and medical magnate, Dr Devi Shetty. They also marked it to Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and the secretary of higher education, Government of India. The G23 letter excoriated the G17, accusing them of “ideological bias and bankrupt mindset.” They also demanded action against the latter “to ensure that no such incidents of dubious nature happen on the campus of IIMB again.”
Should the rest of the nation be worried? Should this fracas be ignored? I think the answer to both questions is no. We need to look closer at both the letter and its rejoinder in greater detail to understand the larger implications.
The first disturbing thing about the G17 letter is its address to “corporate India.” What exactly is this entity? Who are its members? How much does it actually, if at all, fund “the spread of misinformation and hate speech through news channels and social media”? Such questions—and many more—remain unanswered.
One would have expected more from one’s colleagues, especially from a well-regarded institution such as IIMB. But long years of experience in academics have taught us otherwise. When academicians take to grandstanding and politicking, not much of scholarly value or intellectual merit comes from it. In this case, had the G17 done studies to uncover or demonstrate how hate speech is funded, it would have been a great service to all of us. Instead, they chose the easy—and preachy—way out.
How difficult is it to write an open letter? Any Tom, Dick, or Harry—or a chatbot even—might do it better than IIMB’s G17. How long would it take to pen such a letter? A couple of hours, at the most. Give or take another few hours to circulate it and revise it. All told it is a low cost, low labour activity. When written in one’s “personal capacity,” as this one is, what can IIMB do, though they draw on its prestige and risk tarnishing its reputation? A quick group mail or WhatsApp message and you have a support group for such a missive. Only 11 out of 109 full-time faculty members signed off on it—but that too amounts to an unignorable, nonnegligible 10 per cent. Cause for concern, surely?
Very soon after its opening paragraph, the ideological orientation of the G17 signatories becomes clearer. They are not interested in stopping hate speech per se, but only that which is directed against “minorities”. Who these minorities are remains, of course, unspecified, but it is obvious that the reference is to Muslims in India: “Over the past few years, an open and public exhibit of hatred towards minorities in public discourse has become common practice in India: in political discourse, television news, as well as on social media. The usage of othering, dehumanizing and demonizing language while referring to minorities has reached alarming levels, and acts of violent hate crimes, often by organized and radicalized groups, against minorities have seen a rise. The inaction of police and security forces during recent communal riots, as well as the acquittal or pardoning of culprits involved in rape and mass murder during previous instances of riots, coupled with the silence of authorities, has signalled a glaring level of complacency in place of urgency by the government.”
The 15 footnotes in the Dropbox original of the letter all point to the persecution of Muslims in India. In all these, there is no reference to hate speech, rapes, radicalised fringe elements, or terrorist organisations, let alone riots, and crimes against the “non-minorities” or Hindus. The implied target of the attack, one is forced to infer, is Hindutva, BJP, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Whether the letter itself might contribute to societal, not to mention academic, division, polarisation, and fearmongering, is never considered. Instead, as the dismissive rejoinder by the G23 retired bureaucrats shows, the open letter, as if carried away by its own rhetoric, quickly proceeds to much graver threats to the republic: “increasing risk of violent conflicts,” “annihilation of the social fabric,” and, yes, “genocide,” mentioned more than once, toggled in the course of the tirade, with “silence of authorities.”
Why isn’t any of this really new or unexpected? Because we have heard it many times before from certain quarters, whether in foreign or Indian media dispatches or in academic circles, Western and Indian. In fact, the “anti- Hindutva” campaign follows a well-known and easily recognisable template, commonly referred to as a toolkit. That the pro-government forces were able to mobilise their own G23 to counter the G17 IIMB faculty shows how well-organised both sides of this divide are. No wonder the G23 rebuttal also follows a familiar discursive template: “the genuine efforts for realising the dream of India becoming ‘Viswa Guru’” and the G17’s “diabolical agenda to weaken the resolve of the people and forces, who are toiling day and night to fulfil the dream and goals of Amrit Kaal.”
The G17 open letter is a political signal which, if it has earned a slap on the wrists from a posse of former bureaucrats, is indicative of the latter’s contempt for academia. It is sad that academics must be answered by bureaucrats
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“Escalating violence and socioeconomic uncertainty, permanently paralyzing the future of the country” vs “India becoming ‘Viswa Guru’” or even succinctly, Genocidal India vs Amrit Kaal! We have never witnessed such diametrically opposite views of India or such a radically polarised public sphere. Surely, we have the right to our own assessment of Indian realities without being forced to identify with or endorse either extreme. But these binaries are not to be taken at face value; they are, after all, contrary political positions, even slogans. If so, all the more reason that we look beyond and beneath them, avoiding the pitfalls of the kind of abusive branding or virtue-signalling that both sides seem to routinely indulge in.
To return to the G17 open letter, will corporate India take notice? No. Why? Because corporate India is much smarter, and much more in tune with ground realities than G17 academics. The latter’s open letter is more likely to be seen as a publicity stunt or gimmick. It has little empirical or academic content, nor fresh insights. It does not seem to be informed by critical thinking either.
But there is one more serious side to it. The demand is to “Mandatorily conduct timely diversity and inclusion sensitization events within their organizations to ensure their work culture remains welcoming to people of a variety of faiths and social backgrounds.” Sounds like the start of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) bullying, so prevalent in the US corporate culture.
The G17 open letter is a political signal which, if it has earned a slap on the wrists from a posse of former bureaucrats, is indicative of the latter’s contempt for academia. It is sad that academics must be answered by bureaucrats, but if they expected anything else, they ought to have been truer to their own calling. It is still not too late to provide evidence-based support or convincing data on how, why, and which corporates in India fund “hate”.
On the other hand, though we do not have full access to the G23 bureaucrats’ counter, we can assume that they are calling for defanging, if not defunding, such errant academics. That would not augur well for the future of our premier institutions. Governmental and political interference is the bane of academics. By the same token, whether in the name of political correctness or academic freedom, teachers should also refrain from indulging in political grandstanding.
While the G23 is quite right that “Corporate India … will not be carried away by the uninvited advice,” they are rather excessive in dubbing the G17 faculty as “armchair academicians who are living in self-imposed ignorance.” The IIMs wield great clout in the corporate world precisely because their graduates occupy most of the top executive positions. To dismiss the IIM faculty as “chest-thumping and rabble-rousing, so-called academicians” and, simultaneously, call for a gag order on them so that they do not “damage, irreparably, the credibility and reputation of IIM-B, and discredit the atmosphere in Karnataka” is self-contradictory, to say the least, if not dangerous.
Academics and scholars, even if they are politically inclined, should let their research do the talking. When they descend into sloganeering and pamphleteering, they are liable to be treated not as teachers and scholars but as activists and agitators. If so inclined, they ought to join politics, directly contesting elections or joining political parties, or forming their own political caucus. Enjoying the protection and autonomy, even immunity, of an academic institution, only to abuse it by political adventurism smacks of maladroitness, if not malfeasance. It is, at best, risky business. Those who indulge in it should be prepared to take a fall.