October 03, 2016

India: Institutional heads giving in to thought policing

The Tribune, Oct 3, 2016

Institutional heads giving in to thought policing

[by] Apoorvanand

The university is the only space in our hierarchical and deeply divided society where we can experiment with ideas that would be treated as sacrilegious in the wider society.
STREET JUSTICE: Protest outside the Central University of Haryana in Mahendragarh on September 22. Manoj Dhaka/Tribune
Are we allowed to talk about academic freedom in these surgical times? But just as a soldier has to defend the borders to save the integrity of the nation, our duty as members of academia is to safeguard the integrity of our academic space, to keep talking about the danger it is facing from the enemies of intellect and creativity. Borrowing from Premchand, one can say that since these enemies feel ashamed to show as their real self, they come under the garb of nationalism. Academics is under assault from banal nationalism again: this time in Mahendragarh, a small town in Haryana, around 120 km from Delhi. The teachers of the Department of English of the Central University of Haryana are under attack from the ABVP, student arm of the RSS, and some hitherto unknown organisations of retired army men. Dharnas and demonstrations are being held daily at the university gate, demanding the dismissal of the Vice-Chancellor and action against “anti-national” teachers. There is a distinct possibility of sedition charges being brought against them. What is the crime of the teachers? Around two weeks ago, they organised a programme to pay homage to Mahasweta Devi, the iconic Bangla writer who earned respect across political lines for having dedicated her life to portraying the struggles of the tribal communities. In this programme, a dramatic adaptation of Draupadi, a short story by Mahasweta Devi, was staged. This is the story of a tribal woman, Dopadi, who after having been raped by security men rises in defiance, putting the shame of rape behind her. She refuses to cover herself and confronts the security forces with her nakedness. The teachers decided to present the story, written decades back, in the contemporary context. Now an epilogue was added to the story, which listed certain crimes still being committed against tribal and other communities by security forces. It asks the audience to spare some thought for the victims and decide what their role should be. The play was applauded by the packed hall and top officials of the university congratulated the faculty for the creativity with which the programme was designed and presented. But the teachers were in for a shock the next morning when they found a demonstration being held at the gate of the university against the programme. The charge was that they had insulted the soldiers of India by putting up this show. The local media took up this cause and a hate campaign was unleashed against the faculty members. It was said that while our soldiers were dying in Uri, these teachers were insulting them by such acts. The ABVP complained against the “anti-national act” by the teachers. The Vice-Chancellor readily took note of it and constituted a six-member committee to investigate and fix responsibility. The university issued a show-cause notice to the co-ordinator of the programme, Dr Snehsata Manav. The notice “takes cognizance of some of the objections raised by a group of people and the press reports… in various newspapers today, particularly with regard to some sensitive statements made against the soldiers of the Indian Army, particularly in the epilogue of the play....” The alacrity with which the university acted shows that it was under tremendous pressure. One can understand an effigy of the Vice-Chancellor was burnt and action against him was being demanded. The notice to the co-ordinators and the setting up of the inquiry committee is definitely a move by the university authorities to distance themselves from the faculty members. One must also note that the university itself does not list any specific charge. What is scary is there was no protest from within. The show was filmed by some members of the audience and the clips circulated in the town. Instead of doing anything on the campus, the ABVP held protest demonstrations in the town, which is 12 km away. A concerted campaign to rope in farmers is on and the Hindi media is adding fuel to it. People are being mobilised against the university community. One of the co-ordinators of the event, Dr Manoj Kumar, has been lebelled a Maoist. The ABVP says that the event shows that some teachers are active in spreading communist ideology in this town and state, as was done in JNU and Hyderabad University. It is encouraging that the teachers have not been browbeaten. Dr Snehsata has bravely faced the notice and responded to the charges, owning everything in the epilogue. She writes, “While in the epilogue I have talked about only two incidents of rape done by the Army/police in the disturbed areas, there are volumes of files full with such incidents.” She refers to the observations by the Justice Verma Committee and the Supreme Court asking the state to investigate the fake encounters and acts of sexual violence that get shielded by the AFSPA. The most disappointing aspect of the whole incident is the act of the Vice-Chancellor, who has literally abandoned his faculty. It was his duty as academic head to defend his colleagues. Instead, he chose to save his skin. But Professor Kuhad is definitely not the first Vice-Chancellor to have abdicated his responsibility. Five years back, in the University of Delhi, two vice-chancellors buckled under pressure from the ABVP and Dina Nath Batra, and removed “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, a widely celebrated essay by AK Ramanujan. When I see all this happening, I recall the words of Ashok Vajpeyi, who was my vice-chancellor at Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishvavidyalaya. He told us that as people responsible for the departments we were working in, we were the decision makers but he, as head of the institution, would always be there to defend us even if we committed some mistakes. Sadly, VCs of today are no longer of the same league. They do not regard themselves as academic leaders, and therefore lack the courage of intellect. Instead, they choose to act as agents of the state and look helpless when faced with societal prejudices. Dr Snehsata, Dr Manoj Kumar and their colleagues need support from their peers. Instead, we have decided to treat this as a local matter of a university. Dr Snehsata asks if it is not the duty of the academics to question the state if it goes against the people. She also asks why the security forces should be above scrutiny and criticism. Are they beyond the Constitution? We joined universities believing that we were entering spaces that would have the freedom to subject everything to questioning and criticism, that if there was anything sacred on the campus it was this freedom to critique. The university is the only space in our hierarchical and deeply divided society where we can experiment with ideas that would be treated as sacrilegious in the wider society. Now the agents of society are closing in and the universities are under real threat. Who’ll rise to defend it? The writer is a Professor in the Department of Hindi, Delhi University.