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Mainstream, VOL L, No 22, May 19, 2012

In Order to Avoid ’Controversy’!

Tuesday 22 May 2012, by Bharati Jaganathan

On January 29, 2012, The Hindu reported that Symbiosis University, Pune, had cancelled a screening of Sanjay Kak’s film, Jashn-e-azadi, following protests registered by some Right-wing organisations. I could not help but recall the shameful removal of an excellent essay by A.K. Ramanujan on the richly diverse Ramayana tradition by the Academic Council of Delhi University in October 2011, supposedly because of its potential to hurt Hindu religious sentiments. And the deplorable ‘exile’ of Salman Rushdie from the Jaipur Litt Fest in January due to protests and threats from Islamist groups. I shall not labour the very obvious thread that links these three episodes. But a hidden hydra raising its head, slowly but surely, needs to be decapitated before it devours all.

The screening of Jashn-e-azadi was planned as part of a seminar, “Voices of Kashmir”, which was to feature, among other things, a film directed by Iffat Fatima and a session with senior journalist, Dileep Padgaonkar. The reason cited for the removal of the film from the session was its purportedly separatist content. On the January 31, we learnt from the same newspaper that the entire seminar had been ‘indefinitely postponed’. This second news report was accompanied by brief interviews with the Principal of Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, and Mr Padgaonkar.

THE Principal of the college insisted the decision to ‘postpone’ the seminar, along with altering its contents, following a ‘friendly’ meeting with the Hindu Janjagriti Samiti and the Panun Kashmir (supported by the ABVP), was a mutual one. A comparison with the Weimar Republic established in Germany after the World War I leaps to mind. While the Republic was threatened by forces on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum, the police invariably came down heavily on strikes or protests organised by the Communists while turning a blind eye to the hooliganism of the ultra-nationalist forces such as those under Hitler’s leadership. Indeed, even the law courts regularly condoned this violence for it was deemed to be patriotic. Need I say more?

The Principal, moreover, appears to believe that if someone ‘felt so passionate about the issue, there must be a valid reason’. Perhaps it would be futile to point out to him that the filmmaker felt passionate enough about the issue to make the film he did, that thousands of people in Kashmir feel very passionately about the routine violations of human rights by the Indian state and its Army, about the ‘disappearances’ that have scarred numberless families, about the sham of democracy that has been perpetrated in the State for decades.

The Principal of Symbiosis declared that they wished to avoid any controversy and that the aim of increasing students’ awareness about Kashmir would be better served by exposing them to the food, music, literature and media in the State. An educational institution, he believes, is not a proper forum for politics. All this is said with an emphasis on his being an academician. It is a genuine tragedy of the educational system that a significant number of persons heading academic institutions today might actually believe that a food festival, accompanied by colourful folk dances perhaps, and a clutch of crafts-persons exhibiting embroideries or papier-mache is what a college-going student needs for a balanced vision of the world. It is an even greater tragedy that it is recognised as one by very few, too few people, in fact. I shudder at the numbers of other heads of educational institutions who shall absorb such nuggets of wisdom from the highly successful Symbiosis, in case they are not merely being reinforced in their convictions, and set out to police their own staff and the ‘extra-curricular activities’ in the institutions under their administration with greater vigilance.

The Symbiosis Principal, acknowledging that politics was an important aspect of Kashmir, wanted to keep it separate, outside the purview of his institution. Can he not see that the decision to avoid ‘the politics of Kashmir’ is a deeply political one? Mr Padgaonkar pointed out that politics is bound to be involved in any discussion on Kashmir. But it is not merely Kashmir—it is high time we screamed from the rooftops that there is politics in every aspect of our lives and to claim an apolitical stance is itself a powerful politics of status quo involving the continuance of the current structures of dominance and power; indeed, it is an insidious expression of contentment or at least tolerable comfort with the hierarchies and inequalities of the present.

With the mushrooming of private educational institutions whose fee structures automatically exclude all but well-off students, we are in danger of creating a class of managers, administrators and decision-makers for tomorrow’s India who have neither any knowledge of, nor concern with the less privileged, less visible, marginalised and silenced multitudes. It is therefore doubly crucial to sensitise these students through such interventions as was planned at Symbiosis, and those members of the institution’s faculty and student body who undertook to organise the aborted seminar are to be commended. But the very structure of private institutions, where Principals—notwithstanding academic qualifications—are not dissimilar to company general managers and CEOs, bodes ill for free thinking, questioning and challenging accepted truths, which are necessary for the advancement of knowledge.

It is perhaps myopic of me, however, to be singling out private institutions when Vice-Chancellors of publicly funded universities have also begun to act like lords of personal fiefdoms. No institution of learning where dissent is suppressed can flourish, but this is evidently lost both on Vice-Chancellors (as the present and the last ones at Delhi University have repeatedly demonstrated) and the hon’ble Minister Kapil Sibal, as they go about disallowing or silencing protests, and seek to steamroll ill-conceived ‘reforms’ in the face of the reasoned questioning and anguish of the majority of the academic community.

I wish to recall a little-known fact from history here: following widespread revolts in 1905 in Tsarist Russia, public gatherings were allowed without police interference in universities. Needless to say, political groups immediately organised their meetings in campuses. While some of us read this to signify the fundamental character of openness that must characterise institutions of higher learning, persons in power have obviously derived the opposite lesson from it—that any forum, however academic, may have potential for subversion, and must be silenced. Very true indeed, but history also shows that when these channels of debate and thoughtful reform are blocked, popular sentiment invariably bursts the dams into Revolution.

My cry here has been over the shrinking of open academic spaces, over the intolerance of dissent, and over the growing culture of silencing of voices that refuse to be obliging echoes of those in power, a desperate cry for a revival of the culture of debate, discussion and accommodation. However, standing as we do at a distressingly bleak intellectual and political juncture, where an established elite have learnt the finest nuances of manipulating the structures of power to their continued advantage within the frame-work of democracy, it is perhaps time to welcome an all-encompassing revolution.

The author teaches History at Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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