In more ways than one, Tamil Nadu is fantasy land. The fantasy often borders on nightmare, as Mr S. Jeyaprakasam, head of the Gandhian studies department in the Madurai Kamraj University, might have felt when he was served a suspension notice last Monday. His transgression seems to have been the inclusion of a “controversial” reference to the state’s chief minister, Ms J. Jayalalithaa, in a post-graduate correspondence course lesson. No inquiry was considered necessary to suspend the senior university teacher — he was there one day and gone the next. Mr Jeyaprakasam has said he regrets the “error” and it should be deleted, but that has not helped so far. Perhaps he was stretching things a bit. He cited an example of the modern consumerist lifestyle in contrast to the Gandhian attitude to development by referring to the jewellery, footwear and clothes “seized” from Ms Jayalalithaa’s house in raids conducted by the state vigilance directorate and anti-corruption squad during the reign of Mr M. Karunanidhi. But there is nothing either “defamatory” or “erroneous” in the example as authorities have claimed, since the seizure of assets of Ms Jayalalithaa and her friend, Ms N. Sasikala, was made public knowledge at that time.
None of this is really to the point. What is unnerving is that the suspension has not been conducted according to proper procedure because it is not considered necessary. The professor’s right to express criticism, even indirectly, has been demolished by the simple act of living in Tamil Nadu. The contrast was deliberately made; a teacher may feel it is his duty to help young people see the corruptions of the society they live in as pitted against ideals fought for in the not-too-distant past. The authoritarian state — the state in this case is solely the chief minister — strangles all hints of criticism and all suggestions of independent thinking. Ms Jayalalithaa’s success must be measured not in terms of development or prosperity but in terms of the silence that she has been able to impose upon her people. Suspending Mr Jeyaprakasam without an inquiry — irrespective of what he might have written in his book — is a violation of the freedom of speech and academic autonomy. Political interference in academia is widespread in India, West Bengal has seen the erosion of excellence through the intervention of Bengal’s political masters. It is not new. But it is Ms Jayalalithaa alone who is able to endow a general tendency with a fantastic character, by making a dramatic spectacle of defiant authoritarianism.