Academic siege tells on seminars

A talk scheduled on Monday in Delhi's Oxford bookstore on activist Teesta Setelvad's autobiography has been shifted to the Press Club of India. Oxford says the event is "uncomfortably close to the forthcoming elections" (Delhi civic polls in April) and the situation had been "further exasperated by the recent student protests in the city".

By Pheroze L. Vincent
  • Published 6.03.17

• A talk scheduled on Monday in Delhi's Oxford bookstore on activist Teesta Setelvad's autobiography has been shifted to the Press Club of India. Oxford says the event is "uncomfortably close to the forthcoming elections" (Delhi civic polls in April) and the situation had been "further exasperated by the recent student protests in the city".

• Delhi College of Arts and Commerce postponed its "youth conclave" on Saturday. The theme was "Rights of the Indian youth and duties of the State", and the event was supposed to have been addressed by MPs and other public figures. Student council president Dhruv Dhawan said the principal had told him the environment was not right in Delhi University (DU) and the local police station had advised him to postpone the event.

• Shri Guru Gobind Singh College of Commerce called off a play after "advice" from the police's special branch last week.

• Shri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, Sri Venkateswara College, the Law Faculty.... The cancellation or postponement list goes on.

New Delhi, March 5: The flames of Ramjas are leaping from one campus to another and licking spaces for dissent and debate beyond academia that, some scholars fear, is under a siege now.

Over the past few weeks, Ramjas College, part of Delhi University and located on North Campus, had become ground zero for the latest phase of campus tumult after JNU students Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid were invited to a seminar.

Now, seminars themselves have become a hot potato on campuses, with institutions wary of hosting them seeking out procedural loopholes to drop them or put them off.

Rajiv Chopra, principal of Delhi College of Arts and Commerce where BJP parliamentarian Meenakshi Lekhi, Rajya Sabha member K.T.S. Tulsi, Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav and former Research and Analysis Wing secretary A.S. Dulat were scheduled to speak last week, denied any pressure.

"We have had department fests since last Monday and there were too many activities happening. We have merely postponed this to March 25 and 26 and will try to get more speakers. Politicians are welcome, and the focus will be on the aspirations of the youth. We want to try to keep it away from politics," Chopra said.

But Yogendra Yadav told a rally yesterday: "In the same college (Delhi College of Arts and Commerce), Subramanian Swamy (BJP parliamentarian) is speaking next week and there is no prohibition on him. This is happening everywhere.... Those who borrowed their nationalism from Germany are teaching us nationalism?... We are ready to debate under an open sky about nationalism. This is a fight to save nationalism."

Student council president Dhawan said there was "no law and order problem, yet the principal was uncomfortable with holding" the event.

Asked, a senior police officer said: "The police have no mandate to cancel college events. It is our job to call and find out if an event is happening or not. It is the college administration that has cancelled this in their wisdom. Precautionary police deployment is present. Cultural events are happening in colleges."

Sri Venkateswara College cancelled all its events this month after its union president Vinayak Sharma, now suspended from the ABVP, was arrested for assaulting a JNU student. Sharma is out on bail.

Not all cancellations are being blamed on the ruling establishment. The ABVP too is crying foul.

The Law Faculty of Delhi University has disallowed a seminar to which a BJP minister from Haryana had been invited.

"The dean refused permission for our seminar on freedom of speech, for which we wanted to call Swamy and Haryana minister Capt. Abhimanyu (Sindhu)," said Sohail Chhipa, the general secretary of Law Centre 1 Students Union. The Law Faculty has four student unions.

"On the dean's request we got a fresh panel of speakers but she denied permission saying we had not followed procedure. She said, 'Just because your party is in power doesn't mean you can call anyone you want'," Chhipa said.

"It was deliberately cancelled by the communist dean," the ABVP said in a WhatsApp message to the media.

Dean Ved Kumari said: "Some students circulated the notice without authority or permission from me or the professor in charge or the students' union teacher adviser. They declared me the keynote speaker despite my refusal to speak on the topic.

"My fields of research are gender justice and juvenile justice and there are other faculty members who specialise in constitutional law. They misguided other speakers to consent (to participate) on the misrepresentation that I had agreed to be the keynote speaker."

Irfan Habib, ancient and medieval historian, said in response to a question from this newspaper on the disquiet on campuses: "The BJP is promoting hooliganism which its ministers justify. The only time I can recall this kind of siege of academia was during the Emergency. Even that was limited and not done through hooliganism. Everyone is not political-minded to withstand this and once this sort of thing starts, hooliganism will dictate how institutions function."

Sociologist Andre Beteille said universities had become a mobilisation ground for electoral objectives.

"Universities have degenerated to provide mobilisation for electoral support. It's the case with many of the older varsities in Calcutta and Delhi.... Universities should be places to apply our minds instead of issuing fatwas," Beteille said.

"Oxford and Cambridge were also battlegrounds between town and gown, that is, the academic community versus the local community. They negotiated their way out of the troubles.... If universities have to be saved, the pressure must come from the public and the press. Don't expect anything from the government."

Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah traced the roots of the problem to the history of the ABVP. "There is a siege of academia because the ABVP does not have a history of holding academic meetings on social issues, nationalism and theoretical discourse, like the Left and liberals have," he said.

"Their focus has been on organising cultural programmes and religious festivals. This is not valid nationalist work. The intellectual force of the BJP, when it is in power, should have come from the ABVP. What is their intellectual strength even in their own bastions like Banaras Hindu University?"

Ilaiah accused "Brahminical forces within the Left" of letting the ABVP go unchallenged on the battlefield of ideas. "The siege exists today because the Brahminical forces within the Left went soft on the ABVP by not confronting them on caste and religion."