Student Democracy
Student Democracy

Resist the Shrinking of Democratic Spaces on Campus: Students of TISS

[In solidarity with the concerned Students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Jamia Journal republishes this guest post via Kafila.org]

Universities are thought to be just, equal and free spaces. However the history of access to universities for certain sections of the society is not very old. Discrimination has been institutionalized and structurally carried out on the basis of caste, race, gender, religion and sexual identity even in the space of the university. However, over time there has been an increase in assertion from the marginalized groups in university spaces that has caused some disquiet among administrators. This is evident from various incidents that are taking place on a day to day basis in university spaces.

Kashmir and North East are two regions which have been frequently used by the Indian state to claim its sovereignty through grave violation of basic rights of people residing in these areas. Contrary to our beliefs, campuses and universities also reflect the larger politics of our society.

We, a group of students invited Dr Dibyesh Anand for a lecture titled “Deliberating Kashmir: Beyond AFSPA and Chutzpah” at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai on 3rd January 2015. Dr Dibyesh Anand is the Head of Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, London. He is an acclaimed scholar on violence and States in South Asia and has also written and published extensively on his area of expertise. He has also been a visiting professor to the University of California Berkeley, the Australian National University, the Centre for Bhutan Studies, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Central University of Hyderabad. Following the procedure we had booked the room four days prior to the programme and invited students and faculty in TISS and outside to attend the talk. On the afternoon of the Saturday, as the talk was just about to start with the guest Professor Dibyesh and Chair Dr. Farrukh Faheem, a faculty member at TISS, we were suddenly informed by the security that the room booked for the programme was allotted for examinations and hence there is no room available for us to conduct the programme. The speaker and Chair and some students had already arrived at the venue and it was an awkward situation.

We then organized the programme at the quadrangle which is an open space near the previously allotted room number five. With the help of students, we arranged chairs from the classroom and a maintenance person helped us with the mike. The programme started with songs by students from Imphal talkies, Prof. Farrukh Faheem gave the introduction followed by Prof. Dibyesh’s talk. As the programme was progressing, the Director of the institute also joined us, and called out to the Chair who was listening to the talk, and shouted at him in front of all those who were assembled at the venue – “Who are you?” “Who gave you permission for this programme?” and walked away infuriated, disrespecting the international guest faculty, the Chair and the students present. Despite these disruptions the programme continued with Prof. Dibyesh. He calmly answered the questions from the students and healthy discussions took place around the topic. Prof. Dibyesh presented an open stand on the issue from the human rights perspective and critiqued the fundamentalist and terrorist forces in both the countries as well as international issues.

To think that this incident is an aberration is not right. A lot of instances have occurred across the campus which points towards the intolerance of the administration towards healthy discussion on topics. The universities are unable to provide a free space any more for students to come together and have a discussion. The administration of the universities are working with the State in trying to control ideas and hence restricting the students coming from various backgrounds to develop a full understanding of important issues for our society.

At IIT Bombay too, the authorities denied permission to organize a discussion on democracy and human rights violations in Kashmir in the first week of January. The Dean maintained that the permission was not granted on the basis that “procedure was not followed”. When some IIT students went to ask the permission from the Dean on January 5, the Dean said he believed “the ultimate pillar of democracy was Parliament and if Parliament questioned him on how the students held a debate on violence in Kashmir, he would be unable to give an answer”. Following this, some of the students approached the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the IIT that agreed to organise the lecture as its “departmental event”. Finally the programme was conducted though there were insolent questions being asked to the speaker from the audience.

Arundhati Roy, the well-known Booker Prize winner and writer, was denied permission at EFLU to address students on the campus on Monday, March 10, 2014. Roy was invited by the student organisations to speak on the topic “Fractures of Indian Ideology Reimagining Democracy and Redrawing Resistance” on the first death anniversary of Kashmiri student Muddasir Kamran who had died under suspicious circumstances.

Indian Law College Pune, as a part of their college fest “Legal Ease” was to screen Ram ke Naam directed by the renowned film-maker Anand Patwardhan on 27thDecember 2014, but the screening was cancelled the day before, at which Pathwardhan commented on his Facebook post:

This afternoon they called to say that after receiving threats, their faculty decided to cancel the event. They are refusing to say where the threats came from or to divulge the names of the faculty who cancelled the event. Obviously the students are themselves under threat .The film is 24 years old. It has a “U” certificate. It has a national award. It has a Filmfare award. It was already shown on Doordarshan many years ago after the High court ruled that it must be screened at prime time in the national interest. Can we accept this state of affairs?

Sanjay Kak the renowned documentary filmmaker commented:

Periodically, someone will set the right¬wing onto a screening, the ABVP in Pune a few years ago, or the Bajrang Sena in Hyderabad last year, and they too are out to score their own points, they don’t have a critique do they? And you’re absolutely right: of course this is about putting the lid on any kind of conversation about Kashmir. But its not really working, is it?

Incidents like these are no more rare in India. At TISS, students, faculty, different schools and centres and students’ groups conduct programmes on various academic and non-academic issues, from Vivekanada and Science to lectures on Carvaka/Lokayata. Nobody raised any objection to such talks. The objection arises only when there is an issue which does not conform with the state’s ideology. For instance Dr. Dybesh was invited to TISS to deliver a talk on 3rd of January on The State and Violence in South Asia. It appears as though institutes like TISS have the right to talk about violence around the world but not against its own state.

With the change in the government, the nature of the campuses is also changing. It is a reflection of something larger. At TISS, the head of an institute has not only humiliated Dr Dibyesh Anand but also its own faculty Dr. Farrukh Faheem who is one amongst the few Muslim faculty members at the TISS campus. We were denied space to have healthy academic discussions with a reputed academic from an international university. The nature of a higher education learning centre of national and international repute should be such that friendly and open dialogues are possible between various people of different backgrounds as well as thought processes. This adds to the diversity of the space as well as the tolerance to talk about all the perspectives. The university is also the space where students are looking for meaning and clarity and in order to search for that meaning it is important to hear all the discourses on contentious issues. This is especially important in Institutes that boast of themselves of propagating a social science and human rights perspective and advocating for social justice. Hence as students we feel it is extremely important to have a liberated and free space where mutual dialogues are possible. But in light of this incident and few more like this we are apprehensive that this space has shrunk for us and we have excessive interference not just as students of this reputed college but also as human beings in our right to freedom of expression, our right to free movement and our rights to assemble at public spaces.

Moreoever, with extreme privatization of education, resulting in high fees, the students are left with no will to fight the structure. Modi government is reducing funds for education, there are fee hikes in a lot of universities, and scholarships like GOI are getting even more difficult to access. There is a need to question the aim of the government in doing so. Is it to say that only those people can afford to be in university spaces who have the privilege of money? Will education be only provided to those who can afford it? Is the aim of universities to fulfil the demand of the market by creating corporates? The idea of education is falling apart and there is an urgent need to recreate a democratic space.

We have not imagined the university space as a prison and we strongly resist any attempts into making it one. With the new government coming into power, even these minimally democratic spaces are changing very drastically. There is an attempt to curb any form of ideas that is even beginning to question the status quo. If we cannot fight these fascist tendencies in our own university spaces then the idea of education will fail.

Gender violence too is increasing on campuses. We condemn all acts that add to the undemocratic character of the universities. On this we urge all students and faculty to support and join us in the endeavor to protest the shrinking of democratic spaces in the universities and create healthy spaces for academic discourse.

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