When universities start censoring speech and banning books, and permissions are needed to hold international academic conferences, we risk becoming a hollow, illiberal, intolerant democracy.
Should you need the administration’s prior permission to hold a meeting, seminar, symposium or conference at a university?
Most academics in liberal democracies would either be astounded by the question, or feel compelled to answer it with an emphatic, if not vehement, no. The administration, they would argue, should facilitate open debate and free exchange of ideas. But Calicut University vice chancellor M Abdul Salam evidently differs. He has imposed an unwritten rule which mandates that prior permission be obtained before any meeting can be held on the university campus.
CU teachers and researchers organised under the All-Kerala Research Scholars’ Association and the Campus Cultural Forum planned to host on March 23 a lecture by KN Panikkar, an eminent historian and former chair of the Kerala higher education commission, as part of a series of talks on “Campus Culture” launched by another well-known historian Rajan Gurakkal. They applied for permission three days earlier, but never got it. They were also reportedly barred from erecting a shamiana to hold the event.
Panikkar nevertheless delivered his talk and sharply criticised the practice of censorship, pointing out that the academic community did not have to face such “undemocratic and repressive measures” even during the Emergency. The meeting soon turned into a protest. Sensing that the media would pursue the story, the vice chancellor’s office said that permission was indeed granted orally, although not in writing.
This totally misses the point. No permission of any kind should at all be necessary to host an academic event, or for that matter, a discussion on any subject of public importance, at a university. Universities are quintessentially a forum which engages with and inquires into all manner of ideas and where debate must be free in order to be productive of yet more ideas. The university’s very rationale is to encourage critical and independent thinking and help students, teachers and researchers to look at many different ways of understanding a subject, not one narrow view of it.
Alas, many Indian universities do nothing of the sort. Some, like Banaras Hindu University, have banned public meetings for years, despite protests from (former) executive council members, including myself. Many have cynically used the Lyngdoh committee report on student union elections to impose a blanket ban on all political seminars and debates.
Even some of our better universities impose restrictions on debate, or outlaw and censor books and readings. An odious recent example is the Delhi university academic council’s decision last October to withdraw from the list of readings for an undergraduate course an essay by the outstanding poet and scholar AK Ramanujan entitled “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”, extracted from The Collected Essays of AK Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, Oxford University Press (OUP), New Delhi, 1999. This was done under pressure from the Hindu Right.
The essay was introduced with due process and after approval by the university’s academic council in 2006. It describes different versions or “tellings” of the Ramayana story from divergent traditions, including Valmiki’s, Jaina, Kamban and Thai, etc. In 2008, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) launched a rabble-rousing campaign and vandalised the building of the history department of Delhi university, and manhandled its head.
The Hindu Right contended that its “sentiments” were hurt because Ramanujan presented a “distorted” version of the Ramayana which is different from the “original” or “true” version, presumably written by Valmiki. Ramanujan’s whole point was that the multiple “tellings” of the epic have a “relational structure” which claims the name of Rama, but are dissimilar.
In the same year, another Hindu fundamentalist Right-wing group, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, also demanded that OUP India stop printing the essay. OUP India abjectly capitulated, saying: “We feel deeply concerned to learn that Ramanujan’s essay has the potential to hurt Hindu religious sentiments and we thank you for pointing this out. …we very much regret that the essay has inadvertently caused you distress and concern. We also wish to inform you that neither are we selling the book nor are there plans to re-issue it.”
Worse was yet to come. On October 9 last, Delhi university’s academic council decided to withdraw the essay, violating the recommendation of a four-member expert committee that it be retained. (Apparently, only one of the four had recommended its withdrawal, on grounds not of scholarly merit or academic considerations, but on the spurious plea that the university community might not be mature or tolerant enough to stomach unorthodox “tellings” of the Ramayana.)
Many teachers suspect the decision was pushed through in a manipulated fashion at the end of a long meeting. They launched a vigorous protest. As many as 4,000 scholars from all over the world, with every Sanskritist, Indologist and historian worth the name, also wrote a strong letter of protest. Ignoring their plea, the minutes of the October meeting were confirmed by the academic council this past March 20 and ratified the following day by the executive council.
However, Delhi university teachers did not give up. On the very day the EC was meeting, they organised the first AK Ramanujan Lecture at Ramjas College, delivered by playwright and public intellectual Girish Karnad, who captioned it “Speaking with Ramanujan”. The lecture was attended by hundreds of teachers and students.
The anti-Ramanujan campaign is reminiscent of the attack by the Hindu Right in 1993 on an exhibition mounted by SAHMAT in Delhi on multiple versions of the Ramayana, in which the then Central government became complicit by banning it. This set a terrible precedent, which was used by Hindutva groups to secure bans against works such as James Laine’s book on Shivaji, vandalise the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, and physically raid MF Husain’s works in Ahmedabad, and so on.
None of this would have become possible had the government not repeatedly caved in to Right-wing pressure and sanctified the notion of the “hurt sentiments” advanced by extremely intolerant groups driven by crass prejudice, which claim to speak on behalf of particular religious communities. Indeed, the government has itself internalised such intolerance by cavalierly banning or extraditing dissident scholars and activists, and making the holding of international conferences on academic, social and environmental issues conditional upon its prior approval.
Recent examples are the summary deportation last September of US-based public-service broadcaster David Barsamian, the more recent refusal of a visa to Maya Kobayashi, a Fukushima survivor, and the expulsion from Nagercoil of Rainer Hermann Sonntag on the totally fabricated charge that he was the “mastermind” behind the “foreign funding” of the anti-Kodankulam nuclear plant protests. The government has also put more than 70 NGOs like Greenpeace, lawfully registered in India, on a “watchlist”.
Now, Barsamian is famous for his long interviews with Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmad, Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, Shirin Ebadi, many others. He has been visiting India since the 1960s, is an inveterate India-lover, plays the sitar, and is a scholar of Urdu and Hindi. Like Kobayashi, many Fukushima residents have visited more than 10 countries to tell their people about the effects of the nuclear accident, but not India. And Sonntag is a former German computer programmer who survives on his modest savings while visiting India as a tourist.
This is part of an unhealthy pattern of vilifying NGOs like Amnesty International, which did much to expose human rights abuses in Kashmir, Bhopal and the Northeast, and had to face a barrage of intelligence agency-inspired attacks mediated through the press in the 1990s.
Then, there is control exercised by other means. Many scholars, activists and NGOs who organise international conferences on subjects as varied as disarmament, peace, Palestine, India-Pakistan reconciliation, the global economic and climate crises, the trade union movement, women’s studies, and publishing, find it a nightmare to apply for clearances from the government and secure visas for their foreign participants.
Often, even the better-connected organisers have to approach high functionaries. Frequently, visas are delayed until the last day or two before the conference.
By contrast, members of Right-wing think-tanks, conservative foundations, openly pro-US strategic analysts, shady businessmen from polluting or hazardous industries, and all manner of corporate lobbyists and arms peddlers are allowed free entry and can interact with high officials in India.
All this shows an insecure, paranoid and unaccountable government at work, which uses the bluntest possible weapons in its armoury to avert, suppress and censor criticism, and abuses its “sovereignty” to prevent interaction between Indian and foreign scholars, activists and human rights and environmental defence campaigners, to obliterate inconvenient truths, and threaten to criminalise independent inquiry and a search for emancipatory, humane solutions to our problems.
But true sovereignty is not about the right to refuse visas, discourage dialogue and ban books. Sovereignty rests in and derives from the people and from defence and advancement of their fundamental rights, including the right to think and express themselves freely.
At the end of the day, we must conclude that our rulers, including parastatal authorities, have failed to understand and internalise the vital idea that the freedom of expression is foundational to democracy, and that India can only impoverish itself and become an intellectual backwater if it clamps down on debate and free inquiry.
(The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist)