February 19, 2017 5:26:53 pm
Assistant Professor Rajshree Ranavat of the English department at Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, had meant to deliver on the initiative of organizing a large, interdisciplinary conference in an institution that does not usually endeavour to undertake scholarly engagements of this scale. She and her colleagues were able to accomplish this formidable task by bringing together a truly diverse set of scholars and spokespeople from different backgrounds and affiliations to speak around themes encompassed in “History Reconstructed through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture” — which was the conference title.
Two weeks later, on February 16, she found herself suspended by the administration, held responsible for a talk given by one of her invitees, political scientist Professor Nivedita Menon, which in turn was misreported by local publications as none of their reporters actually heard it but took the word of one listener who bore a grudge against an older speech that Menon had made. They alleged that she, in her speech, said that Kashmir was not an integral part of India and that soldiers worked for their livelihood and not out of patriotic feeling. Menon, who strongly refuted these claims as misquotes out of context, wrote her own account of what transpired during her conference speech in Jodhpur (bit.ly/2kQ50GI).
After some dharna and speeches by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) the police filed charges against the speaker, Menon, and the organiser, Ranavat. Internal inquiry committees were set upon her and her co-organiser professors. The speech – not heard by any of its protesters – and the conference as a whole had been stamped “anti-national”.
Whatever happened to the democratic fantasy that universities are meant to be abodes of free debate and discussion? University is one place where frequently playing devil’s advocate is very valuable because rigorous conclusions cannot be arrived at without hearing out arguments that challenge and confound the dominant point of views. What Ranavat set out to do was her job, because teachers and professors are responsible for providing opportunities for students to open up their minds to all point of views — even if some of them cause discomfort to the listener. Debates and dialogue exist to value differences — then why were administrative actions and police charges (of anti-nationalism) against the speaker and the organizer resorted to?
What transpired in JNVU was clearly an attempt to gag intellectual exercise through bullying. Right wing political opportunists are creating a perilous binary by equating Hindutva with patriotism and anything that challenges that with anti-nationalism (even sedition). It is troubling that such bullying takes place on the turf of institutes of higher learning and is succumbed to without resistance. Forget intellectual rights, not even physical security from hostile elements was guaranteed to Ranavat, who lived by herself on the campus, by either the university or the police — in spite of her request. Here is a professor who, instead of being appreciated for her commendable initiative, ended up risking her job and safety.
What was allowed to happen is grossly demoralizing, not only for one professor but for all academics and students who seek to encourage vibrant debate in stifling environments and change the status quo of insufficient intellectual engagement.
Political groups that wish to throttle ideas that run contrary to their ideologies are clamoring for universities to assume direct charge of determining what learned scholars can say and further whom they can invite. If they had it their way, all conference speeches would be pre-censored before approval and university authorities at JNVU appear to be all but handing it to them on a platter. Is this our democracy or the censoring, totalitarian regime next door?
Actively encouraging students to challenge the limits of thoughts and perspective is a defining characteristic at the heart of elite universities and educational institutions throughout the world. Do we really need to dwell over why this quality is found compromised in India when university reactions like these actively make fear pervasive?
Jodhpur University’s easy capsize to intimidation sets a dark precedent. It is sad that barring groups like the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the Janwadi Lekhak Sangh (JLS), one doesn’t see any organised public support extended to Ranavat by her sympathetic JNVU colleagues and students. She may be the one directly affected, but all students who want a better education in their institutes shall pay a heavy price for this for many years to come.
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