Days after Salman Rushdie cancelled his visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the Symbiosis College of Art and Commerce in Pune, acting on a prompt by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the BJP, postponed indefinitely a seminar on Kashmir that included a screening of Sanjay Kak’s film Jashn-e-Azadi. Elsewhere, in Kolkata, protesting Muslims succeeded in cancelling Taslima Nasreen’s book launch, an event that her publishers held eventually at their own stall at the book fair.
Hooliganism’s multiplying effect has been on display for a while now. We’ve seen it when young men and women get beaten up for going to pubs in Mangalore. We will undoubtedly see it again when ‘nationalist’ youth ransack card shops on Valentine’s Day. What is alarming, however, is the increasingly visible presence of this intolerance in universities and at book festivals.
The list is long. Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey was taken off the Mumbai University syllabus because it offended the sensibilities (such as they are) of the Shiv Sena, the same organisation that ransacked a newspaper office earlier this month. The Lingayat community succeeded in removing a biography of Basavanna that suggested he had Dalit lineage. In Kerala a professor’s hands were cut off for asking an inappropriate question about the Prophet. And in October, the ABVP’s loud protest against AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas resulted in its eventual removal from the Delhi University syllabus.
Universities are not degree-producing factories. They must be the location of change, debate, even dissent. Universities must be the birthplace of ideas and academic and intellectual freedom. They must be knowledge centres where opinion, even an unpalatable one, is debated. When we fail to quarantine our universities from the rabble outside, we end up creating robotic students, masters at crac-king the exam code but unable to think independently.
Symbiosis has gone against every principle of higher education by submitting to the ABVP’s demand. If the demand was to make the seminar more inclusive then it could have been done by expanding the list of speakers. If the objection was that the film was ‘anti-national’ for its portrayal of human rights violations by the army, the answer was to invite army personnel to refute its claims. If the concern was the film’s apparent lack of a Censor Board certificate — and incidentally it has been shown several times before in India — the college could still have invited Sanjay Kak for a discussion. Symbiosis did none of these. The principal simply called off the seminar, choosing silence over debate.
Religion and politics is at an unhealthy intersection in India. We accept that politicians act out of short-term motivation, fanning religion to protect their vote banks. The Rushdie controversy, for instance, was timed with the UP election. But why should universities bend? Symbiosis principal Hrishikesh Soman is reported to have said that an ‘educational institute is not a proper forum’ to discuss politics. Seriously? He is prepared for a discussion on Kashmiri culture, food, music, literature but not its politics. This argument reduces Symbiosis to the level of a finishing school. It goes against the grain of higher education and against the grain of enquiry.
Kashmiri Pandits say Jashn-e-Azadi, which can be seen on the internet, is one-sided. But Kak has maintained that he is telling a particular story. He is under no obligation to tell all sides. And nothing stops Panun Kashmir from making its own film. Writing for The Telegraph in 2007, historian Mukul Kesavan questioned the film’s many assumptions — the number of Kashmiris killed from 1989 to 2006 and the absence of Kashmiri Pandits in the frames — but concluded, “Good documentaries don’t necessarily change your mind; they do, however, prompt you to take your opinions out of mothballs and give them an airing.”
Universities like Symbiosis could do with some airing. Or perhaps it could learn from Berkeley, hotbed of ideas, where students in the 70s put up posters that stated: ‘Question Authority’. In 21st century India, we would do well to declare: ‘Question Everything’. And then draw your own conclusions.
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer)
The views expressed by the author are personal