Today, Indian universities and academia are witnessing an unprecedented and outspoken threat towards the very idea of their existence. Universities are the spaces where knowledge is expected to be generated; where even the most eccentric ideas are supposed to be discussed and debated; where difficult questions are desired to be raised and answered.
Either it is the case of Prof Sudha Chaudhary at Mohan Lal Sukhadia University, Udaipur, Rajasthan where she was hounded for inviting Prof Vohra to deliver a lecture on Hinduism, or of Dr Manoj Kumar and Dr Snehsata (myself) who were strictly warned for staging a play based on Mahasweta Devi's short story “Draupadi”, or of Dr Rajashree Ranawat at JNVU, Jodhpur, who was suspended for inviting Prof Nivedita Menon for a lecture, or of a teacher at the Central University of Jharkhand who was suspended because he had allegedly invited a teacher from JNU or of the attack at Ramjas College, Delhi University by ABVP – each incident is a painful experience for the academia.
The worst part of this censorship is that it has not only shrunk the limited space which was available to the students and teachers but also put the inner censor in their minds. When a young teacher joins a university, she remains very eager to perform her duties as a teacher and contributes in building a free and vibrant atmosphere in the society.
But, if the teacher is warned, bullied, and punished for the same, next time, instead of eagerness and joy, there would be confusion and suspicion in her mind. In the same way, student's curiosities are also nipped in the buds. They are threatened for being critical and creative. Hence, this censorship not only thwarts academic freedom but has the capacity to engulf the very conditions in which academic environment can be bloomed freely and fully.
Academic freedom is often taken as a synonym for freedom of expression. Freedom of expression appears more personal, related to expression of one's personal opinions. But more than a right to express views, academic freedom lies at the very core of the job of the academician.
It is the duty of the teacher to acquaint the students with the various facets of a problem (however, those facets are considered as objectionable and intolerable by the dominant, powerful and authoritative elements). She should try to break the confines of pre-defined and structured notions, and should lay bare various realities submerged under the popular, well-structured, and well-defined reality.
However, no ideological framework should be imposed on the students, and the teacher should respect the independent judgment of the students and let them decide for themselves. For almost always, the authoritative and fascist tendencies make this argument that their actions are in the interest of the nation and society.
But, they forget that they don't have any right to decide for the society. Society has its own logic and reason and it can make its own judgments. Here, I want to share a personal incident to qualify the argument that common masses have their own intelligence.
Recently, my Mother and Aunty (both are illiterate who never got the chance to get education) happened to visit our university. We showed them the new academic blocks and they were overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place. While moving through the campus they were talking to each other and I was listening to them. The most striking thing in their conversation was their ideas about university and knowledge.
In their local dialect, they easily made it clear that education imparts knowledge and knowledge liberates mind. They remarked that in the beautiful and big buildings of the university, beautiful and fearless minds were laboriously engaged in generating great knowledge. They departed from us by reminding us our duty as a teacher and simply said, “Teach in the best way.” They had great expectations not only from me but from the very idea of university.
Ironically, their whole conversation took me a few days back. Mahasweta Devi's Breast Stories is the part of our syllabus in the Literature and Gender paper and I am teaching that paper in the 4 semester of MA English. We had gone through the story “Draupadi” and for the better understanding of the story and its various issues; we decided to watch the play “Draupadi” in the classroom.
But, as soon as we started the play, our HOD asked me to come outside and questioned about the screening of the play. He literally pleaded me to stop the screening. I witnessed fear in his eyes. I questioned his approach but finally had to stop the play. Then I realized that even the so-called autonomous classroom was not my own.
Travelling through the seminars and conferences, the bullying censorship had infringed my classroom, my syllabus, my content, and my study material. And I failed in protecting my academic space in the face of insensitive administration.
I wanted to tell all this to my Mother and Aunt. I wanted to tell them that their imagined 'beautiful minds' are slowly and gradually being terrorized and hampered by dirty fascist tendencies. I wanted to alarm them that instead of open debates and healthy discussions, fear and silence were prevailing in those beautiful spaces.
But I didn't say anything to them. How could I terrify and scare those fearless expectations? I couldn't, because these selfless expectations are the only hopes which would be able to revive fearlessness and confidence in the confused minds.
*Department of English, Central University of Haryana. Source: PUCL Bulletin, April 2017