The Reign of Unfreedom: IIT-Bombay & the cancellation of the Dr Ganesh Devy lecture

Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and philosopher, dreamed of a decolonised India to be a country where “the mind” would be “without fear” and “knowledge” would be “free”.

After the dawn of Independence, Tagore was recognised as the national poet and his work was made an inseparable part of the school syllabus by the political elites as a symbolic expression of gratitude to him. But when it comes to imbibing the true message of Tagore in free India and respecting freedom of expression and civil liberty, the establishment of “democratic” India has often faltered. While the previous secular governments discouraged critical voices on several occasions, the current BJP-led regimes have gone far ahead in crushing dissents.

The latest victim of Hindutva wrath is Professor Ganesh Devy. A former professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Prof Devy, a renowned cultural critic and rationalist thinker, was scheduled to deliver a lecture at IIT-Mumbai on Wednesday. A recipient of the Padma Shri, Prof Devy’s lecture was finalised months ago and he was all set to speak on “The Crisis Within: On Knowledge and Education in India”. The students and faculty members of IIT-Mumbai were eagerly waiting to feast on an intellectual interaction with him. But at the last movement, they were shocked to be informed that the lecture had been cancelled by the administration due to “unforeseen circumstances”.

A scholar of international fame, Prof Devy was all set to leave for Mumbai. But a day before the scheduled lecture, he was informed by a person about the cancellation of the event. Talking to the press, he expressed his disappointment: “Such last-minute cancellations do leave a bitter taste.”

Commenting on the cancellation of the event, Prof Devy told The Times of India (February 1), “It is difficult for me to understand the motivation behind calling off the event. If I could deliver a lecture at IIT-Guwahati, another central institute, governed by the same regulations, then why not IIT-Bombay?” Note that He spoke at IIT- Guwahati in October 2023 on “Describing India: People’s Movements and Knowledge Production. But IIT-Mumbai seemed to have shuddered at the prospect of his intellectual expression on its campus.

Following the cancellation of the lecture, the students of IIT-Mumbai expressed their disappointment. Some wrote on social media against the decision of the administration. Condemning the act of administration, Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (IIT-Mumbai), read out a portion of Prof Devy’s book as a mark of protest.

It appears that the cancellation of Prof Devy’s lecture has less to do with academic and administrative reasons than political factors. Recent, previous records show that the administration of IIT-Mumbai had cancelled lectures under political pressure. For example, Prof Achin Vanaik of the University of Delhi was invited to deliver a lecture on “Israel-Palestine: The Historical Context” in November last year. But the event was cancelled. After the cancellation of the talk, dozens of students sent a letter to the authorities concerned, adding that such an act was “tantamount to destroying our academic freedom”. However, the administration did not pay any heed to the student’s concerns.

The reason for cancellation is not difficult to understand. Prof Vanaik, an eminent scholar and critical voice in international politics, has been a vocal supporter of the just cause of Palestine. His views are not liked by the pro-establishment scholars, administrators and mainstream media houses as the foreign policy under the Modi Government has heavily tilted towards Israel.

Similarly, Prof Devy is a big champion of diversity, pluralism and secularism. Moreover, his scholarship and life have been committed to upholding the rights of marginalised communities. As a result, the Hindu Right considers him to be a formidable opponent to their ideology of majoritarianism, exclusion and cultural supremacy.

Prof Devy is a scholar, writer, philosopher, activist and foot-soldier of the rational and progressive movements. He belongs to Maharashtra, the land of Phule and Ambedkar and his lifelong mission is to act as an antidote to the communal venom produced from Nagpur. He is an avid reader as well as a tireless traveller, interacting with people and learning from them. While he spent decades at the university teaching English literature, a great portion of his later life went on amid the indigenous people of the country. While he has a mastery of literature, language, linguistics, anthropology, history and many more subjects, he regards praxis as a higher form of human activity. Giving lectures within the classrooms and seminar halls is important to him but speaking truth to the power, unlike arm-chaired scholars, is far more important. In 2015, he was among the first scholars to return awards against the prevailing culture of intolerance within the country after the coming of the BJP/RSS-backed regime.

One of Prof Devy’s missions has been to protect the linguistic diversity of India. He considers the survival of many languages important for the survival of democracy. His thesis is that linguistic diversity acts as an antidote to the rise of authoritarianism. The same zeal for protecting linguist diversity encouraged him to carry out the People’s Linguistic Survey of India in 2010. The research work did documentation of around 780 living languages spoken across India. His commitment to the rights of the Adivasi community made him found the Bhasha Research and set up the Adivasi Academy in Tejgarh.

Recently Prof Devy along with his like-minded scholars published a book, The Indians: Histories of a Civilization (2022) to counter the Hindu Right’s agenda of communalising history. While the agenda of Hindu Right has been backed up by the state machinery, the project of Prof Devy was carried out with the support of the people’s support. The success of the book has further angered communal forces.

The cancellation of Prof Devy’s lecture is a part of the wider assault on democratic spaces within the academic institutes and outside. During the last ten years, a large portion of the democratic spaces created after decades of struggles has been squeezed. Besides, the autonomy of the public institutes has been attacked and their independent functioning has interfered to promote a particular ideology. In other words, the public authority and institutions have become undeclared spokespersons of the ruling ideology.

Worse still, the mainstream media is under huge pressure and is forced to sing praises for the current regimes and exclude the voices of the discontented. As a result, anyone who is critical of RSS/BJP ideology and is a firm believer in rational, secular and progressive values, has become a target under the current BJP and its allies-led regimes.

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist. He has taught political sciences at NCWEB Centres of Delhi University.)


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