Guest post by Waled Aadnan
It can be said that 86/1 College Street, Calcutta, has seen a microcosm of the history of modern India unfold within its walls. Since 1874 when the already fifty-nine year old Presidency College shifted to its current address, future Presidents and Prime Ministers of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; Nobel Laureates, freedom fighters, an Academy Award winner, Bharat Ratnas; the leadership of the Naxalite movement of the 60s and 70s; and eminent judges, writers, journalists, scientists and actors, have spent their student days at 86/1.
Two years ago, soon after I joined the institution, the Left Front government upgraded Presidency College to the status of a state University in a last-gasp bid to hold on to the votes of the bhadralok intellectuals. 2012 dawned with no Student Union elections having been held the previous year, and it is in this backdrop that the following events unfold.
Salman Rushdie’s well-publicised ostracism from the Jaipur Literature Festival was met not with outrage in Presi’s canteen addas, but with the absence of even a poster put up in protest. News filtered in of a seminar in Symbiosis University being “threatened.” But little awareness existed among students who were more inclined to read tabloid-like, unputdownable newspapers than their relatively austere counterparts, including The Hindu which broke the story.
The cancellation of the launch of Taslima Nasreen’s book ‘Nirbasan (Exile)’ was almost a non-event for Presi and the earlier cultural censorship meted out to the writings of AK Ramanujan and Rohinton Mistry in university syllabi went ignored in a campus that prides itself in upholding liberal values. Bong-haters reading this would smirk and point this out to indignant Bengalis, but pray refrain, because the rest of India has done worse, earning the Indian liberal the unenviable tag of a wimp restricted to fighting its battles on cyberspace alone.
Which is when Sourav Roy Barman, Pratim Ghosal (both second year Political Science students) and I, as good followers of modern subversion created an event page on Facebook on 5th February 2012 inviting all interested to a screening of ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ somewhere on the Presidency campus, tentatively on 8th February. The event description read as follows:
“We are NOT a political party or organisation. We are simply a group of students disgusted by the extent of thought control in the country at present. From the banning of books and movies to the persecution of artists and authors, our country is heading headlong towards fundamentalism. This screening, if not for anything, then just to make some noise and say that yes, we won’t let things be. BE THERE, WATCH THE MOVIE, PROTEST THOUGHT CONTROL!”
To which we received the first comment saying “THIS. IS. NECESSARY.” and a second that read “but not sufficient!” I quote these comments since they epitomised what we had gone out to do. Screening a full-length documentary on Kashmir, especially one whose screening had recently been canceled under pressure from conservative groups was necessary, if only for the very simple reason of making a point. However, never were we conceited that the same screening would change the ground realities in the short-term. Our humble objective was to make at least ten, fifteen, twenty people talk about the movie as well as the increasing dominance of fundamentalist thought in Indian society.
The next day was spent spreading the word inside and outside the campus, setting in motion a chain of propaganda through present students and recent alumni. A discreet signature campaign yielded eighty signatures supporting the screening of Jashn-e-Azadi. Both major political parties within Presidency, the Independents’ Consolidation (IC) and the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) promised support. Armed thus, we approached the authorities seeking a formal approval from the University.
We realised the extent of the problem facing us when a popular professor declined us permission to use his department lecture theatre, citing reports he had received that ABVP-like elements may create a ruckus if the screening was to go on. The trend followed at every door we knocked. The fear psychosis present in the minds of those in charge was an enemy we were not prepared to fight. Because unlike Symbiosis, we hadn’t even faced any protests or threats. A figment of the imagination, a hypothetical situation where a screening “might” face widespread attacks could not be disproved. As such, allaying the fears of those in charge became impossible.
This was when Presidency failed us, the eighty-odd students who wanted to stand up for our right to free expression. This was when the bureaucratic administration chose the safety of seeking permission from the Home and Education departments over and above their duty to provide students an education inclusive of different points of view and divergent ideologies. It may be noted that Jashn-e-Azadi isn’t banned in India, nor does the screening of a movie on Kashmir require prior permission from governmental officials. There was a golden opportunity for a Presidency administration under no apparent pressure, to take responsibility and stand up for one of the basic Constitutional Rights guaranteed to all Indian citizens under Section 19. But by choosing to apply delaying tactics, asking us to postpone the screening by a week, it had lost game, set and match to love.
The screening went on as scheduled; a projector and a screen was hired, an anteroom of the University Canteen was decided as a venue. An entire set of students staked their academic careers to challenge the administration and do what we thought right. Instead of a comfortable classroom or auditorium, all we had to offer to those interested was a corner of the room where fifty-odd individuals – students, alumni, media persons – saw the grim realities of Kashmir as portrayed by director Sanjay Kak. In a message he sent us, he said:
“You have gathered here today because you want to flag a protest, because you want to send off a signal that students at Presidency College will not surrender their right to be informed about the world, to hear and speak about issues that are central to our times. That’s a fundamental right, and we cannot – and will not – surrender that. For making that gesture, and putting your foot down: *Zindabad!*
…So as you watch ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ I would like you to think about all the things that disturb you in the film and try and make sense of what they mean. Fearless listening, in a way. Kashmir is important not only because of the struggle of the people of Kashmir, or their immense struggle and sacrifice, but because it has very important implications for all Indians, for Indian democracy, and our collective sense of what kind of a society we want to live in… Meanwhile, my congratulations on the decision to contest the censorship of ideas, and fight for the free space of the mind. Perhaps all of us can also join the Kashmiris and say in our own way: *Hum kya chahta? Azadi!*”
Those watching the documentary contributed voluntarily towards paying for the rent of the projector. I mention this just to emphasise the low-scale, secretive nature of the screening because we feared that at any moment, an official may come in and force us to shut shop. People stood in shadows watching intently, taking in facts and images which contradicted the wisdom of all they had been taught to think and believe about Kashmir. In a way, it was a challenge to each one, taking pains to sit for two hours furtively watching Jashn-e-Azadi, to not let their belief systems come in the way of understanding and appreciating the message sought to be put forward. At the end of two hours, nervous relief. On the other side of the wall, a show cause notice to all involved in arranging for the screening.
But these are minor considerations. In a dark corner of one of India’s supposedly intellectual colleges, walls had been broken down. Walls of narrow ideas sold in ready-made containers in the classrooms and news channels of the country. Walls of prejudice and jingoism that threatens to permeate the all-inclusive spirit of the subcontinent. And most importantly, walls of fear and walls of cowardice.
All over the country today, other walls are being erected: some in Kashmir, some in Northeast India, others in the tribal fields and jungles of Central India. While India Inc talks in terms of percentages of GDP growth, vast majority of the populace still yearns about basic amenities. Somewhere at least, brick by brick, some wall needs pulling down.
Waled Aadnan is a student of Economics at Presidency University, Kolkata