Resist the Shrinking of Democratic Spaces on Campus: Concerned Students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Guest post by Concerned Students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Universities are thought to be just, equal and free spaces. However the history of access to universities for certain sections of the society is not very old. Discrimination has been institutionalized and structurally carried out on the basis of caste, race, gender, religion and sexual identity even in the space of the university. However, over time there has been an increase in assertion from the marginalized groups in university spaces that has caused some disquiet among administrators. This is evident from various incidents that are taking place on a day to day basis in university spaces.

Kashmir and North East are two regions which have been frequently used by the Indian state to claim its sovereignty through grave violation of basic rights of people residing in these areas. Contrary to our beliefs, campuses and universities also reflect the larger politics of our society.

We, a group of students invited Dr Dibyesh Anand for a lecture titled “Deliberating Kashmir: Beyond AFSPA and Chutzpah” at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai on 3rd January 2015. Dr Dibyesh Anand is the Head of Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, London. He is an acclaimed scholar on violence and States in South Asia and has also written and published extensively on his area of expertise. He has also been a visiting professor to the University of California Berkeley, the Australian National University, the Centre for Bhutan Studies, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Central University of Hyderabad. Following the procedure we had booked the room four days prior to the programme and invited students and faculty in TISS and outside to attend the talk. On the afternoon of the Saturday, as the talk was just about to start with the guest Professor Dibyesh and Chair Dr. Farrukh Faheem, a faculty member at TISS, we were suddenly informed by the security that the room booked for the programme was allotted for examinations and hence there is no room available for us to conduct the programme. The speaker and Chair and some students had already arrived at the venue and it was an awkward situation. We then organized the programme at the quadrangle which is an open space near the previously allotted room number five. With the help of students, we arranged chairs from the classroom and a maintenance person helped us with the mike. The programme started with songs by students from Imphal talkies, Prof. Farrukh Faheem gave the introduction followed by Prof. Dibyesh’s talk. As the programme was progressing, the Director of the institute also joined us, and called out to the Chair who was listening to the talk, and shouted at him in front of all those who were assembled at the venue – “Who are you?” “Who gave you permission for this programme?” and walked away infuriated, disrespecting the international guest faculty, the Chair and the students present. Despite these disruptions the programme continued with Prof. Dibyesh. He calmly answered the questions from the students and healthy discussions took place around the topic. Prof. Dibyesh presented an open stand on the issue from the human rights perspective and critiqued the fundamentalist and terrorist forces in both the countries as well as international issues.

To think that this incident is an aberration is not right. A lot of instances have occurred across the campus which points towards the intolerance of the administration towards healthy discussion on topics. The universities are unable to provide a free space any more for students to come together and have a discussion. The administration of the universities are working with the State in trying to control ideas and hence restricting the students coming from various backgrounds to develop a full understanding of important issues for our society.

At IIT Bombay too, the authorities denied permission to organize a discussion on democracy and human rights violations in Kashmir in the first week of January. The Dean maintained that the permission was not granted on the basis that “procedure was not followed”. When some IIT students went to ask the permission from the Dean on January 5, the Dean said he believed “the ultimate pillar of democracy was Parliament and if Parliament questioned him on how the students held a debate on violence in Kashmir, he would be unable to give an answer”. Following this, some of the students approached the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the IIT that agreed to organise the lecture as its “departmental event”. Finally the programme was conducted though there were insolent questions being asked to the speaker from the audience.

Arundhati Roy, the well-known Booker Prize winner and writer, was denied permission at EFLU to address students on the campus on Monday, March 10, 2014. Roy was invited by the student organisations to speak on the topic “Fractures of Indian Ideology Reimagining Democracy and Redrawing Resistance” on the first death anniversary of Kashmiri student Muddasir Kamran who had died under suspicious circumstances.

Indian Law College Pune, as a part of their college fest “Legal Ease” was to screen Ram ke Naam directed by the renowned film-maker Anand Patwardhan on 27thDecember 2014, but the screening was cancelled the day before, at which Pathwardhan commented on his Facebook post

This afternoon they called to say that after receiving threats, their faculty decided to cancel the event. They are refusing to say where the threats came from or to divulge the names of the faculty who cancelled the event. Obviously the students are themselves under threat .The film is 24 years old. It has a “U” certificate. It has a national award. It has a Filmfare award. It was already shown on Doordarshan many years ago after the High court ruled that it must be screened at prime time in the national interest. Can we accept this state of affairs?

Sanjay Kak the renowned documentary filmmaker commented

Periodically, someone will set the right¬wing onto a screening, the ABVP in Pune a few years ago, or the Bajrang Sena in Hyderabad last year, and they too are out to score their own points, they don’t have a critique do they? And you’re absolutely right: of course this is about putting the lid on any kind of conversation about Kashmir. But its not really working, is it?

Incidents like these are no more rare in India. At TISS, students, faculty, different schools and centres and students’ groups conduct programmes on various academic and non-academic issues, from Vivekanada and Science to lectures on Carvaka/Lokayata. Nobody raised any objection to such talks. The objection arises only when there is an issue which does not conform with the state’s ideology. For instance Dr. Dybesh was invited to TISS to deliver a talk on 3rd of January on The State and Violence in South Asia. It appears as though institutes like TISS have the right to talk about violence around the world but not against its own state.

With the change in the government, the nature of the campuses is also changing. It is a reflection of something larger. At TISS, the head of an institute has not only humiliated Dr Dibyesh Anand but also its own faculty Dr. Farrukh Faheem who is one amongst the few Muslim faculty members at the TISS campus. We were denied space to have healthy academic discussions with a reputed academic from an international university. The nature of a higher education learning centre of national and international repute should be such that friendly and open dialogues are possible between various people of different backgrounds as well as thought processes. This adds to the diversity of the space as well as the tolerance to talk about all the perspectives. The university is also the space where students are looking for meaning and clarity and in order to search for that meaning it is important to hear all the discourses on contentious issues. This is especially important in Institutes that boast of themselves of propagating a social science and human rights perspective and advocating for social justice. Hence as students we feel it is extremely important to have a liberated and free space where mutual dialogues are possible. But in light of this incident and few more like this we are apprehensive that this space has shrunk for us and we have excessive interference not just as students of this reputed college but also as human beings in our right to freedom of expression, our right to free movement and our rights to assemble at public spaces.

Moreoever, with extreme privatization of education, resulting in high fees, the students are left with no will to fight the structure. Modi government is reducing funds for education, there are fee hikes in a lot of universities, and scholarships like GOI are getting even more difficult to access.  There is a need to question the aim of the government in doing so. Is it to say that only those people can afford to be in university spaces who have the privilege of money? Will education be only provided to those who can afford it? Is the aim of universities to fulfil the demand of the market by creating corporates? The idea of education is falling apart and there is an urgent need to recreate a democratic space.

We have not imagined the university space as a prison and we strongly resist any attempts into making it one. With the new government coming into power, even these minimally democratic spaces are changing very drastically. There is an attempt to curb any form of ideas that is even beginning to question the status quo. If we cannot fight these fascist tendencies in our own university spaces then the idea of education will fail.

Gender violence too is increasing  on campuses. We condemn all acts that add to the undemocratic character of the universities. On this we urge all students and faculty to support and join us in the endeavor to protest the shrinking of democratic spaces in the universities and create healthy spaces for academic discourse.

16 thoughts on “Resist the Shrinking of Democratic Spaces on Campus: Concerned Students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai”

  1. This sounds like a matter that should be of concern at least to other “Tata” institutions. I wish the name of the Director was mentioned so that one learn more abut his thinking and politics.

  2. “The nature of a higher education learning centre of national and international repute should be such that friendly and open dialogues are possible between various people of different backgrounds as well as thought processes”.. Can you name a few right leaning intellectuals from JNU??

    1. Lawrence, whether by ‘right-leaning’ you mean on the question of the economy or on minority rights and secularism, or gender, or caste, there are many many such people on the faculty of JNU in different disciplines. Far more than there are ‘left-wing’ people, alas. And there are of course, hundreds of students who would fit the category of ‘right-wing’ on any of these parameters.
      I will not name them because they might feel insulted. Now, isn’t that interesting? People proudly claim to be left-wing, but right-wingers don’t like to be termed as such.
      But of course, you really have no idea what you mean by your own comment, what left or right wing really means etc. – it was a typically fluffy and predictably snide knee-jerk reference to JNU’s supposed ‘leftism’, when the post is on TISS. Pathetic.

    2. Sir, your comment reminds me of a certain incident. Allow me to mention it here, during the screening of Red ANt Dream by Sanjay Kak , someone accused him of showing just one perspective in the film . Sanjay Kak had responded something to the extent, when the mainstream is full of lies and overtly portrays only one side then why dont you question that, why do you get so discomforted when one film is made that shows a specific perspective which has not been shown ?

      Why I draw this analogy is that the statement that you have mentioned describes very much, an ideal sort of higher education institution when in India most academic institutions are right inclined, a few institutes that bother to give bit of space to the left or alternative kind of views become a cause of so much discomfort to so many

  3. I believe this is just side of the story which has been told over here. The institute have been providing enough democratic spaces to students without any discrimination and it has been seen that democracy and freedom has been disrespected in past. So when people talk about claiming democracy , then they must realize that democracy is that wedding which brings ‘responsibility’ as spouse. And with all due respect to the conversations on sensitive issues about Kashmir, i personally believe that institute have given space to the students , discussions etc. However, i must bring in notice to the public who is reading over here. That being part of the institute the respected faculty mentioned in the article have been discriminating students on various grounds. There have been various discussions where students opinion is totally disrespected in lectures and i wonder what happens to the democratic spaces of the classroom , when the faculty mention here doesn’t appreciate democracy in his own lecture.

    The director of the Institute have always supported its students , but there are few students who rather building conversation just take an anti-institute stand. I think it would have been better and fruitful if a better conversation with the institute would have been undertaken rather than writing this article in order to defame the director. And by better conversation i don’t mean protest and extremist stand. By conversation i mean that a conscious attempt to understand the perspective of other side.

    Cheers !!!

    1. I feel you have posted this comment just for the sake of posting. I am an alumni of TISS and I was Farrukh Faheem’s student in two courses and also, he was my field work supervisor in first year. One was on Sociology of Development and another on Peace and Conflict . I never remember him discriminating between the students on any grounds . He holds certain political views from his experiences on field, some of which he discussed like Kosi floods in Bihar etc. but I clearly do not remember him discriminating or stopping students from expressing themselves . Expressing one’s own political views does not amount to discrimination . On the contrary, I had very good experiences with him on political matters and I remember he never imposed his views on me or any other students, rather he left us to read etc. In one of our assignments, unlike other faculty he constantly gave us feedback which helped us in rectifying our mistakes .

      1. This was no comment for the sake of comment. We know you’re an alumni of tiss and so is the person who posted the comment. Having studied under the said faculty member I can assure you that he is interested in spreading only his political views. He is not alone in this regard. As for his expertise as a field work supervisor we all saw how he handled his students during the Kashmir floods. It doesn’t really matter what anyone says to you lot as you are going to continue viewing things the way you want to see them and cry ‘democracy’ when things don’t go your way. So here’s to more resisting, protesting, condemning and what not that you folks specialize in without actually doing anything meaningful.

        TISS has held many a talks regarding the Kashmir conflict so you shouldn’t claim that the institute has been shying away from discussing the state and terrorist violence in Kashmir. We all can find faults with our institutions but attacking the head of the institution on a public forum like this only goes to show how much courage you ‘revolutionaries’ have. As none of the poster brigades put up anything on this regard on campus I’m taking the liberty of guessing that all the ‘concerned students’ mentioned here in this post didn’t bother to meet the director personally regarding this issue.

  4. I am quite surprised by this post. I am an alumni of TISS. I know there have been rumblings about the Director’s attitude in the past on Kafila.

    However my own experience at TISS has been good, I cannot fathom how the author makes the claim that (Indian) state sponsored violence is not allowed to be discussed at TISS. I remember Abhay Sahoo from CPI (of the Anti Posco movement),Binayak Sen, P Sainath , if I remember correctly KP Sasi (speaking in support of Maudany), and a host of other speakers and events attacking State violence (including that in Kashmir) on many occassions. Almost every event/discussion in TISS challenges/critiques State Ideology (from my experience).

    Please remember one swallow doesnt make a summer.The piece is mischievous in the sense that the headline speaks only about TISS, and then deviates with very little anecdotal evidence of other universities.

    My own feeling is that the article is extremely one-sided. Did anyone bother to check/confront the Director about the incident ?

    1. “Rumblings” ..so any experience apart from your ‘good’ experience should become a rumbling ? DId you bother to find out the reason behind these rumblings ??

      Also, as far as I understand , the article nowhere denies that such space has been given to various issues and speakers in the past . However, that space has been diminishing with the attack of right wing forces on educational institutions, one needs no rocket science to understand that. It is all there in the mainstream media . Infact as I read it, the article hardly targets individuals, rather tries to draw attention to some larger points of concern .. So in your opinion students should not discuss those ? I find that ridiculous..

      In fact , kudos to the students for coming up with ths statement in the midst of all the hostility.

  5. I happened to be present at the venue when Dr Dibyesh Anand’s lecture was going on.
    Suddenly a very uncouth man, hollered loudly ” who are you?” Who gave you permission?”
    It was the director professor Parsuram , the chair tried to pacify him but Parsuram hollered , puffed and displayed a most crude and aggressive body language he left but not before swearing away.
    It was both shocking and embarrassing , however Dr. Anand continued with his discussion.
    Strict action must be taken against Parsuram for both , violating the democratic rights of students and exhibiting a behaviour that befits a local goon.

  6. Institutes like TISS suffer from a very serious and thought provoking shortcoming. Their stand on the socio-economic situations and atrocities against weaker sections of the societies of the country and the developing countries in general does not seem to be clear or sometimes seems hypocritical to a participant observer. Not only in Mumbai campus, students in other campuses too cannot raise their voices against any issue they feel worth taking up. Issues that can be taken at a bigger level can only be decided by the administers and directors. Sometimes, I believe other campus such as Tuljapur suffer more than the main campus due to their demographic disadvantage. I have many instances to quote for the same but the point here is where should students go and acquire different perspectives if they cannot do so at TISS which claims to be a pro-people, pro-issues institute with zero tolerant policy towards any kind of discrimination (really!)?

  7. Shrinking of democratic spaces is not a phenomenon only in TISS. It happens across the universities in the country, in the so-called ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ spaces. I can cite various instances from JNU in the recent times. And I do not also think that the university as an administrative institution is the only culprit, rather there is an increasing culture of intolerance growing in the universities as a whole. To refer to just an incident, a few weeks back, few LGBTQ+ students and sympathizers have tied some rainbow threads on a tree in JNU. After a few days, it was torn by some intolerant elements in the campus.
    There are moralities constructed everywhere, and increasingly in the contemporary political scenario. Both TISS as an institution and the director as the head typifies this current morality. It is important to resist these stifling of the voices in the campuses.

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