To the Students and Faculty of Symbiosis University on the Censors in their Midst
Dear Students, Dear Teachers, Dear Friends at Symbiosis University, Pune
You are faced with an extraordinary situation. A symposium on Kashmir that was to be held in your institution with the support of the University Grants Commission, has been
cancelled, postponed (see update at the end of the post) following complaints by activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the student wing of the extreme right-wing militia that goes by the name of the RSS) against the proposed screening of a documentary film ‘Jashn-e-Azadi‘ (‘This is How We Celebrate Freedom’) by the well known filmmaker Sanjay Kak. These complaints, which could more accurately be called threats, have unfortunately received the tacit endorsement of senior police figures in Pune and seem to have met with the approval of your principal. (Thanks to The Hindu – see links above - for the two balanced reports on this issue.) While the seminar may or may not be held (it stands ‘postponed’ as of now) the administration of Symbiosis have succumbed to the insistence of the right wing groups that Jashn-e-Azadi’s screening remain cancelled.
This development in Pune seems to echo the equally unfortunate recent restrictions placed on the teaching of A.K. Ramanujan’s magisterial essay on the Ramayana in Delhi University and the violence triggered by hooligans aligned to the Nationalist Congress Party at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune to James Laine’s book on Shivaji some years ago.
Following close on the heels of the deeply unfortunate events at the Jaipur Literature Festival, this particular incident (the cancellation of the Kashmir seminar and the prohibition on the screening of Sanjay Kak’s film) also demonstrates that any concession to Muslim Fundamentalism (as happened in Jaipur recently with regard to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses) is immediately taken advantage of by Right-Wing Hindu elements who seize the opportunity to use nationalism as an instrument of intellectual and cultural terrorism. Hindu and Muslim Fascism are just tweedledum and tweedledee.
Any prohibition of this kind is an insult to students and teachers and needs to be seen as such. It is a grave assault on the atmosphere of academic freedom and free exchange of ideas and information that is vital to the intellectual life of any university. As students you have every right to be exposed to different perspectives on any issue, including the continuing conflict in Jammu & Kashmir, and make up your own minds about what you see and read. As teachers, you have every right to make your lectures and seminars more rounded by offering your students the opportunity to learn about different positions and realities.
Those of you who are students are all mature young people. University students are supposed to be possessed of a maturity that befits their entitlement to higher education. There should be absolutely nothing that comes between you and the activities and processes that your faculty and teachers organize for your benefit. In this instance, your teachers organized a seminar on Kashmir, bringing speakers and contributions representing a wide diversity of positions. If the film – ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ and its filmmaker, Sanjay Kak represent a particular point of view, there would no doubt have been other contributions and speakers that would have represented a very different point of view. The prohibition on the film as demanded by the ABVP and as acceded to by the university authorities violate your right to be informed and to make up your own minds as thinking adults. Any university in India today would be failing in its educational mandate were it not to offer its students an opportunity to learn about the rich diversity of views that are currently in operation on a question as important as Kashmir.
Some of you may be studying political science, others history or geography, others constitutional law, some of you may be studying media. Whatever may be your discipline or interest, Kashmir, representations of Kashmir, and a free and frank discussion of what is going on in Kashmir is of profound relevance to your work as students and teachers who are trying to make sense of the complex realities of all of South Asia. Not to have the freedom to see a serious documentary film on Kashmir if you are studying the reality of contemporary South Asia or India is akin to being students of environmental science who are prohibited from discussing and viewing films on global warming.
Not being able to see a serious film on the Kashmir question is an unwarranted interference in your legitimate academic activity, and it is very unfortunate that the authorities who administer your institution have decided to cancel the planned screening. Remember, this film has not been banned anywhere in India, and nor is its exhibition within the context of an educational institution an offense. It has been seen several times at university and college screenings in different parts of India and abroad without the occurrence of any untoward incident.
However, being students, or employees (if you are faculty) you would be best advised to abide by the decisions that your authorities take, regardless of the arbitrariness of those decisions. The current undemocratic and hierarchical nature of the education system leaves you with few other options but to obey the regulations enforced by the administrators of your institution. And yet, you need not fret unduly at their decision to cancel the screening and the seminar.
Here is what you can do, and you can do this without breaking any law.
Download and watch ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ online on your laptops or computers in the privacy of your homes or hostel rooms. You can also watch excerpts privately on YouTube. Here is one excerpt. Reading this post also means that you are watching the film, or at least a part of it, automatically.
The film is not banned, watching it privately is not illegal in any way, under any jurisdiction, anywhere in India. You can then have a perfectly normal discussion, in your classrooms and lecture halls about the film and what it shows you of Kashmir. This can be done in as small or as large groups as you wish. Such discussions can and must be held peacefully and with the utmost respect for the disciplinary standards and decorum of your institution. If the planned seminar is held, as promised by the concerned authorities, such a discussion (on the film, on what it shows us about Kashmir, and on the Symbiosis Authorities craven submission to the diktats of censorious busybodies and hooligans can feature prominently in the proceedings of the seminar, even if no screening of ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ is permitted within the seminar.
If for some unfathomable and irrational reason the authorities of your institution decide to prevent you from even this eminently educational and perfectly legal activity. Here is what you can do next. Sanjay Kak, the filmmaker who made ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ has also edited an excellent anthology of articles and essays on Kashmir – titled ‘Until My Freedom Has Come‘ published by Penguin India in 2011. Pankaj Mishra, the eminent writer and novelist says about this collection -
“Bludgeoned into isolation, while the world looked away, and then shrouded by deliberate misinformation, Kashmir has struggled to make itself heard; the very human aspirations of Kashmiris for dignity and strength and their great pain and anguish have been consistently misrepresented. No more: this book marks the pivotal moment when, using carefully chosen words as well as choreographed mass politics, a brave and resourceful new generation of Kashmiris is finally shattering the Valley’s long solitude.”
In the absence of the film, or of discussion around the film, this book, and conversations with and around it, can be an excellent way to start a serious engagement with Kashmir and even with the contents of the film that has been denied to you. You can easily find the book in any good bookshop in Pune, or order it on Flipkart. At 300 Rupees it is not very expensive. But if it pinches your pocket, a few friends can pool resources to get hold of a copy. Perhaps even your University’s library may have some copies that you can borrow to read. Once you have got the book in hand, organize reading groups around it, and discuss and debate what its authors say. That alone will be an excellent response to the attempt to thwart meaningful discussion of the Kashmir question in your institution. Remember, again, this book has not been banned anywhere. Reading from it, purchasing it, possessing it and lending or gifting it to friends to read are perfectly legal and legitimate activities.
Reading, thinking, discussion and learning – this is what happens at universities. If you take these activities away, you might as well admit that the university in question has ceased to live up to its mandate and responsibilities. Rabindranath Tagore, who believed passionately in the highest standards of intellectual liberty in the university context – had this to say about education in the university that he had founded in Shantiniketan.
“…education has its only meaning and object in freedom–freedom from ignorance about the laws of the universe, and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communication with the human world. In my institution I have attempted to create an atmosphere of naturalness in our relationship with strangers, and the spirit of hospitality which is the first virtue in men that made civilization possible.“
Some ideas may seem strange at times. And some thoughts, or books, or films may bear unusual ideas and images. But a university would be failing in its task if it were not to embody a spirit of hospitality towards the new idea or the unusual image. ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’ and Sanjay Kak were invited to your institution by your own faculty. Today, since the authorities of your institution have decided to be close-minded, and have violated the principles of hospitality towards the new ideas that this film might have brought in its wake, it still remains your responsibility to rescue the spirit of education in your university from the prison where the ABVP, the Pune Police and your principal may seek to confine it to. Remember, in order to do this, you do not need to break the law. All you need to do is to break the silence that currently obscures ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’. See this film, read ‘Until My Freedom Has Come’. See as many films as you want to, read as many books as you can. That is what being a student or a teacher is all about.
Some related posts on censorship and freedom of speech and expression from Kafila archives:
- How We Celebrate Freedom
- Hindus offended by lack of offence: Sajan Venniyoor
- How India Makes E-books Easier to Ban than Books (And How We Can Change That): Pranesh Prakash
- SAHMAT invites Salman Rushdie to Delhi
- ‘सलमान रूश्दी के कार्यक्रम रद्द होने पर निराशा’; PUCL regrets cancellation of Salman Rushdie’s visit to Jaipur
- Satanic Versus Moronic: How Salman Rushdie Lost the UP Election
- Invisible Censorship – How India Censors Without Being Seen: Pranesh Prakash
- On sedition: Sarim Naved
- A Dialogue with God and Dialogues that go missing
- Kapil Sibal is an Idiot
- Oxford University Members Demand that OUP-India Stand by Ramanujan Essay
- ‘Locking up gods within caste’
- “I Am Still Alive”: Amitava Kumar
- A Curious Silence and an Un-Crossed Line: In the Wake of A Disbanded Exhibition
- On the Harud Literary Festival, setting the record straight
- Harud Literature Festival ‘postponed’
- Your government is removing your YouTube videos and you don’t even know about it
- Alvida, Maqbool Fida: M.F. Husain, Free at Last
- Blasphemy, Sedition, Democrac
Update: The Symbiosis University has now stated that the Seminar has not been cancelled, but has been postponed. I hope that this is true, and that the seminar allows full freedom to discuss, if not to show (because the film can be seen anyway by everybody who wants to on their computers) the contents of ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’. To this end, here is a clarification. The earlier link to the site where you an access the entire film online had an error. The correct url has now been appended to the link. The link is -