Are you celebrating free speech, Mr. Lit Fest? Harsh Snehanshu
Guest post by HARSH SNEHANSHU
This January, in a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), the award-winning writer Jerry Pinto said something that sent most of us into a tizzy.
“We are sitting in the ‘Google’ Mughal Tent discussing how crucial the freedom of expression is for us writers,” Pinto said wringing his hands animatedly. “It’s the same Google that reads all our mails, encroaches on our privacy, and here, under its roof, we are discussing how we should feel free to say whatever we want without any fear.” The crowd was amused, and left with some food for thought. Would it have been possible to organize an event as grand as the JLF, free for all, without Google’s help? I asked myself. The answer was a no. Google’s deep pockets couldn’t be ignored. Should I refrain from attending the fest just because of Google’s invasion of my privacy? The answer, after some thought, was again a no. Google monitoring my mails doesn’t affect my freedom of expression that I prize most as a writer.
Two weeks later, another literature festival has arrived, this time in New Delhi. Run by arguably India’s most revered newspaper, The Hindu’s Lit for Life is being held at the Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, on 8th February after its successful three day stint at Chennai in mid-January. The guest-list is embellished with names of noted luminaries like the writers Rana Dasgupta, Sam Miller, Rahul Bhattacharya among others, the Olympian Mary Kom, and politicians Shazia Ilmi and Manish Tewari. The entry, like every other literary festival nowadays, is free. The beautifully designed logo is aptly shaped as the fountain pen, representing the craft that it celebrates. However there is something below the logo that disturbs me. It says, ‘Powered by VIT University.’
VIT (Vellore Institute of Technology) University, the title sponsor of the festival, hasn’t stood for the core value that writing treasures i.e. free speech. Besides, it has failed to do justice to what the female speakers of the event like Mary Kom and Shazia Ilmi symbolize – gender equality and women empowerment. Less than five months ago, in October, in a bid to silence criticism of its rules, VIT, Vellore, had sent two female students home. Their crime was that they had posted Facebook status updates questioning the gender-discriminatory rules imposed upon female students by the college authorities. Ironically, The Hindu was one of the only newspapers to report the story.
As per the rules, female students at VIT need to be back at their hostels by 8 pm (and to campus by 5 pm!), and show a fax from their parents to the officials to get permission for every outing, however small. The outings cannot exceed 2 hours during weekdays, and 4 hours in weekends. Forget enjoying a movie, it isn’t even enough to shop for essential goods at a mall in Chennai, which is 2 hours away. These rules hold for seven days a week, without any respite, but only for girls. Boys don’t have to seek permission and can even stay out till late (their in-time being 11.30 pm). While there are finger-print scanners for girls every time they enter or exit, boys are free from such hassles and their identity cards alone qualify for proof.
Last October, when one agitated female student went to the authorities to champion gender equality and human freedom, The Hindu reports, “her effort [went] futile and her arguments were ridiculed. Following the conversation, she and another student initiated an online survey to help the students register their dissent” to mobilize support for their cause. Authorities sniffed this out as an act of defiance. The survey was met with paranoia and force. The duo was sent home, after making sure they deleted the offending posts. Citing safety reasons, the authorities brushed aside the debate concerning the larger issue of gender favoritism and choking one’s freedom of expression. What was worse was when the father of one of the two girls stated that the university was “not at fault” and it was his daughter instead who had developed “a misconceived idea” about university policy. The entire episode has been described in detail in an autobiographical account by the girl.
The administration didn’t stop here but targeted an American professor working in the university at that time, Dr. Theodore Moallem, who had extended his support to these students. Dr. Moallem was instantly dismissed and was sent back to the US despite having received accolades for his program by the University earlier. According to a report published in the International Business Times, VIT officials even tried to prevent him from leaving the country at the local airport, in a possible attempt to make him overstay his visa. Despite being sacked, he has persevered in his fight against the draconian rules. His online petition for equal rights for women at VIT has received more than 9000 signatures from across the globe.
Shaken by the university’s handling of the issue in October, I had checked VIT’s website for its mottos and values. I stumbled upon a tab mentioning the core values of the university. One of them is summed thus, “No discrimination based on race, language, caste, creed or role.” That gender is conveniently omitted from this statement, in a way, gives credence to the double standards that the students have been subjected to. There are over 17000 students in the VIT University, mostly in the age group of 18-23; if they are capable of deciding the government of the country, I am sure they can decide when to go to bed. If safety is as big a concern, there are other less extreme options for making the campus safer like recruiting more security guards, installing more lights on campus and creating a uniform in-time for both boys and girls. A second year female student, who unsurprisingly chose to remain anonymous, said, “Right at the beginning, we were made to sign an agreement that any of our actions that count as defamation for the university will directly lead to our rustication. When we signed up for this university, we signed up for being submissive and conformist as well. While many from conservative backgrounds don’t find these rules unfair, it’s us who come from freer society that suffer.”
The reason I’m so infuriated is that I cannot even imagine students living in such constricted environment. I have been fortunate enough to have studied in a liberal engineering institution (IIT Delhi), which had no in-times, no curfews, no segregation between boys and girls, other than having separate hostels. Delhi is one of the most unsafe cities for women to live in. Yet, this hasn’t made the authorities of IIT, or colleges in DU, create sexist rules against women. The more the number of unreasonable rules, stronger is the will to break them. What liberal education does is it makes students independent and thus responsible, empowering them enough to take care of their own safety. If they have some issues, the system listens. Only when an institution makes room for dissent to be heard, allowing peaceful protests and informal student unions, would a student feel a deep sense of belonging to the institution.
In an age that celebrates the audacity of Malala’s defiance of the Taliban regime, it’s worrisome that the keepers of education are stifling the voice of reason. When an educational institution that suppresses “freedom” sponsors a literature festival famed for celebrating the freedom of expression and gender-equality, it ends up making the entire event look like a farce. The questions that haunted me in Pinto’s session resurface. Would it have been possible to organize an event as grand as The Hindu Lit for Life, which allows free entry, without being powered by VIT? Maybe; there are bigger and better sponsors available. Should I refrain from attending the event? Yes, for sure. But there is a greater reason I should attend it. I want to see if this voice of dissent is suppressed as well.
Harsh Snehanshu is an author, a freelance journalist and a Young India Fellow.