Even before IIT Bombay's famed Mood Indigo cultural festival got underway on December 26, it had to fend off a controversy: the organisers had to hastily retract their announcement that movie director Christopher Nolan would be among the guests.

As if to set the tone for the event, a fracas broke out on the last day of the event on Monday, when Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy told a packed house that Congress leader Sonia Gandhi had over $40 billion stashed away in foreign accounts and that former prime minister Manmohan Singh was a circus lion who had been "brought up to obey" orders.

The decision to invite Swamy has drawn criticism from a section of students, who believe IIT Bombay took a political stand by inviting only one politician. “Yes, politicians should be allowed to college events for free exchange of ideas,” said Rahul Maganti, a member of a campus organisation known as the Progressive and Democratic Students Collective. “But, it should have at least two divergent views rather than a single member from a political party who is notorious for hate speech.”

Other precedents

Swamy certainly isn't the first politician to be invited to a college cultural festival. In August, for instance, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor was invited to Malhar, the festival at Mumbai's St Xavier's College. At the event, the Congress MP criticised the communal politics of the BJP. “We have seen a systematic increase in communal violence, an increase in polarisation of communities, particularly acute in places in UP which are going for by-elections," Tharoor told students. "This is clearly a political agenda."

Scroll spoke to students around the country about the practice of inviting politicians to cultural festivals and many had the same view: while it is acceptable to feature party representatives at campus events, they questioned the decision to give a platform to a controversial figure. "Interaction with politicians is good but it should not be one-sided," said Manisha Chachra, a student of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. "There are more intelligent and well-spoken people who could have been invited to IIT Bombay than the person in question who has previously incited hatred."

A student from University of Delhi felt that invited politicians should only be invited only if they are directly relevant to the event in question. "Calling a politician who is a specialist on education seems relevant," said Priyanka Banerjee, a final year student of business studies in University of Delhi who is a part of the organising team of her college's festival. "Colleges are better off without controversial figure and they should instead call some popular personality from business, academics or popular culture instead if the aim is to attract attention."

Echoing the sentiment, Krishangi Singh, a student of English at Ramjas College in Delhi said that she would be uncomfortable if college events were to get politicised. "The interaction should remain apolitical and on track of the pre decided agenda," she told Scroll . "Cultural festivals should not become propaganda platforms and create controversies."

However, the organisers of Mood Indigo at IIT Bombay who had extended the invitation to Swamy said that students who attend the event are free to disagree with a guest. "The invite should not be seen as an endorsement of a specific political party or person's views," said Gunjan Gupta, a third- year student and spokesperson for the organising team.

This was the first time that Mood Indigo had invited a politician, she said, explaining that  her team merely wanted to "give a popular figure a stage for interacting with students".

Some support

A former student from IIT Delhi who graduated this year supported the move. "We should create dialogues with politicians instead of hiding them away," said Abhishek Gupta. "Swamy is known to be controversial but this is the only way students can ask him questions without external conditions and barriers. They are free to decide which side they are on after listening to the speaker."

Another student from the Jadavpur University in West Bengal asserted that politicians should not be ostracised from college events and they are as popular as other public figures.  "Students are mature enough to have their own political opinion and they are entitled to a chance to discuss issues with their representatives," Aishik Saha, student of history at the university told Scroll.