Politics of education

Debate is vital for change, says Jodhpur professor suspended in the latest nationalism controversy

Rajshree Ranawat was the organiser of an event on February 2 at which JNU professor Nivedita Menon allegedly made anti-national remarks.

Rajshree Ranawat, a professor at the Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur, is afraid for her safety. After being suspended on Thursday for an allegedly anti-national speech that was made at an event she organised on February 2, the 39-year-old Ranawat is wary of returning to campus.

She has run into trouble for putting together a conference at which Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Nivedita Menon is alleged to have said that Kashmir was not an integral part of India and that soldiers worked for their livelihood and not the nation – charges Menon has denied.

In the aftermath of Menon’s lecture, there were protests and dharnas by students – especially members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Several police complaints were filed. The backlash forced Ranawat to leave Jodhpur and seek shelter with her family in Jaipur. She returned to Jodhpur on Tuesday, only to receive the suspension order from the university’s governing body two days later.

The institution has also constituted an inquiry committee, which is reportedly looking into “terminating her services”, and has served her with a show-cause notice.

Ranawat studied in Ajmer, did her research at the Jodhpur University in 2002-’03, and taught in various colleges in Rajasthan before finally taking up her current position at the Jai Narain Vyas University in 2013. Organising the conference, titled “History Reconstrued through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture”, on February 1-2 was a dream that quickly turned into a nightmare, she said. Dispirited by the reaction to an event she worked so hard on, she spoke to Scroll.in about the controversy, the conference and the university.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

The university has, in its show-cause notice to you, asked why you invited a controversial figure like Professor Nivedita Menon, whether you knew what speech she was going to deliver, and if you introduced her as someone known for “anti-national speeches”. How did you respond?
I told them I did not know she was controversial. I knew her only as a political scientist and the conference I had organised was inter-disciplinary in nature. It was on “History Reconstrued Though Literature: Nation, Identity and Culture”, and we wanted people from as many disciplines and political backgrounds as possible. Also, Professor Menon had been invited as a resource person. We do not check the papers of resource persons or ask for abstracts the way we do for regular paper readers. And I certainly did not introduce her as someone known to deliver anti-national speeches. Who does that?

Did you expect trouble after the conference?
Frankly, no. I was very busy, so I did not even hear the entire speech. But I do know that when Professor Menon was speaking, no one interrupted and the audience was listening with rapt attention. She even said that what she was expressing was her opinion and that the audience had the right to disagree. It was only later that a professor and a couple of students asked questions. It was time for a break and I said that if anyone had any doubts, those could be sorted over tea. In any case, what Professor Menon said was her stand on the issue. How is the organiser responsible for that?

What impact will this controversy have on the academic atmosphere of the university?
There has always been a sense of fear here. But even in such an atmosphere, someone was bold enough to try and organise a large, interdisciplinary conference. How that turned out has been very demoralising, not just for me but for all those who wanted change – more debate, discussion and research.

To be honest, I was expecting some appreciation for stepping forward. The university had sought proposals and I had sent mine in July. It was approved and we started work then. I wrote to dozens of writers and academics inviting them as resource persons because I wanted our students to be exposed to the best brains in the country. Many of them declined because the event was in Jodhpur. Now I am being punished for showing initiative.

How will things change if there is no debate between people from different subjects and ideologies? After this, people will not dare to come forward, especially women.

Why is it more difficult for women?
It is generally very difficult to do anything. Also, the atmosphere in the university was not very conducive to proper academic work. There was already a lot of turmoil over the 2013 appointments – there were allegations that some were not legal – and there were even arrests of teaching faculty. One of the teachers involved in the conference was arrested the day before it. Even in these circumstances, we managed to put a conference together.

Do you have the support of your colleagues and students?
Students, especially those who attended the talk, are supportive. They say this controversy should not have happened and ask the same question I do: if a resource person says something, how is the organiser responsible for it? How can I possibly control what a senior professor will say? Among my colleagues, too, some back me. They come to my place but do not declare support openly.

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