On Saturday, Allahabad University withdrew permission for an event on the Indian Constitution scheduled for Monday, September 18. Called Jashn-e-Samvidhaan, or celebration of the Constitution, it was to be the first in a series of events, together called the “Liberty Festival”.

On September 13, the university had granted the festival’s organisers permission to use the Senate Hall for the events, but permission was withdrawn three days later.

During that time, some students had expressed their opposition to the event, with social media posts alleging that the planned programme had the “same content and outline” as the one held at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in February 2016 to mark the fourth death anniversary of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.

Activist Manish Sharma, a member of the festival’s organising committee, wrote an open letter to Allahabad University Vice Chancellor Rattan Lal Hangloo after permission was withdrawn. Sharma wrote that Hangloo had mentioned to him on the phone that “...there was...pressure from the Ministry of Human Resource Development” regarding the event.

Hangloo has denied this. “There was no contact from the ministry at all,” he said.

This is the third event at a public university in India to be cancelled in a week.

Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi put a stop to a discussion on “Shrinking Democratic Spaces in Universities” scheduled for September 14, for which it had allegedly granted permission. The reason cited was that its speakers were from outside the university.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, cancelled three lectures on social equity scheduled for September 23 that were organised by the institution’s National Social Service branch. The invitees to this programme were documentary filmmaker and activist Stalin K, sociologist Nandini Sundar, and entrepreneur and activist Adhik Kadam.

This set is the latest in a long list of cancelled talks and plays at universities – developments that have been commonplace since last year when the Afzal Guru event held at Jawaharlal Nehru University triggered protests and counter-protests and led to students being charged with sedition.

Some events were cancelled after protests by Hindutva student groups; others were stopped by over-cautious officials fearing trouble by these groups, particularly the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

Jamia students defied the administration’s decree and held a talk on September 14, but with speakers from within the university. The group in Allahabad did the same on September 18, but the event was held in the lawns outside the scheduled venue, with just one person of the original line-up of speakers and performers participating.

Opposition to Allahabad event

Students, teachers and activists at Allahabad University formed the Joint Action Committee, an informal group, on September 10, mainly to organise the Liberty Festival. Members of the group believe that pressure from Hindutva student organisations compelled the administration to pull the plug on their plans.

One Facebook post against the programme said: “The anti-national programme in JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] was also titled ‘Jashn-e-Azadi’. Now even in Allahabad we are seeing a programme in that pattern…The content and outline are the same.”

The Jawaharlal Nehru University programme was called “A Country Without a Post Office”.

Another Facebook post berated Hangloo for “mixing with anti-national award-wapsi gang”.

Sharma said the people behind these posts were members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Although the people in question also demonstrated support for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its chief, Mohan Bhagwat, in their posts, their alleged association with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad could not be independently confirmed.

“In response to our parcha [handbill], they issued another one. Against the name of each of the speakers, there are two or three lines explaining why their speaking at the university is objectionable,” said Sharma,

The handbills targeting the festival contain a litany of accusations against those who were scheduled to speak at the event.

For instance, Satish Deshpande is introduced as a Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, but he is from Delhi University’s sociology department. Deshpande’s error was allegedly saying that the “powers today are pandering to the interests of the market”.

Theatre-person Maya Rao’s transgression was: “In reaction against the BJP policies, she returned her Sahitya Akademi award.” Rao had returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2015 in protest against rising intolerance in the country, and the government’s alleged inaction.

Abha Bhaiya, a feminist who runs the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan, was accused of “tossing [Indian] culture into a well of chaos”. Sonam Kalra of the Sufi Gospel Project was dismissed as a leftist, and political activist Sachin Rao, for working with the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sangathan.

Hangloo denied that the withdrawal of permission had anything to do with the push-back against the festival. “The organisers wrote that the CJI [Chief Justice of India] was coming and that is why we said we will make arrangements,” he said. “I am not against the Liberty Festival but you should not lie to the institution. Also, their posters said I am participating but I never gave consent.” He added that the proposed venue, Senate Hall, was undergoing repairs.

Both Sharma and a research student in the university’s anthropology department insisted that permission had been granted and that Hangloo had even been invited as chief guest. Sharma said that they would try to hold similar programmes in campuses across India to “remind people of the Constitution”.

A letter by Allahabad University’s Estate Manager Rajiv Mishra dated September 13 says that permission to hold the Liberty Festival in the Senate Hall has been granted.

Clampdown on discussion and dissent

But space is shrinking everywhere. Earlier this year, the students, researchers and teachers of Delhi University’s Delhi School of Economics came together to organise a programme called “DU Conversations” to protect discussion and dissent. However, they have not been able to hold a single formal event so far.

Requests for permission to hold the programme, made to the Delhi School of Economics, have been rejected or cancelled three times since August when DU Conversations tried to hold its first event on 70 years of democracy, said Aarushi Kalra, a participant.

The police have called its members to enquire after announcements on scheduled events were circulated on WhatsApp, forcing the group to inform students of informal chat sessions by word-of-mouth, said Kalra. “That has also limited our reach,” she said. “But we are are still trying.”

Given this atmosphere in educational institutions across the country, Sharma acknowledged that Hangloo “was brave” to give permission for the Allahabad event even if he withdrew it later. His letter says: “Now we know for sure that freedom of our institutions is gone for good and even a free mind like you cannot stand for it.”