Last fortnight, stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra found out through social media that MS University of Baroda had cancelled a show he had been booked to perform on campus on August 11. According to news reports, the university took the decision after some former students wrote to the vice chancellor complaining that a man who has “mimicked the national anthem” and “who has openly supported the “tukde-tukde gang” should not be allowed into “our sacred alma mater”. The “tukde-tukde gang” is a term used by Hindutva supporters to describe people they claim want India to be broken up into little pieces.

The letter goes on to say: “What message do we want to convey by organising such anti- national flagbearer youth comedians’ comedy show in Gujarat’s most prestigious university campus?...We seriously suspect some ideological conspiracy to pollute the minds of Barodian youth ahead of 2019.”

Though the university has said that Kamra’s show was cancelled due to security issues, the explanation barely withstands scrutiny. Earlier this year, the institution was able to host a plethora of high-profile guests at the annual Marathi literature festival, the Akhil Bhartiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, without any threats to their safety. Those who attended included Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadanvis, actress Rohini Hattangadi, advertising personality Bharat Dabholkar and advocate Ujjwal Nikam.

The scrapping of Kamra’s show was just the latest incident that reflected the transformation of a liberal institution into an intolerant one within a span of just two decades.

In March 2017, eyebrows were raised when the institution’s official annual diary and planner credited Hindu holy men as being the inventors of modern technologies. In an interview to the Indian Express, Nobel laureate and university alumnus Venkatraman Ramakrishnan said depicting “figures from religious scriptures” as inventors of “modern science, such as nuclear technology, airplanes and cosmetic surgery” would bring disrepute to the university. He urged the administration to reprint the diary.

Then and now

MS University, which was originally founded in 1881 as Baroda College by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of the princely state of Baroda, has a long list of illustrious alumni. They include social reformer and freedom fighter Acharya Vinoba Bhave, father of Indian cinema Dadasaheb Phalke, and Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.

Another MS University alumnus is freedom fighter KM Munshi, who would have most certainly fallen afoul of the present generation of students and faculty if he was alive today. While delivering the presidential address of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Udaipur, on October 6, 1945, Munshi had said:

“In 1916, I wrote a short story called ‘My Temporary Wife.’ Then Gujarat grew very angry. Some critics said that it would have been better if my hand had been cut off. When my novel Prithvi Vallabh was put on the screen, an association from Karnatka sent me a resolution and demanded of me that I should write a novel on the lines indicated by them.

“But when I write, I do not write for others, but in order to fulfill myself. I tear my heart open in bringing forth its hidden treasure. If you can appreciate it, take it; if you cannot, throw it away. But I shall body forth in towards only that beauty which is born of my imagination, those cultural values which make up my equipment and my ideas. I will not be a father to other people’s children.”

Munshi’s words reflect the open culture that this Barodian university once used to exemplify. They also embarrass the university’s current administration and its students.

Photograph of Baroda College, at Baroda, Gujarat from the Curzon Collection. (Photo courtesy: British Library).

The cancellation of Kamra’s show by the vice chancellor also serves as a reminder of others who have held the position, such as freedom fighter, feminist and social reformer Hansa Mehta (1949-1958).The institution’s Hansa Mehta Library still has a few rare editions of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel that was banned in India by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. The university chose not to destroy its copies of the text even though a Congress government also ruled Gujarat at that time.

The obscenity row

The university’s slide became startlingly apparent just over a decade ago, when the university faced what is now described as the obscenity row. In 2007, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader barged into an exhibition at the university’s Faculty of Fine Arts and manhandled a student whose paintings he had deemed to be objectionable. The student, Chandramohan Srilamantula, had depicted religious figures in the nude as part of his final year evaluation. He was arrested and spent a few days in jail. Instead of standing by the student’s right to freedom of speech and expression, the university administration, backed by the BJP that has ruled the state since 1998, also denied him his degree.

In February, Chandramohan allegedly set fire to the university office in protest. He said he was frustrated by the 11-year-delay in the declaration of his final-year results.

Given the university’s current orientation, it may be safe to say that its present administration probably would not agree with a former vice-chancellor’s opinion on free speech. In an article published last year, Lord Bhikhu Parekh, who served as MS University’s vice chancellor from 1981 to 1984, said:

  “The importance of free speech can hardly be exaggerated. Free speech is the basis of a meaningful human life. It is the indispensable basis of free thought and critical self-consciousness. When it is denied or severely curtailed, the human capacity to think, and all that is distinctive to human beings, is undermined.”  

Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, whose name the university bears, was a reformist and visionary who was committed to education. Almost a century before the Right to Education Bill, 2009, was passed in India, he had made primary education free and compulsory for both girls and boys in his state. He passed laws to legalise divorce, and abolish untouchability and child marriage. He also patronised the fine arts, for which the university is known worldwide. That the Maharaja Sayajirao University is now gaining fame because of its attempts to censor creativity and self-expression is a blot on his legacy.

Ujjawal Krishnam is a research scholar at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and serves as an editor to and WikiPorojects. The views expressed here are personal.