Freedom of thought and expression has been under attack in Gujarat for more than 15 years, and Hemantkumar Shah believes it is time for academicians to take a stand.

On Monday, Shah resigned from his post as principal of HK Arts College in Ahmedabad, a day after the institute’s trustees refused to provide a hall for an event in which Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani was the chief guest. Shah claims that the trustees had come under pressure from student union leaders affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party, who had threatened to raise a ruckus at the venue if Mevani entered the campus. Shah was forced to cancel the event altogether, and submitted his resignation letter soon after.

The event, the college’s annual day festival, was to be held on Monday. Mevani is an alumnus of the college.

“It is clear that today’s political environment is strangulating the constitutional freedom and right to expression and speech and this is also getting support from the authorities,” Shah claimed in his resignation letter. Along with Shah, the college’s vice-principal, Mohanbhai Parmar, also resigned from his post.

The Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing, has denied it had anything to do with the incident. However, Vanrajsinh Chavda, a former Gujarat University Syndicate member and HK Arts College alumnus who is affiliated with the BJP, told the Ahmedabad Mirror that he was against Mevani being a chief guest because the independent MLA was “ashamed to say ‘Bharat mata ki jai’”.

HK Arts College is run by the Brahmachari Wadi Trust whose trustees include two Padma Shri awardees – architect Balkrishna Doshi and author Kumarpal Desai – as well as Jnanpith recipient Raghuveer Chaudhary, a novelist and poet. The college has had a reputation for promoting liberal thought in the past, and both Shah and Parmar are known for their progressive views in academic circles. Before joining HK Arts College as an economics lecturer in 1998, Shah was a successful journalist, editor and columnist for 14 years.

On Tuesday, spoke to Shah and Parmar about their bold decision to resign from their posts at the college, and the statement it will make in the current political atmosphere.

What drove you to resign from your posts as principal and vice-principal of HK Arts College?
Shah: We invited Jignesh Mevani for the annual day function because he was a student of our college. But four or five students associated with BJP and Gujarat University came to my office and raised the banner of revolt. They said Mevani is a socialist, Maoist and a controversial figure. I told them that he is a former student, and that every politician is a controversial figure. But those students threatened the college’s Trust members, saying they would not allow Mevani to speak. So the Trust decided not to allot the hall to us for the event, and I had to cancel the event. I felt that this is an attack on democratic rights, freedom of speech and expression. It hurt my conscience, so I decided to resign.

Parmar: I resigned because as principal and vice-principal, we are together responsible for instilling in students the spirit of acquiring knowledge. We felt that as an ex-student, Mevani has reached so far. This event would not only be a way to honour him, but also an opportunity for him to tell students about his struggles; to motivate them about leadership and success. That was our aim.

Some students did not want him to come, but this is a violation of democracy and freedom. The value of democracy needs to be asserted. As a teacher, if I do not get a chance to enlighten a student, it is extremely sad. I felt I should stay away from an institute that knows its educational role in society but is running away from it.

Was it difficult to take this stand?
Parmar: I am not afraid of taking such a stand because we have a social responsibility, and I am aware of the risks. I know we could be attacked. But someone has to speak the truth in society. This was about inviting an ex-student as a chief guest, not about politics. If you look at it from the political perspective, then in the past, BJP leaders like Narendra Modi and Maya Kodnani have visited and spoken at our college. So this is not the first time we are inviting a political figure.

How have your students, colleagues and trustees reacted to your resignations?
Shah: A day before the event, some of my colleagues said that we should just obey the trustees. But I said that the Trust was not showing any democratic spirit, so why should I obey them if I believe in the democratic right of freedom of speech, expression and thought? My colleagues have asked me to reconsider my decision, but I feel that they should reconsider their views.

Parmar: Our students are feeling bad about us resigning. The trustees and other teachers know of the kind of work we do, but the trustees acted out of fear. They were afraid that in the future, they might not be able to get university-level work from the government, and they came under pressure from BJP-affiliated student leaders. We have been clear that we will not work in such circumstances. But the trustees have not accepted our resignations yet – they have called us to meet them in a few days.

Is this incident reflective of a larger trend in Gujarat and in the country?
Shah: There has been a constant effort to attack academic freedom in Gujarat for the past 15 to 17 years, and yes, it has to do with Modi being in power [as the Gujarat chief minister between 2002 and 2014 and then as prime minister]. This has been my experience. Many times, when I have been invited to give guest lectures or speeches in other colleges, the college authorities have asked me to take care and not speak anything against the government. I have been barred from academic staff college lectures. Previously I used to be invited, but because I have aired certain points of view, I am not invited now. My name is prohibited from some TV news channels also. I also used to have a Gujarati column on political affairs in Sandesh newspaper, which was discontinued some years ago.

Things have not changed since Modi moved to the central government, and unless academicians raise their voice against suppression of freedom of thought and expression, things will not change.

Parmar: Universities have students from all parts of society, so what happens in a university affects all of society. This government has created an atmosphere in which BJP members can speak anything they want, without being stopped. But if anyone else speaks anything that is critical of them, they don’t allow it. When ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students’ wing of the BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] students do anything wrong, it is supposed to be tolerated, but if any other student is seen as anti-BJP, then they are pressured to stop speaking. The ABVP students openly claim that no one can harm them, and we have seen them beating up clerks in the university. There is no such thing as democracy when it comes to them.

All this has increased a lot in the past 10 years. Today, ordinary people find it difficult to talk. After BJP lost in a few of the recent state elections, people started talking a little more openly. But even then, this step that we have taken to resign is definitely scary. They have been successful at creating an atmosphere of fear. It is a serious situation all over the country.