The Central University of Kerala’s order withdrawing of the suspension of Dr Gilbert Sebastian must be welcomed. We spent the last month criticising the university’s decision to suspend Sebastian after complaints were filed against him for sharing views in class that were critical of the current Central government. He and his students were discussing fascism and its various historical avatars.

In his online Power Point presentation, he spoke about India’s ruling party and its ideology. In the times that we live in, we can heave a sigh of relief that Sebastian was spared further harassment. His expression of regret for the embarrassment that his actions might have caused the university should not be treated as an admission of guilt nor should those who levelled the charges against him feel vindicated. Sebastian should not have undergone such harassment for simply performing his duty as a teacher.

Action was taken against Sebastian after an agitation launched by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is also part of the Sangh. In addition, A Vinod Karuvarakundu, a member of the National Monitoring Committee on Education under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, wrote a complaint to the vice-chancellor demanding action against the assistant professor. It needs to be emphasised that no student from his class felt that there was something so wrong with his lecture that the authorities should be informed about it.

But since it was ABVP that wanted Sebastian punished, the vice-chancellor could not have ignored their demand. We have seen the ABVP calling the shots in institutions like the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The ABVP has become the super academic oversight body and the authorities have no option but to appease it. They anticipate its moves and even take preemptive action to avoid unpleasant situations.

JNU event

This is something all of us teaching in various universities and institution of India need to be concerned about. I remember an incident going back to the centenary year of writer and actor Bhisham Sahni in 2015. My students wanted to screen Tamas, the movie based on his novel of the same name. The head of the department, a gentleman with liberal leanings, asked them to avoid it. The students’ union elections were round the corner and the ABVP might decide to turn the screening into an issue. As a result, the event had to be conducted outside the department of Hindi. Similarly a film on Muzaffarnagar by the film maker Shubhashish had to be screened in a similar, underground manner without public notice.

On February 9, 2016, an event organised by a small student group on Kashmir drew opposition from the ABVP. The university withdrew permission even as participants had already assembled. The ABVP tried to stop the event. It was this event at Jawaharlal Nehru University that was used to defame Umar Khalid, Kanahaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattachraya, Rama Naga and others by no less than Rajnath Singh, who was then home minster. It led to their being arrested and sedition charges being filed against them. The trial has just started. Six years later, they continue to face vilification and violence.

Before that, in 2015, it was the ABVP’s opposition to the Ambedkar Students’ Association at the University of Hyderabad, supported by some Union ministers. This prompted the vice chancellor to take action against leaders of the Ambedkar Students’ Association. The chain of events culminated in the death by suicide of the young Dalit student, Rohith Vemula.

In 2017, an attack on an event in Delhi’s Ramjas College by the ABVP ensured that other colleges stopped giving permission for discussions and programmes on politically inconvenient topics. The list is long.

One could say that even the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal had an authority derived simply by being part of the ruling ideological formation. As a recent piece by Ruchir Joshi in the Telegraph says the student wing of the Trinmool Congress acts in similar fashion.

But these examples cannot be used to justify what the ABVP is doing. Even if we allow it to have its say, nothing can justify the surrender of the university authorities to its demands, for them to go out of their way to flatter and appease the organisation. As we said, the ABVP has every right to have its opinion and to agitate. After all, it part of a hegemon that wants to colonise all educational, cultural and political spaces in India. What should concern us is the total destruction of all the institutional structures and processes in the universities.

But there are other issues involved, which are much more serious. The University of Kerala has used the Central Civil Services Rules to penalise Sebastian. According to The New Indian Express, “Sebastian, an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations and Politics, was suspended on May 17 for criticizing the government, under Rule 9 of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules.”

Cause for alarm

This should alarm all of us. We do not know how many universities have adopted the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules. It is a death knell to the very idea of academic autonomy. Universities are supposed to be free spaces where all ideas can be discussed, even those that the people in power do not approve of. The faculty are not treated as government servants who are only allowed to hold the official view. Ironically, we have seen several serving police officers and administrative officials writing or speaking as the spokespersons of the ruling party and government. Why should they have this privilege? Evidently, you can go public if you propagate the viewpoint of the government but not when you have an independent mind.

It is important to remember that the role of a teacher is not to help to produce minds that are subservient to the power of the day. On the contrary, their job is to help the students to develop minds question authority of all kinds, including the teacher themselves. It is the duty of teachers to help the students develop tools to critically look at the claims of political power. Political decisions impact all fields of life in a manner not seen in earlier times. That is one reason academics feel compelled to talk about it and they have a duty to do so.

We expect people engaged in the business of knowledge to explain to us economic decisions such as demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax and also the government’s disaster management policies. Mathematical models predicting the course that the pandemic could take are being prepared by academics in universities across the globe. Experts teaching medicine need to talk about vaccines and the distribution methods adopted by governments. This is a duty they cannot evade. But it might not please the government.

Would the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules not deprive academics of their right to practice their knowledge in real sense of the term? This is not question that only teachers active in the humanities and social sciences should bother about.

The right of teachers to have political views and express them publically must be reiterated. As the resignation of political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University in March reminded us painfully, exercising this right might put the academic and his institution at risk. One important role of a teacher is to help members of society analyse decisions impacting their lives when they may not have the leisure and the instruments to do so themselves. In times like this, when all the organs of state have abdicated their role, this becomes even more significant.

Lastly, and for us teachers most primarily, it is important to defend the integrity of the classroom. It needs to be emphasised that the classrooms are not public spaces the way we understand the term. All good classrooms are spaces where we put several ideas under pressure. They are places where we conduct thought experiments. Not everyone can participate in these exercises: they must be properly informed equipped to do so.

Sometimes, this endeavour is not understood. Let us recall the attack on an art exhibition at Baroda’s Sayaji Rao University in 2007 by conservative groups. The exhibition was actually a part of the examination in which the students of the faculty of fine arts had submitted art pieces. This was not open to the public. The faculty had made it a tradition to allow outsiders to view the exhibits (which were like answer sheets filled by the students) to help them understand how the process of creating art works. But right-wing elements vandalised the examination-exhibition.

The university authorities, instead of treating them as trespassers and file police complaints against them, suspended faculty members and penalised the student who had submitted the art as part of the examination. Srilamanthula Chandramohan, the student, was arrested. The faculty of fine arts, once the most respected departments in Indian universities was totally shattered and never quite recovered from the attack.

In this case, we did not defend the autonomy of the classroom, the sacredness of the examination process where only the teachers have a right to evaluate the submissions. Instead we started discussing the exhibits. That was not the issue.

Classrooms are not public platforms. The word of the teacher is not the final word there. Everything is subject to debate and discussion and revision. Outsiders who not aware of the rules should not be allowed to enter the debate and disrupt it.

Classroom interactions are also ephemeral in nature. In the classroom, the teachers are not making public pronouncements. To spy on them and expose them to the public is a violation of the privacy of the classroom and breach of the understanding between the teachers and the students. To do so will lead to total breakdown of the teaching-learning process.

The revocation of Sebastian’s suspension also tells us about the precariousness of the job of the vice chancellor of a university in India.

This episode has made it clear that we need to treat academic autonomy in a holistic manner. Else, we will lose the essence of how a university functions, a situation we will not be able to reverse in the foreseeable future.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi in Delhi University.