One of India’s most premier institutes, IIT-Bombay, in a new order, has restrained holding guest lectures of a ‘political’ nature on the campus.
The move aims at staving off possibilities of tension and protests like those seen recently.
Both students and faculty members have been advised against organising talks and seminars that may be “potentially political” in nature.
The latest, though interim, guidelines make permission from a review committee necessary to invite external speakers for talks that may be political in nature.
In addition, police permission would have to be sought for protest gatherings inside the campus and from organisers and speakers for video-recording events.
The document issued by the IIT-B registrar said, “while the institute encourages free and open discussion on educational subjects, it must also remain apolitical in its endeavours”, and therefore, “it is imperative that our students, faculty members and staff stay away from activities/events that may invite socio-political controversies, diverting IIT-Bombay from its primary mission, or may bring disrepute to the institute.”
The institute’s decision has drawn criticism from within. Students from the Ambedkar Periyar-Phule Study Circle, in a post on social media platform X, called the guidelines a “new set of gag rules”.“One wonders what would the students and other campus residents be allowed to do freely then? Bury their heads in the computers and never look up?” they said.
Recently a PhD student Omkar Supekar complained to police about a guest lecture on the Palestine situation that he found “inflammatory”. The talk was organised by professor Sharmistha Saha from the department of humanities and social science. Guest lecturer Sudhanva Deshpande had mentioned Hamas and terrorism.
The student who was not enrolled for the course, entered the class and recorded the lecture on his mobile and posted it online. It led to a protest by a right-wing outfit, which demanded Saha and Deshpande’s arrest. The Vivek Vichar Manch shouted slogans carrying large hoardings displaying Saha’s name and photograph at the campus gate.
The faculty has since closed ranks around Saha. In a letter on Tuesday, they condemned the “tarnishing of the reputation and physical threats to one of our colleagues via anonymous phone-calls, and posts on social media platforms.” It said she was called a traitor by protestors, death-threats were issued, and demands were made to terminate her service at IIT Bombay.
According to the faculty, the PhD student had made the recording despite the course instructor telling him not to do so. He was asked to leave the class “but he refused to cooperate and instead spoke to her aggressively” said the Faculty Forum.
“During the entire session, our colleague neither expressed any opinion about terrorism nor did she express any opinion about Hamas. She was not able to respond either to the film or to the comments made by Mr Deshpande because of the intimidating atmosphere prevailing in the class.”
The institute director has appointed a fact-finding committee to probe into the episode; “strict action” is being proposed against those found guilty. Immediate action will be taken against the students who were protesting, said director Subhasis Chaudhuri.
A senior professor said there was a need for guidelines following recent events. “Many of these guidelines were there in some form, but not collated into one document… There was a committee already to vet talk proposals put up by students, but not for faculty events, which has been added now. The focus now is on politically connected events. Technical, artistic, literary events that are non-political do not need approval,” said the professor, adding that a committee will be set up to create long-term and more comprehensive guidelines.
When asked how a humanities department can avoid organising lectures that may have political content, the professor said the policy has been drafted for external speakers or for recorded talks. Approval by the review committee will be based on the merits of each case.
About seeking permission from cops for protest gatherings, the professor said Mumbai police routinely imposes Section 144 as a peace-keeping measure and the institute does not wish to violate this.