Central University of Kerala asks faculty to abstain from ‘anti-national’ lectures

Notably, the move comes three months after a professor in the university was suspended for terming the RSS a proto-fascist organisation.
A horizontal image of Kerala's Central University located in Kasaragod district
A horizontal image of Kerala's Central University located in Kasaragod district
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Once again, the actions of the Central University of Kerala have raised questions about infringement on academic freedom. In a recently issued circular, the university warned its faculty of disciplinary action if their lectures or statements are ‘provocative’ or ‘anti-national’’. Notably, the move comes three months after a professor in the university was suspended for terming the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a proto-fascist organisation. Speaking to TNM, various teachers expressed apprehensions stating that the move is in blatant violation of academic freedom. The circular dated August 30, issued by the University Registrar, reads, “The faculty members/ employees should abstain from giving any type of provocative lectures/ statements that are anti-national and will be against the interest of the nation. Strict disciplinary action will be taken against those who indulge in such activities in future.” It also states that the circular is issued with the approval of the Vice-Chancellor of the university.

Faculty members who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the circular is a means to entrap those teachers who are critical of the present BJP-ruled Union government’s measures. “They have not defined what is meant by provocative or anti-national statements. Classrooms are spaces where diverse groups of people are present, and there should be a sense of tolerance in there. If an Economics professor talks about inflation to students citing examples from the country, will that be considered anti-national?” asked one lecturer. If we are to explain (political) theories to students citing contemporary examples from now on, it can be termed provocative by some and disciplinary action can be initiated against us, the faculty added. “Discussions on contemporary issues are held always for the betterment of governance in the country, isn’t that for the larger national interest?” the lecturer said.

Another lecturer expressed concern about the quality of academics if such rules are put in place. “If we have to rethink every word we’re going to say, wondering if it will be termed anti-national, then lectures are not going to be spontaneous or organic, and the students will be the ones who are going to lose,” the faculty member said. “In classrooms, provocative statements are made to start a discussion with the students, that is purely academic. This new rule is a clear infringement on academic freedom,” said another lecturer.

Meanwhile, according to sources in the university, it was the incident pertaining to the suspension of Gilbert Sebastian, Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations and Politics, that led the university administration to issue such a circular. In May this year, Gilbert Sebastian was suspended by the administration stating that he termed the RSS a ‘proto-fascist’ (a political movement tending towards fascism) organisation during an online lecture. While discussing the topics ‘Fascism and Nazism’, Gilbert had also posed a question, ‘how is India under Narendra Modi?’ to his students.

While the topics were part of the curriculum, a complaint was filed against Gilbert by Vinod Karuvarakund, a member of the national monitoring committee on education under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, and the RSS. Gilbert was suspended following this. However, his suspension was revoked the next month after it stirred up a controversy, with many including Members of Parliament writing to the MHRD condemning the move.

Though Gilbert was reinstated, the Executive Council of the University, which met in June, criticised the Vice-Chancellor for revoking the suspension saying that it was a ‘unilateral decision’. In the minutes of the Executive Council meeting which TNM accessed, the EC also stated that they have “authorised the VC to issue a circular in the university that in future, faculty or employee should abstain from giving such provocative lectures/ statements, which in turn will affect the interest of the nation”.

This is not the first time the university is issuing controversial statements. In 2019, the university said in a circular that PhD students can only select topics of ‘national priorities’ and that ‘irrelevant topics’ will be scrapped. Termed an infringement of academic freedom, the issue also became a controversy. Dr Meena T Pillai, member of the university’s Board of Studies, resigned from her post in protest against the circular. Many of the university’s students have also faced disciplinary action in the past for criticising the right-wing.

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