Kerala professor suspended for criticising right-wing politics: A targeted attack?

Assistant Professor Gilbert Sebastian was suspended by the Central University of Kerala for terming the RSS proto-fascist during one of his lectures.
Professor Gilbert Sebastian
Professor Gilbert Sebastian
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Support is pouring in for Gilbert Sebastian, faculty member of the Central University of Kerala who was suspended for terming Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP, proto-fascist during one of his online lectures on ‘Fascism and Nazism’. From political leaders of Congress and CPI(M) to student organisations, many have come out slamming the University’s move, calling it a blatant violation of academic freedom. Meanwhile, it has also surfaced that the Assistant Professor was targeted multiple times in the past by the university.

It was on May 17 that Gilbert Sebastian, Assistant Professor of the Department of International Relations and Politics, was suspended by Vice Chancellor H Venkateshwarlu. The university action came following a complaint filed by Vinod Karuvarakund, a member of the national monitoring committee on education under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and another complaint by the ABVP, student wing of RSS. The complaint alleged that Gilbert was “indoctrinating students by spewing hatred and poison against the Narendra Modi government.”

However, in the online class held on April 19, while discussing various fascist regimes in international politics, the Assistant Professor had posed a question to students - how is India under Narendra Modi? The discussion was on the topic ‘Fascism and Nazism’, part of the syllabus on the paper ‘Conflict and Theories in Political Science’. The RSS was then mentioned as a proto-fascist organisation — meaning a political movement tending towards fascism. The incident snowballed into a controversy after the presentation and audio clip of the class which was shared with the students, got leaked. 

‘Gilbert was targeted before'

Meanwhile, a source close to the university has revealed that Gilbert Sebastian has in the past too faced the wrath of the university administration. The Assistant Professor who had been working in the institution since 2015 has even had two of his salary increments withheld till retirement, for voicing support against the dismissal of another faculty member in the university, according to the source.  

“In another instance, he was given a show-cause notice for attending a rally against the mass killing of Adivasis in Maharashtra districts some years back. For four years, he was also the office-bearer of the CUK Teachers Association, which had been vocal against the right-wing teachers association in the university. He had been having a troubled run with some hardcore right-wing top officials in the university administration,” said the source. 

A statement from the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), also gives a cue about the alleged death threat faced by Gilbert from the university administration in the past. “The hasty decision to suspend Dr Gilbert, one of those rare academicians who have both the theoretical acumen and moral integrity needed to fight the fascist regime, has come from a University that has failed to take action or even enquire into complaints against Sangh supporters like Dr Jayaprasad (associated with Bharatiya Vichara Kendram & Pro Vice Chancellor), who threatened his co-workers with murder. The university administration's commitment to right-wing politics and policies comes as no surprise and is only a continuation of its past actions,” the ASA statement alleged.

Notably, the Central University of Kerala administration had in the past also drawn severe flak for its drastic actions against students and teachers alike, including expulsions and suspensions. Notably, most of the victims who have been at the receiving end of such actions, have raised voices against the right-wing in the country and the BJP-led Union government. 

A student of the Department of International Relations and Political Science was expelled from the university in 2019 for writing a Facebook post following the Pulwama terror attack. While the Andhra native was initially booked for sedition by the police, the case was later closed after police came to the conclusion that it did not warrant a case of sedition. Earlier in 2018, a faculty member of the Department of English and Comparative Literature was suspended for criticising the university’s decision against a Dalit scholar. 

Support pours in

Congress leader and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor took to social media urging people to raise their voices against the suspension of Gilbert Sebastian. “Debate him, don't silence him! In fact I had already expressed concern about the dwindling space for dissent on our campuses when discussing the #NationalEducationPolicy. I echo that concern today in relation to the Sebastian case,” Tharoor said in a Facebook post. 

Congress MP Rajmohan Unnithan wrote a letter to Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal about the Assistant Professor’s suspension calling the move a ‘witch hunt’. “Proto fascism is a technical term and he has used it in his class to describe and elaborate certain political situations. Such a witch hunt is a transgression into the academic freedom of the university Professor,” Rajmohan Unnithan wrote in the letter, seeking the minister’s intervention to withdraw the disciplinary action against him.

CPI(M) leader and Rajya Sabha MP Dr V Sivadasan has also come out expressing solidarity with the suspended Assistant Professor. The Association of Kerala Government College Teachers, in a statement, termed the move against Gilbert undemocratic.

Student associations like Students Federation of India (SFI), student wing of the CPI(M); Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) have come out criticising the university's action and asking to revoke the suspension.

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