Integral to academic freedom in the classroom is the right of both teachers and students to express and debate their political opinions and ideologies.
This article was first published in The Wire on 19 May 2021. It is reproduced here with permission of the author.
Academic freedom is at stake. We must stand in solidarity with Professor Gilbert Sebastian
Teachers have a right to have their opinion. They do not have to set aside their political opinions and ideologies before entering a classroom.
The suspension of Gilbert Sebastian, assistant professor at the Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala, must be condemned strongly. It must not be incumbent only on the academic community to demand his immediate reinstatement. If we don’t stand in solidarity with Sebastian, then the national indignation over professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University would be hollow.
In fact, we should have never waited this long in the first place. Was Sebastian’s suspension not a foregone conclusion? After all, a committee had been formed by the university authorities to examine the allegations against him. The charge levelled against Sebastian was that he was “indoctrinating” his students by “spewing hatred and poison against the Narendra Modi government”. He had also reportedly called the RSS a proto-fascist organisation in one of his online classes.
Reporting on the incident, RSS mouthpiece Organiser said, “The Central University of Kerala on Monday suspended an assistant professor Gilbert Sebastian, who in an online class on ‘Fascism and Nazism’, gave a call for militant rebellion against the Modi government and called the RSS and the BJP as proto-fascist organisations.”
The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, promptly filed a complaint against Sebastian soon after. Not only that, as per a report in The News Minute, “Vinod Karuvarakund, a member of the national monitoring committee on education under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, had also complained against Gilbert Sebastian alleging that he was indoctrinating students by spewing hatred and poison against the Narendra Modi government.”
The vice-chancellor responded to the charges by setting up a three-member internal committee to investigate the allegations against the assistant professor. K.P. Suresh, dean of academics, M.S. John, professor in the Department of International Relations and Politics and Muralidharan Nambiar, controller of examination, were appointed as members of the internal committee. According to the Times of India, the committee submitted its report and Sebastian also presented his explanation. However, the authorities found it unsatisfactory and suspended him.
One can always argue that suspension is not a punishment, it is no termination. The vice-chancellor may be buying more time for himself. Let the moment pass, let the committee give its report recommending a reprimand and asking him to be more careful in relation to his classroom utterances in the future and then have him quietly reinstated.
But it cannot be denied that suspension itself is an immensely demoralising act for any teacher in question. It also serves as a cautionary tale to his colleagues. What can it lead to? Self-censorship in classrooms is already becoming the norm. It would also discourage teachers and even students from discussing issues frowned upon by different wings of the current ideological dispensation at the Centre – ABVP being one of them – which is ever vigilant on campuses across India.
It has been said before and yet we need to reiterate it – teachers have a right to have their opinion. They do not have to set aside their political opinions and ideologies before entering a classroom. The classroom does not consist of a bunch of inert receptors. The students have as much right to debate with the teacher and openly express their differences or opposition. The teacher cannot hold it against the students and penalise them. Similarly, the teacher cannot be punished for having his own views. This is how classrooms and education are expected to function in a mature society.
We claim that we are different from China or the erstwhile Soviet bloc countries, where universities were not allowed to question the official or national ‘intellectual’ narratives. But in the recent few years, we are starting to mirror such states. In these countries, teachers were always kept under close watch. Their classrooms were under constant surveillance. There were eyes who used to report on them. Their scholarly work was expected to adhere to the official position of the state.
We proudly maintained that we were different from them. We are a democratic society. Our campuses are ideologically very diverse. The students have the fortune to interact with teachers who think differently, which is hugely beneficial to students as they are introduced to divergent sources of information and knowledge. You have conservatives, right-leaning minds, liberals and leftists as teachers on the campuses. Indian universities also have a vibrant history of student activism. Student organisations of different ideological hues have always existed on campuses. With the exception of the period of left front government’s rule in West Bengal, no student wing could ever think of acting as a hegemon or representative of the ruling party. It was opposition to the ruling party which made one credible.
That seems to have changed now. The universities are now supposed to promote a particular kind of ‘nationalism’. Criticism of an ideology or the bearers of that ideology has become very risky. All Gilbert Sebastian had done was discuss ‘Fascism and Nazism’ in his class. According to The News Minute, “In the online class, Gilbert allegedly said that the Sangh Parivar in India can be considered as a proto-fascist organisation. He pointed to Spain under General Franco, Portugal under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Argentina under Juvan Peron, Chile under Augusto Pinoche, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, Hutu govverment in Rwanda as examples of proto-fascists.”
We are not here to discuss whether the description of the RSS as a proto-fascist organisation is right or not. This a matter which has been under discussion for decades in India. Even leftists have different views on the issue. Fascist, proto-fascist, fascistic, there are many ways to describe the RSS. For a number of people, the term fascist is akin to abuse. In an article written after the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, Ashis Nandy explained his use of the term, “I never use the term ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category comprising not only one’s ideological posture but also the personality traits and motivational patterns contextualising the ideology.”
When asked by the media if he stood by his description of Narendra Modi as a fascist after his election as prime minister, Nandy reiterated that he stood by his professional view. However, this a debate one should have in the classroom of professor Sebastian. Students can dispute and refute their understanding of the RSS and its apparent fascism. But to say that he cannot discuss it in the classroom is unacceptable.
In the past seven years of the BJP’s rule at the Centre, we have witnessed multiple attacks on teachers and students across campuses in the country. Sebastian is not the first teacher to be penalised for holding a view which the RSS and its student wing do not like. Chapters and books have been removed from the reading list of various courses. Teachers have been suspended, inquiries set up against them. Students and teachers have also suffered physical attacks from ABVP activists.
As a teacher, I find it disappointing that a student organisation should use muscle power and its proximity to the government to respond to an intellectual argument. It reflects poorly on the student body. I recall a discussion with a spokesperson of the ABVP on its opposition to a book by Wendy Doniger. Its opposition had forced the publisher to pulp its copies. I asked him why the ABVP could not write a book critiquing her work if it disagreed with her interpretation of Hinduism. “It would take a very long time,” was his innocent answer. Since it takes time and also some intellectual exercise or investment to respond to intellectual positions, the easiest way was to either burn the book or beat up the writer or teacher or use state power to punish the person in question.
This muscle-flexing creates fear but it will not endear you to the students. Your hegemony would be phoney, for it would last only as long as your party is in power. You still do not own the intellectual argument. The suspension of Gilbert Sebastian only proves the point that he had made in his class: That we are in living under the rule of proto-fascists who cannot tolerate any intellectual position critical of them and will try to muzzle any dissent.
Gilbert Sebastian needs our support. Solidarity for the academic community, even beyond the state and country. He cannot be left alone to fight this battle for the freedom of a teacher and a classroom.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.