Icon of a struggle

Print edition : June 01, 2007

Shivaji Panikkar, the suspended Acting Fine Arts Dean of M.S. University.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

UNTIL recently, Shivaji Panikkar lived a quiet life as an academic on the Maharaja Sayajirao (M.S.) University campus in Vadodara. But his life underwent a tumultuous change after his student Chandramohan Srilamantula was arrested. Panikkar was suspended as Acting Fine Arts Dean and had to go into hiding for fear of being targeted by the Bajrang Dal. Now, he has become an icon of the struggle for academic and artistic freedom.

After his student was released from jail, Panikkar said, "This isn't about one individual problem. It's about the larger issue of freedom and autonomy of academic institutions. We cannot allow them to be taken over." Panikkar is not alone; several academics in Gujarat are anxious about the saffronisation of education and the growing conservatism amongst Gujarati intelligentsia.

"In most universities, Vice-Chancellors are with the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh]. They are political appointees and try to be more loyal than the king. There is intellectual poverty here; it's very difficult to have a sensible discourse," says Achyut Yagnik, author and sociologist. "Institutions like the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad [Literary Association] were silent during the communal violence of 2002, when cultural monuments like the tomb of the Sufi poet Vali Gujarati were destroyed. And when writer Ganesh Devy spoke against communalisation, they boycotted him. Even Gujarati media take a pro-Hindutva stand. So, there is an intellectual vacuum on all fronts, there is no debate."

Last year, Devy had to suffer the wrath of his peers in the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad; they called him an "enemy of Gujarat" and shifted the venue of the Parishad's conference, which was to be held in his institute at Tejgadh. His crime: he stated in an interview to Tehelka magazine that there was still intolerance and ghettoisation in Gujarat, that Gujaratis had forgotten Gandhi and become materialistic and violent. Devy said, "When the Sahitya Parishad decided to boycott me, they proved my point. Later on, when the president of the Parishad died of a heart attack, they wrote in newspapers that I was responsible for that." When contacted, Kumar Pal Desai, president of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, refused to comment. "There is sheer madness and terror in the State," says Devy. "The hatred is not showing any signs of respite. I am not damning everyone but speaking in general. There are a few who supported me, but the broad trend is scary. It's not the Hindutva laboratory, it's an industry."

Vadodara is called the cultural capital of Gujarat, and M.S. University its crown jewel. Many foreign students apply for admission here, particularly from Africa. But in the past decade, admissions of foreign students have been curbed. "My student life was enriched by the fact that I lived and studied on a campus with students from various countries. But towards the time I was leaving the university, the authorities had decided to curb admissions of foreign students. There was a general bias against them. Many felt that they were depriving local students of seats, intolerance was setting in," says a former student of the M.S. University Arts faculty.

In the 1980s, different branches of the Sangh Parivar started spreading their tentacles across Gujarat. That laid the ground for the brazen power they now wield. Predictably, the universities were not spared. "Great damage has been done to universities since they are being run by saffron supporters. Unqualified people have been appointed to high posts, purely owing to RSS connections, and standards have suffered. The RSS tries to suppress any viewpoint that it doesn't like. Some teachers take the signal and adapt accordingly," says J. Bandukwala, physicist and peace activist who has been attacked twice during riots.

In the early 1990s, well-known artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh resigned as a faculty member from M.S. University because other faculty members were against his making anti-communal posters. "That was a huge loss to the fine arts faculty," says Panikkar. "The way things are going, we may next be told to scrap nude study from our course. Should we agree?"

Artists at a protest against the arrest of Chandramohan, in Bangalore on May 14.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

"M.S. University was once considered the most liberal. But now, small changes are transforming the university and casting it in the right-wing mould - from the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad]-sponsored poojas to the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] students wing protesting to enforce a rule to make women wear only Indian clothes," says a faculty member. "No faculty member who raised their voices against the carnage of 2002 has been promoted. Right now, there is a huge ruckus because a highly qualified teacher was denied his professorship. This happens often." Another academic who researched the communalisation of history textbooks was denied a promotion and she left.

"The university authorities did nothing to support the student who was jailed. They remained silent, even when students and faculty were protesting. I could resign and leave, but what will happen to the institution?" asks Panikkar.

Clearly, Gujarat's universities need more icons. They have sparked the first large protest against fascism in Gujarat.

Dionne Bunsha

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