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Pressures on an academic body

Print edition : Sep 16, 2000 T+T-

The Shastri Institute in Toronto withdraws financial support to an art exhibition and cancels an academic seminar, raising questions about political interference in academic affairs.

TWO recent developments - the cancellation of an academic seminar and the withdrawal of financial support to an art exhibition - have brought the affairs of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute under scrutiny. This has happened even as the Institute is in the process of discussing a contract with the Indian government for the next five years and re-examining a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Indian government with a view to defining clearly the institute's scope and mandate.

The Indian High Commissioner to Canada, Rajnikanta Verma, kicked up the first dust storm with the demand that the institute to withdraw its financial support to the art exhibition, "Dust on the Road: Canadian Artists in Dialogue with SAHMAT" (Safdar Hash mi Memorial Trust), which had just finished its Toronto leg of a five-city cross-Canada tour. Then came the shocker from Verma: he wanted the institute to withdraw the financial support to a joint academic conference planned by the University of Waterloo and the University of Guelph, both located in the province of Ontario.

The Indian diplomatic mission was peeved at the exhibition displaying the works of several Indian artists involved in SAHMAT, the New Delhi-based activist group, which is one of the bodies in the forefront of the fight against communalism, along with sev eral Toronto-based artists. The Shastri Institute bore the brunt of the criticism in this regard because it had provided a grant of $5,000 to the University of Western Ontario for six projects, one of which was the exhibition supported by its McIntosh Ga llery but organised by Hoopoe Curatorial. It was Consul-General in Toronto, Chandra Mohan Bhandari, who touched off the diplomatic wrangling when he quietly appeared at the opening ceremony of the exhibition at the York Quay Gallery at Toronto's landmark Harbourfront Centre, but could not conceal his identity for long. He was seen using a video camera when Ram Rahman, one of the three key persons in SAHMAT, began delivering his opening remarks. When somebody in the audience identified Bhandari, he was a sked to stop shooting as he had not obtained the mandatory permission from the Harbourfront Centre authorities. After Rahman, a photographer who divides his time between New York and New Delhi, finished his address, Bhandari engaged him in a conversation . The Harbourfront Centre confirmed that Bhandari had not sought permission to shoot on the opening day but was granted permission a few days later to videotape the exhibition. The Harbourfront Centre also stood by its decision to host the exhibition say ing that it fell within its mandate.

Bhandari said that he took exception to Rahman's remarks that the freedom of expression was under threat in India. He felt that the exhibition had no artistic value. He said that it was sheer political propaganda against the present government in New Del hi and that several of the exhibits were nothing but posters that were distributed as part of the anti-BJP campaign in the Lucknow Lok Sabha constituency from where Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee contested the last general elections.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Rajnikanta Verma, who said that the exhibition was devoid of any artistic, literary or cultural merit and had no resemblance whatsoever to reality and, therefore, totally lacked credibility. "I can only call it a work of fiction, rooted in jaundiced imagination. But my comments to Shastri (Institute) are confidential and nobody's business."

Hoopoe Curatorial's Jamelie Hassan joined forces with the South Asian Left Democratic Alliance (SALDA) to challenge the diplomats and also to seek explanations from the Shastri Institute for its actions. After consulting groups such as Rights and Democra cy, Hassan wrote to Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy on Bhandari's actions and went to the press. Toronto's two leading newspapers, The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, gave wide coverage to both incidents. Hassan noted that SAH MAT had been chosen because its work fitted into the nature of work that Hoopoe Curatorial did in the field of human rights.

But the important questions that arose from the issue related to political interference in the freedom of artistic and cultural expression and whether it is right for an academic body like the Shastri Institute to succumb to pressure from the Indian gove rnment. Hoopoe is yet to get a reply from the Department of Foreign Affairs to its letter regarding Bhandari's actions. Hassan said that he was perplexed by the institute's decision since it was aware that SAHMAT would be featured at the exhibition. She wondered how the High Commissioner, who is on the Shastri Institute's board of directors, had not raised any objection earlier with regard to the matter. Since the institute was just one of its sponsors, the exhibition could do without its support. The e xhibition went on, and the organisers say it got a positive response. The exhibition will stick to its charted course and move to London (Ontario), Montreal and Vancouver before making its way to India along with the works of Canadian artists collected f rom the four venues.

A few days before the exhibition ended in Toronto, Shabnam Hashmi, one of the key members of SAHMAT and the sister of the slain activist Safdar Hashmi, flew to Toronto from New York - where she was part of a group protesting against the invitation to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for the United Nation's Millennium Summit - to explain SAHMAT's role in India and its continuing struggle against fundamentalist groups, notably the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Several of t he exhibits are from the exhibition "Ham Sab Ayodhya", organised by SAHMAT in India; some exhibits criticise the nuclear explosions of May 1998 under the BJP-led government and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Just as the diplomats were fighting the artists over the exhibition, the High Commissioner was caught in a new war with academics. Verma's insistence that the conference was beyond the scope and mandate of the Shastri Institute raised many academic eyeb rows. Besides, it seems that the organisers and the academics were stunned by the fact Verma waited until the eve of the conference to raise objections when the decision to hold the meeting was taken in June 1999. Professor James Walker of the Waterloo U niversity, one of the members of the Shastri Institute's board of directors, was taken aback at the executive decision. The co-chairperson of the conference titled "Accommodating Diversity: Learning from the Indian and Canadian Experiences", he hoped tha t the conference would take place at a later date. Insisting that the conference has only been postponed but not cancelled, Walker said that the aim of the conference was to provide comparative analysis.

Out of the four workshops, two - "Human Rights: Gender and Social Issues", and "Good Governance and Human Security" - got under the skin of Verma and forced him to apply pressure on the Shastri Institute. Walker insisted that the conference was not meant to pry into India's secrets. "We are not Amnesty International. We are scholars," he said. The conference was to be the preliminary one, with the final one to be held in New Delhi next year.

Buckling under pressure, the institute withdrew the $27,000 assistance provided for the conference, although the money had come from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and not from the Indian government. It was too late in the day for t he organisers to seek other sponsors to salvage the three-day conference, which was to start on August 8. Besides, the conference had been timed to benefit from the visit of some Indian academics and scholars, including former Comptroller and Auditor-Gen eral of India and BJP member of Parliament T.N. Chaturvedi, to attend an international conference on politics in Montreal.

The Shastri Institute's executive director, Lavina Mohr, said that in the absence of Verma, Deputy High Commissioner Debashish Chakravarty was present at a meeting in Montreal in June 1999 where the plan to hold the conference was discussed. She recalled that Chakravarty had sought further information on the workshop on human rights and that it was not until Verma wrote to the president of the institute, Prof. Hugh Johnston, a noted historian of the Sikh presence in Canada, that any serious objection to these subjects was brought before the board.

Verma rebutted the allegation of pressuring the institute over the art exhibition but declined to comment on the academic dust storm. He told this correspondent that since discussions on the issue were on within the Shastri Institute's board, "I have no further comment." But he told The Toronto Star, "I would not call it pressure. I did not put pressure on Shastri. All activities funded by Shastri must be approved by the Department of Foreign Affairs and by us. In this instance, we disapproved. I f plans were made and tickets were bought ahead of our approval for the conference, that's their bad luck."

The other co-chair, O.P. Dwivedi of the University of Guelph, termed Verma's objection one-sided because there was no examination of the issues involved. In fact, even Walker did not have a look at the abstracts of the papers to be read at the conference as this aspect was handled by his Waterloo university colleague, Prof. Ashok Kapur, who has written a book on India's nuclear programme.

The second dust storm has already hit the academia with potent force. Hari Sharma, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Simon Fraser Institute in Burnaby near Vancouver, British Columbia, and Gardezi, Professor Emeritus of Algoma University College, Sa ult Ste. Marie (Ontario), who serves as a referee for grant applicants, have severed their ties with the Shastri Institute. Sharma was forthright in his denunciation of his colleague Johnston (the president of the institute) for capitulating under pressu re from the High Commissioner. In his letter, Sharma disclosed that the Indian government had been interfering tremendously in the day-to-day functioning of the institute and that the five-year MoU had not been signed even though more than 18 months had elapsed. The rupee allocation has not been made, and scholars who have won fellowships to visit India may not be able to do so. Calling the conference a noble venture, he said Canada could learn from the centuries-old composite civilisation that India ha d inherited. But the present-day rulers of India are certainly afraid to open up the learning process to what Canada could teach them. They are not interested in honouring and enriching diversity; they are interested in homogenising India under the rubri c of Hindutva.

Sharma wants the MoU trashed if it prevents academic conferences and forces the withdrawal of support to an art exhibition. Joining him in castigating the institute is Prof. Majunath Pendakur of Western University, who said that by withdrawing support to the exhibition and to the workshop on diversity and human rights, the institute's tradition of maintaining an arm's-length relationship with the Indian government was destroyed. "Its intellectual credibility in the eyes of the academic world in both cou ntries is diminished. India's image as a democracy where dissent is tolerated and free speech is protected by governments in power is tarnished."

Denouncing the interference by the diplomats, the Professor of Media Studies said that diplomacy involved understanding the sensibilities and sensitivities of the cultures in which one worked. Since the issue had also reverberated in India with 42 MPs si gning a petition for the recall of the High Commissioner, Pendakur, who is also on the institute's board, said: "I wish more members had taken up this issue," and reminded the diplomats that the academia would not tolerate India's image in the world bein g reduced to that of a banana republic in the critical area of free speech.

The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) said that if diplomats had any issues to raise, they should bring them to the attention of the Ministry. A spokesman of the department told the media that while the High Commissio ner had the right to his opinion about the exhibition, a diplomat posted in Canada could not get involved in the country's domestic affairs.

This is the first time that the Indian government has directly intervened in the academic matters of the institute. However, according to a scholar and a former senior official of the institute, who wished to remain anonymous, no conference, seminar or w orkshop dealing with the sensitive subjects of human rights and diversity had been held before. He also noted that the Indian government had in the past denied visas to scholars doing research in critical areas such as nuclear science and Kashmir.

In the 32 years of its existence, the bilateral institute, which receives annually about $40,000 from the Indian government and about $1 million from Canadian agencies, has had some hiccups, but these were confined largely to the administrative area. It was a few years ago that Indian officials brought the full weight of their power to bear on the institute to dismiss its former executive director Viswas P. Govitrikar, who allegedly made disparaging remarks against the Indian bureaucracy during an in ca mera meeting. The Govitrikar incident almost had Canadian academics and Indian bureaucrats, high-ranking officials of the Education Department and the Ministry of External Affairs, sit on the Indian Advisory Council, in a tug-of-war situation. Except for a few academics who enjoyed a close relationship with Govitrikar, many did not deem it fit to raise a storm.

Sources say that Prof. Narendra Wagle, the vice-president and resident in charge of the Delhi office of the Shastri Institute, managed to soothe the frayed tempers that threatened to destroy the institution, which was formed to promote understanding betw een India and Canada, mainly by facilitating academic activities. It is also learnt that Wagle, Director of South Asian Studies at Toronto University, was in New Delhi for more than six weeks during the recent summer break to put administrative matters i n order. With the start of the new academic year from September 5, the Shastri Institute issue is bound to resound in the halls of the universities and among students of India-related subjects.

THE India-Canada diplomatic relationship was once a warm friendship but it suffered a mild freeze when Canada put its relationship with India on hold following Pokhran-II. Canada cut aid in the area of technology and economic matters but kept the pipelin e open in educational, cultural and humanitarian fields. To show its disregard for Canada in the high-stakes of global politics, India refused to grant visa to independent Senator and human rights activist Lois Wilson in November 1998 to attend a meeting of the World Federalist Movement in Chennai. She told the media that Verma told her in no uncertain terms that the decision was taken because of Canada's attitude to the nuclear tests and because relations between India and Canada were not on even keel. Although the MPs have demanded Verma's resignation, the High Commissioner has got a clean chit from the Indian government. It is unlikely that Canada would accede to SALDA's demand to reprimand Verma. How the CIDA, the Shastri Institute and the Indian g overnment would come together to solve the crisis will be the next lesson in this chapter of academic and artistic freedom of expression in Canada and foreign interference.