NEARLY 45-days after a Central university Sagar district withdrew from participating in an international webinar at the last minute, after the Superintendent of Police (SP) warned for ‘action’, a professor from the university has filed a petition in the Jabalpur bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court accusing the SP of endorsing a “malicious propaganda” by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The webinar was organised by a US university.
The petitioner, Rajesh Kumar Gautam, Head of the Department of Anthropology at Dr. Harisingh Gour University in Sagar, has pointed out that the letter sent by the SP to the university’s Vice-Chancellor (VC), which warned of possible action, was manifestly “unjust, arbitrary, illegal and discriminatory”.
The petition accused Sagar SP Atul Singh, in his letter to the VC, of censoring the event and threatening to register an FIR under Section 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code based on false allegations of the political outfit, ABVP, related to two speakers at the event — scientist Gauhar Raza and Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand.
The Department of Anthropology had planned to hold a two-day international webinar, starting July 30, 2021, on the subject “Cultural and Linguistic Hurdles to the Development of Scientific temper” jointly with Montclair State University, New Jersey, US. However, objecting to the participation of Raza and Apoorvanand in the webinar, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh- affiliated ABVP on July 22, in a memorandum to the VC, threatened to disrupt the conference.
A week later, the SP sent a letter to the VC warning for action “if religious and caste sentiments are hurt”. He alleged that both the speakers had an “anti-national mentality” and had made “caste-based slurs” in the past.
Succumbing to mounting pressure from the police and ABVP, the university decided to withdraw from the webinar at the last minute, citing “lack of permission from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for holding an international webinar.” This later turned out to be incorrect, as per the MEA’s revised guidelines.
In his 45-page-long petition, Gautam stated: “As per the revised guidelines, no such permission was required for webinars on subjects other than those that addressed “national security”, “Jammu and Kashmir ”,”Borders” and the “North East”. Such topics would need clearance from the MEA, not the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). But significantly, as of today, as per the circular dated 24.03.2021 issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), no prior permission is required anymore before conducting an international webinar.”
The petition further stated that SP Atul Singh has since then prohibiting them from holding seminars without his endorsement of the list of speakers and topics of discussion.
“Restriction on his academic freedom had a ‘chilling effect’ on his speech and actions. Besides, a habit cannot be made out by the state authority to accept any version of events made out by any group (political or non-political) to try and censor speech and academic seminars,” the petition added.
Gautam further pointed out that the SP’s action showed the country in poor light on the question of academic freedom. He said apart from mental agony and embarrassment, he was deprived of the opportunity to add to his academic score as Montclair State University, US, was no longer willing to collaborate on a few other projects in the pipeline owing to the arbitrary action of the SP.
Taking cognisance of the petition, Justice Sanjay Dwivedi has given three weeks to SP Atul Singh, the university administration, and other respondents to file a reply as sought by the state’s counsel.