It would be of tremendous solace for a large section of academia in different universities and institutions of high learning which are up in arms against what they term as persecution of students and faculty members who believe in a particular ideology which may not be in line with the thinking of the BJP government at the Centre. In a rare but much needed judgment, Allahabad High Court has sought to restore the shaking faith among the faculty and students who face dismissal of service or rustication from an institution merely on the ground of "acting in an anti-national manner" or "spreading hatred" among people or inciting disharmony in the society.
Quashing an ex-parte order passed by the Board of Governors, IIT (BHU), Varanasi, on 6 January 2016 terminating the contract of Magsaysay award winner Dr Sandeep Pandey as Visiting Faculty Professor at the IIT on the unsubstantiated charges, the court said, “academic administrators should be politically neutral, at the point of time of dealing with academic or administrative matters of the University”.
A decision taken by Academic Administrator “has to be free from malice and has t o be exercised in free, fair and transparent manner after complying with the principle of natural justice”.
It may be pointed out that the Board for Governors for IIT, BHU, had acted upon a letter sent by one Avinash, a student of MA, Faculty of Social Sciences, and BHU. He had sent certain documents and copies of e-mails and published articles by Dr Sandeep Pandey and raised objection to his “political ideologies” and involvement in political activities besides being an “active sympathiser of Naxalites”.
He was accused of not holding classes in traditional way or taking attendance. He was also said to have committed grave offence by arranging screening of banned BBC documentary on Nirbhaya tragedy 'India's Daughter' directed by Leslee Udwin. The screening of this film, the termination order said, was against the national interest.
The Academic Administrator never issued a notice to laureate Dr Pandey, who is an alumnus of the IIT, BHU, and Varanasi. It didn’t take into consideration of Dr Pandey’s high credentials -- Master's in Manufacturing & Computer Science from Syracuse University followed by Doctorate in Control Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992 and professor at the IIT, Kanpur, and later founded an NGO y 'Asha Trust' which focuses on strengthening democracy at the grass-root level, and on Right to Information and good corruption free governance.
He also leads National Alliance of People's Movement (NAPM), the largest network of grass-roots people's movements in India and was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay in 2002 in the emergent leadership category. Moreover, Dr Pandey had led a peace march from New Delhi to Multan in 2005 and had also served as an Adviser to the Indian Government's Central Advisory Board for Education (CABE).
However, the Board of Governors had taken cognizance of the complaint by a student that Dr Pandey used to conduct sessions in the campus to teach students about staging ‘dharnas’. He would organize lectures or screen documentary films on “several controversial topics which are either political in nature or against the national interest”.
The Board also accepted certain e-mail as evidence for the group discussions on such controversial topics in the classes “as part of the curriculum of the developmental studies”. Further, several newspaper clippings showing Dr. Pandey's involvement in demonstrations, etc. was also taken as evidence against him.
The Board of Governors held that “the act of posting of Nirbhaya documentary, banned by the Government, falls under the category of cyber crime and further the topics covered by the Dr Pandey in teaching of developmental studies violated “the national interest and may disturb communal harmony as well as encourage students to take law into their own hands into the campus”.
A bench of judges—Justices Mahesh Chandra Tripathi and V.K. Shukla—said though the termination order violated natural justice, but it also cast stigma on Dr Pandey without hearing him, thus causing grave damage to his reputation.
But judges wanted to “lift the veil” from the illegal decision taken by the Academic Administrator and Board Governors.
They noted that founder of BHU, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya wanted complete character development of students. He believed that “India is not a country of Hindus only. It is country of Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of different communities in India live in mutual goodwill and harmony”.
Taking strong exception to the decision taken by Board of Governors in disregard to the freedom of speech of expression, judges said, the phrase “freedom of speech” under Article 19 (1) (a) includes “freedom of propagation of ideas, right to circulate ones ideas, opinion and views, right of citizen to speak, publish and express their views as well as rights of people to read as well as to know about the affairs of the Government”.
They held that “a provision of law that forces people to self censor their views for fear of criminal sanction violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech. Freedom of speech and expression includes the right to acquire information and to disseminate it which is necessary for attaining free conscience and self-fulfillment”.
Ordering reinstatement of Dr Pandey to his position in BHU, judges also held that “a legitimate right of freedom of speech and expression including fair criticism is not to be throttled. No responsible person in democracy could incite the people to disobey the rule of law duly enacted, but situations may arise where responsible persons may feel that it is their duty to criticise the subject and invite the people to come for discussion on subject”.
The judgment that may give boost to a large section of intelligentsia which feels threatened in airing free expression also sought to clear any misunderstanding among administrators that criticism of the Government and its policies is an offence.
High Court ruled that “open criticism of Government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression”.
“We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself”, judges added while recalling the words of S.G. Tallentyre, author of
'Friends of Voltaire'. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”