Ever since the wide-scale hue and cry raised over the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) incident involving Kanhaiya Kumar, who was arrested on charges of sedition, incidents involving the burning issues of Kashmir and Bastar have been the subjects of controversy throughout the country.
One such incident triggered a debate in the Ambedkar University in Delhi recently when the authorities scraped off some of the graffiti drawn by the students on these contentious issues.
While many see the slogans, paintings and murals raised all over the country in lieu of such incidents as 'anti-national', certain university students take the curbing of such agenda as a restriction of their right to freedom of speech and expression.
The recent controversy in the Ambedkar University over Kashmir and Bastar not only brings to light the issue of unwanted measures practised by the authorities to curb freedom of speech but also reflects on the dearth of new political debates in the academic atmosphere of such institutions of higher learning.
Some students see the removal of the graffiti on these issues by the university as regressive. Hamd Irfan, a member of the students' council, asks, “How can they stop people from drawing graffiti when they, by no legal means, can prevent them from speaking on the issues?”
He further states that students have for long been indulged in making graffiti within the university premises and that it is only now that the authorities have come down heavily upon the students – when they drew on issues involving Kashmir and Bastar.
But the university authorities feel that there were indeed objectionable messages in some of the drawings, and hence they chose to delete them from the walls. Sanjay Sharma, the dean of students services, says that some of the graffiti was focussed on the Kashmir issue and the Indian state. He also said that a couple of them were about ‘Azad Kashmir’, and one or two of them were "a bit abusive".
“But the drawing of graffiti is not banned. Only a few of them were removed. Most of them still exist,” Sharma said.
He also adds that the university acted on its own on this issue and that no government order was issued to scrape the wall paintings.
But since then, the scraping of the graffiti has resulted in stand off between authority and some members of the student council.
Easwar Anand, another member of the students' council, said that the council stood in full support of the graffiti. Labelling the act of removing them as a measure to curb free speech, he said, “The government is waging a war against the people of Kashmir and Bastar and academic discourse has to be encouraged on these subjects.”
“The issue came up on 19th of August after the authorities removed some of the wall paintings. A protest was organised by some students. But the authorities further ordered that written permission from the Dean of the concerned department should be obtained before drawing new ones. But few followed this instruction and many graffiti removed by the authorities were redrawn,” Hamd Irfan added.
Even as most of the student council pointed a finger towards the university authorities, accusing it of curbing the freedom of expression, a few were raised on the actions taken by the council as well. Some of the students of the university view the Bastar and Azad Kashmir movements as age-old pet issues of some left-wing activists. According to them, these issues are sometimes taken up to gain attention by people who are unable to evolve new academic debates in the campus.
“Weren't there other issues as well. There are issues such as contractualisation of labor, lack of basic facilities in government-run educational institutions and so on. But none of them figured in the graffiti,” says a student who did not want to be named.
Elaborating on the same, Sanjay Sharma admits that not all students were happy with all of the graffiti.
“Many held the view that the issues were to be discussed on rather than mere sloganeering,” he adds.
Some freshers also believe that raising the Kashmir issue might create tensions in the campus, as it had done in JNU, and that it could hamper their studies.
But some council members, like Easwar Anand, are of the view that these apprehensions exist among the students because of the fascist approach of the government to curb freedom of expression in the universities.
“Right from Film and Television Institute of India to Jawaharlal Nehru University, there are many examples where the government has tried to limit freedom of expression. These have caused fear among the students,” he adds. He further says that apart from the Kashmir issue many other issues were also covered by the graffiti on the walls.
Some of the faculty members of the university view this controversy as just another disagreement, inevitable in an academic environment.
But whether this brewing disagreement between the student council and the authorities remains an academic one or leads to another JNU like row, with teachers on the other side this time around, only time will tell.