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'I want to be free, not a nut and bolt of the state': Principal of Gujarat college who resigned over Jignesh Mevani row

  • The principal and vice-principal of HK Arts College resigned after the trust that runs the college disinvited Jignesh Mevani from an event

  • Right-wing groups had threatened to disrupt the annual day function if the college did not rescind its invitation to the Gujarat MLA

  • Members of the Brahmachari Wadi Trust buckled under pressure and cancelled the event, after which Hemantkumar Shah and Mohan Parmar resigned

HK Arts College in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, has been at the centre of an ideological dispute, with principal Hemantkumar Shah and vice-principal Mohan Parmar resigning on Monday.

The controversy was over Jignesh Mevani, an Independent MLA from Gujarat and also a former student of the college, being invited to speak at an event, a move right-wing groups opposed. Giving in to their threats, the Brahmachari Wadi Trust, which governs the college, withdrew the invitation to Mevani, after which Shah and Parmar both resigned in protest against the decision.

Shah explains how the controversy developed and how the 'Gujarat model' is ominously unfolding across the country.

How did events unfold?

About 15 to 20 days ago, Jignesh Mevani was invited to be the chief guest at the annual day function of HK Arts College. We invited him because he was a student of the college. His life was a life of struggle, and how he became a political leader of this stature is an achievement. He was invited to share his story and inspire students. Mevani told me he would like to speak about BR Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and the issues of unemployment among the youth of India.

 I want to be free, not a nut and bolt of the state: Principal of Gujarat college who resigned over Jignesh Mevani row

Hemantkumar Shah, the principal of HK Arts College who resigned. Facebook - Hemantkumar Shah

On Saturday, some people from the BJP, student leaders associated with the University of Gujarat, came to the college and threatened the vice-principal and a few professors that they would disrupt the event if Mevani comes. They then went to the secretary of the trust and threatened him similarly.

I was not at the college at the time. I was attending a wedding. When I got to know about the incident after some time, I came back immediately.  Along with a professor, I went to the police station and wrote an application, explaining the threat and asking for protection.

What did the police say?

They accepted the application, and then I came back to the college. I went to the office of the trust secretary with another professor. We told him about our application to the police and said we should go ahead with the function.

But after I reached home, a student leader called me and said if we go ahead with the function, they would not allow Mevani to speak by creating a ruckus. The trust secretary continued to get such phone calls, seeking to know whether we had cancelled the event.

Who decided to withdraw Mevani's invitation?

The vice-president of the trust, Kumarpan Desai, said we should cancel the event in the interest of the college. On Saturday evening, the secretary, vice-principal and I met at the home of the trust president BV Doshi, who is also a world-renowned architect. He is a recipient of the Pritzker Prize in Architecture — known as the Nobel Prize of architecture — and is also an awardee of the Padmashree, as is the vice-president. Desai is also a very well-known writer in Gujarat.

At that meeting, they asked me to cancel Mevani's event. I asked for the order in writing, which they sent to me on Sunday. At 4 pm, there was a meeting of professors. Of the 31 to 32 professors at the college, 18 turned up. None of them except two, including the vice-principal, spoke out against the decision. Ultimately, we were outvoted. The next day, the vice-principal and I submitted our resignations to the trust.

Has this happened before, anger over a chief guest?

Never. We organise this event every year. But such threats were issued for the first time.

Do you see a pattern here? Rohith Vemula committed suicide. JNU has been under pressure. Are educational institutes under threat?

Much before these national events, academic freedom in Gujarat was nearly killed systematically during Narendra Modi's regime.

Can you elaborate a bit?

Colleges and universities have invited me several times to speak on the economy, or panchayat raj, or on developmental issues. Sometimes, the organisers have told me not to speak against the government. They would give me these personal instructions. This may be new for India, but not for Gujarat.

The Government of Gujarat had once issued a statement on the subjects on which PhD students should do their research. The government had listed more than 100 subjects.

In a sense the 'Gujarat Model' is unfolding nationwide.

Yes. I feel that if professors and teachers at academic institutes are not free to express their views, it is a negation of democratic principles.

What you and the vice-principal did is exceptional. Most educational institutes don't resist government interference.

I felt I should resign if I have no power or authority. What is authority? It is the power to use power. If I do not have that, I become a spineless person in the chair, which I didn't want to be.

Why do you think the others in the chair aren't resisting like you?

That is either because of fear, or because they want something from the government. Sometime back, Ahmedabad University had rescinded its invitation to writer-historian Ramachandra Guha after facing similar pressures. The whole university did not do anything then.

The ones who buckled under pressure at your university are men of repute and stature. Do you think most of those with a social standing in India are not standing up to misuse of power enough?

That is their lookout. I respect freedom of an individual. I believe that freedom of thought is a fundamental human right. I don't want to be a nut and bolt of the state. I want to be a free person. And that is why I resigned.

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 08:39:45 IST