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Ashoka University embroiled in free speech debate: Two staff members quit after signing Kashmir petition

Another university campus, touted to be a bastion of "liberal education" that lets its students "think critically about issues from multiple perspective", is making news for reportedly stifling free speech.

According to a report in The Indian Express, Ashoka University in Sonepat has allegedly prompted resignation of two of its staff members, who had signed on a petition asking for plebiscite and demilitarization in Kashmir. Following the massive protests that raked the Valley ever since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by the Indian Army, 88 members of the university signed a petition addressed to the state and central government, pleading demilitarization of the state.

 Ashoka University embroiled in free speech debate: Two staff members quit after signing Kashmir petition

Ashoka University. University website

A report in a Kashmiri newspaper, the Kashmir Reader — which incidentally has also been banned by the state government raking up a fresh debate around press freedom — quotes from the open letter written by students and staff of the varsity. "Kashmir is the world’s most densely militarized colony with over 700000 military, paramilitary and militarized police. We demand that Army is withdrawn from civilian areas in the Valley and not to use the Army for maintaining regular law and order. We also appeal to the Indian State to confine the job of the army to just the ‘borders’," the letter reads.

The petition further adds, "We believe that the self-determination right of the Kashmiris is an inalienable right. We demand the Indian state to retreat from Kashmir, and let the Kashmiris decide their future and sovereignty.”

Another Kashmiri magazine, Kashmir Lifealso reproduced the letter and mentions the name of all the signatories. Amid the 88 students, it includes the names of two employees, Saurav Goswami, deputy manager of academic affairs, and Adil Mushtaq Shah, programme manager of academic affairs, of the Young India Fellowship.

According to The Indian Express report, on 7 October both these employees sent out farewell emails citing personal reasons behind their decision to quit. That they were the only two employees on the list of signatories (apart from a professor, who is also reportedly being pressured to quit) is what has sent the students in a tizzy. A student on the condition of anonymity told The Indian Express that until two weeks ago both the employees were actively participating in planning and execution of college programs and gave no indications that they were planning to quit. The fact that both the signatories decided to quit suddenly and so close behind each other, is hard to dismiss as a mere coincidence.

Meanwhile, Rajendra Narayan, the assistant professor who also signed the petition, has been reportedly asked to resign while his department has been informally informed to look for his replacement, The Indian Express report claims.

Officially, the university had at the time condemned the act of "using the good name of the Ashoka University to represent personal views and ideas." Shortly afterwards the university revised its email policy so as all emails being exchanged between students, staff and alumni will go through a moderator, which became the flash point of the freedom of speech debate and prompted the students to submit a pettition to the varsity chancellor. The university however denied that the decision was taken in the backdrop of this issue. It claimed that the policy shift is reflective of the "best practices" in leading world universities and was meant to deal spam mails, The Indian Express report states.

As the issue made news, twitterati expressed outrage and disappointment over the alleged infringement of free speech in the college campus.

However, some people expressed a different opinion.

This, however, is not the first time a university is accused of muzzling free speech. The sedition debate that ensued in Jawaharlal Nehru University, after student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid among others were charged with sedition, also made headlines. In this case however, not only the varsity but the state and judiciary were also roiled in the controversy giving rise to the debate whether, restricting freedom of expression on charges of "anti-national behaviour" was even rationally valid. The university, a premiere liberal arts institute in India, cracked down heavily on its students as it slapped fines and rusticated students embroiled in the controversy.

More recently, JNU was again in news on Thursday as a section of students chose the visages of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah to represent Ravana effigies burnt on Dussehra. Last week too, some students burnt effigies of the Gujarat government and ‘gau-rakshak’ (cow vigilantes) groups. The university has served a show cause notice and ordered a proctorial enquiry in the last week's case and it has launched an enquiry into the Dussehra incident.

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Updated Date: Oct 13, 2016 13:15:48 IST