Days before they were scheduled to perform at Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies’ annual cultural fest, members of the Alternative Space Project went from one classroom to another promoting their upcoming performance. However, on 24 January, a day before the fest was to take place at one of Delhi University’s top commerce colleges, their play chronicling the history of Kashmir, was cancelled.
Although the young theatre practitioners have had brushes with censorship in the past, the phone call delivering the news left them flustered. “We were told by certain professors that the topic was too ‘sensitive’ to be discussed in present times,” says Karan Chaudhary, who apart from being the writer of of the ‘contentious’ play, Aksariyat Akliyat, happens to be a former student of the college. He spent months studying the mythical and political narratives which continue to colour perspectives on Kashmir with his director, Vivek Tyagi, before taking it to different Indian cities. Just last month, the group was at Mumbai’s fabled Prithvi Theatre to stage the play as part of Thespo 21, the youth theatre festival.
The independent theatre collective alleged that the college authorities “abused” their power and let their political opinion cloud their decision to take the play off the programme. They also accused a certain professor of being aggressive while explaining their stance on the issue. “A professor had an issue with a dialogue in the play about an exchange between Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawahar Lal Nehru. He thought it was incendiary and factually incorrect,” recounts Chaudhary. However, when Firstpost contacted Dr Poonam Verma, principal, Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies, she stated that the professors maintained decorum while holding a long discussion with the theatre collective. “As an educational institution, we have to ensure neutrality on political matters and we uphold that value system,” Dr Verma said. She insisted SSCBS offers professional courses and would not want to encourage anything that could ignite controversies.
However, members of the Alternative Space Project believe the move to call off their act was based partly on their understanding of the historicity of the Kashmir conflict and partly on maintaining a veneer of “political correctness”.
“One of professors said they did not want their institution to turn into ‘a second Jawaharlal Nehru University,’” recounts Tyagi. As it has been widely reported, Left students at JNU, in an act of coordinated mob violence on 6 January, were attacked by a group of masked persons, speculated to be members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The attackers assaulted at least 34 students and vandalised institutional property.
In her response to the professor’s statement, Verma unequivocally backed the faculty members, and said she trusts the “collective wisdom of the teachers”. On being asked why the professors, some of whom work closely with the Student Council, had not taken note of the play before, she said, “The screening should have happened before but it could not be done. There were about four to five teachers who came to me and said the play could create controversy as it had some instigative matter (sic). As an educational institute, we can not allow the campus to be used as a platform for such expression.” Verma says although she has not read the script of the play, she would side with the teachers on such matters unless the issue at hand was something drastic that needed further investigation.
While the artists like Chaudhary and Tyagi did not expect to have the show cancelled after they had promoted it on social media, Verma says “debate is allowed on the campus, but nothing that affects the academic pursuits of students would be encouraged”.
For Chaudhary, who served as the president of the Student Council in 2018, it is difficult to put the incident in perspective as several other productions revolving around the Kashmir dispute and fascism have been performed widely on campus. Fasci-Tantra, a 2018 play drew analogies between fascism in Germany and India, was not screened by faculty members despite being performed over 70 times. Additionally, the institute’s dramatics society had also staged Rizwaan, a production on insurgency in Kashmir, on multiple occasions. On the need to safeguard academic interests, Verma said, “Something that has happened out of ignorance in the past shouldn't be considered a precedent.”
The theatre practitioners in question have decided to move on, but insist on an apology letter. The college administration has left that to the Student Council to tackle. “It is not about the apology. It is about them understanding our perspective,” Verma asserts.
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2020 10:21:00 IST