Freedom Of Expression: A Victory In IIT-M, Now Stand In Solidarity With Kancha Ilaiah

By K.P. Sasi

Photo Credit: Outlook Magazine 

Those who have experienced and gone through the students’ movement in the late sixties, seventies and early eighties may argue on the political limitations of the present day student community as well as youth. The changes in the political character of the youth and students are also determined by the social contexts in which they are placed in history, apart from various subjective factors. The consolidation of globalisation and communalism coupled with a slow and steady emergence of a Silent Emergency have also played a role in the non-articulation of the students and youth in many occasions. However, the same experiences of the same tendencies today are also causing a radical shift in the political character of the students and youth, forcing them to articulate crucial social issues in a more radical but yet in a more practical manner, which was more or less limited among the young dreamers of the seventies. The recent developments, debates and protests on the freedom of expression and organisation of Ambedkar-Periyar study circle is one such example, whereby the students and youth all over the country forced the HRD Ministry as well as the management of IIT-M to bend down, through the sheer consistent activities, skills, energies and protests of the young blood in this country. `Following Furore, IIT-M Lifts Ban on Ambedkar-Periyar study circle’, reported The Hindu newspaper dated June 8, 2015. This is certainly a victory, not only for the Ambedkar-Periyar study circle IIT-M, but also for all those in India who have collectively asserted on academic freedom and freedom of expression, demanding lifting of the ban. It has also exposed the character of casteist and communal forces.

Around the same time of banning Ambedkar-Periyar study circle, IIT-M, cases has been filed by the Hyderabad police against well known critical writer and academic on caste issues and other discriminations in India, Kancha Ilaiah on a complaint by Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The complaint was filed on the basis of Ilaiah’s article Devudu Prajasamya Vada Kada? (Is God a democrat?) published in a Telugu daily on May 9. The VHP activists have pressurised the police to file cases against Kancha Ilaiah, on the basis that his writing hurt their religious sentiments. The cases have a potential to imprison Kancha Iliah up to a period of three years.

Whether people agree with everything that Kancha Ilaiah says or not, is immaterial. The action undertaken by the VHP-Police duo is a clear and strong representation of the growing fascism in the academic circles as well as in intellectual and cultural fabric. Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, 63, is certainly one of the most prominent critic and analyst on caste related issues in India today. His books include `Why I am not a Hindu’, `Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution’, `God As Political Philosopher: Budha’s challenge to Brahminism’, `Democracy in India: A Hollow Shell’, `Manatatwam’ (in Telugu), and `Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism’.

Why do the Sangh Parivar activists get so threatened by the academic questions raised by Kancha Ilaiah? Do they feel that the Hinduism will collapse with such questioning? Is it not a symptom of the lack of faith and convictions of the Sanghis on their own religion? And to be fair on the situation, such criticisms on Hinduism were raised not just by Kancha Ilaiah, but also by stalwarts like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar. Will the police slap cases under sections 153A and 295A on Ambedkar and Periyar? Will the Sangh Parivar have the guts to demand the ban of such writings by Ambedkar and Periyar?
The intellectual arguments placed by Prof. Kancha Ilaiah are to be dealt with counter arguments intellectually. These discussions are not something to be dealt in a police station. Time and again the Sangh Parivar has proved its incapacities to confront intellectual arguments on intellectual terms itself. Therefore, they are forced to resort to violence and the use of police force.

The police cases on Prof. Kancha Ilaiah are symptoms of a larger disorder. Many writers, artists, film makers and theatre personalities have been victims of the growing disorder of violation of freedom of expression. When Anand Patwardhan’s documentary film `Ram Ke Naam’ was blocked both by the State as well as the cultural fascists on many instances, it was this expression of freedom that was expressed by many individuals, groups and even a large section of the media. Such violations on freedom of expression only resulted in wider screenings of Anand’s film. The members of the theatre group Kabir Kala Manch were harassed with fabricated cases restricting their freedom of expression on social issues. Modi Government even tried to arrest the editor of Communalism Combat, Teesta Setelvad on fabricated charges, for having spoken the truth about Gujarat.

Even when the cultural fascists tried to block the mainstream film PK which had a ninety per cent Hindu crew and a Muslim film star Ameer Khan, the people of this country rejected such imposition on freedom of expression and the film became a hit. The feature film `Fire’ directed by Deepa Mehta and acted by Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi also faced the same threat. But with the active participation of the sexuality groups, women’s groups, secular forces and human rights groups, such violations were overcome. When journalist KK Shahina, who is the assistant editor of Open magazine today, was hunted for speaking the truth, there were not too many people in the initial stages to support. Some of the journalists in the mainstream media even tried to implicate that she was a terrorist. However, people realised the truth in a short span of time.. The screening of Sanjay Kak’s film was attacked by the Sangh Parivar in Hyderabad some time back. The screening of the film `Shit’ on the plight of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, by well known documentary film maker Amudhan, was attacked by the Sangh Parivar in Thrissur. The unity and strength expressed by various activists among the audience, forced them to retaliate. On another occasion in Thrissur, the BJP leader Gopalakrishnan lied in public that a film by a Kashmiri director, which was screened in the VIBGYOR International Film Festival, was funded by Pakistan and the Sangh Parivar destroyed the festival office and tried to stop the screening. Again, due to the unity and strength of a conscious crowd, they were forced to retaliate. Recently, the well known Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan had to withdraw his books from being distributed, out of sheer frustration due to such communal fascist attacks.

One of the most shameful among the fascist attacks on the freedom of expression was on India’s most well known painter MF Hussain, who had to leave India due to such threats, expressing his sorrow and difficulty in proving himself to be an Indian, since he was a Muslim. Gyanpeeth Award winner UR Anantha Moorthy was asked to go to Pakistan by the Sangh Parivar for his critique on Modi. Journalist Syed Mohammed Kazmi had to spend time in jail as an undertrial charged with the draconian law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Since there were no proper evidences for his fabricated case, the judge had to give him bail. The evidences and witnesses in many of these cases are least intelligently cooked up by the police. However, it has become a rule if not a norm, that most of the journalists wrote on the basis of the false information projected by the police and the Sangh Parivar. Sometimes, the possession of a mainstream Urdu newspaper is taken as an evidence to prove the terrorist links of a media person and some times a book written by Mao Tse Tung which is available in book stores is taken as a proof to establish that somebody is a violent Naxalite. In the case of Yahya Kummukkutty, who suffered in jail under UAPA without trial for so many years, the evidences were even more funnier. One of the evidences to be branded as a terrorist was that he had a book written by internationally well known writer Kahlil Gibran! Yahya got a bail recently.

Well, the list of attacks by the communal fascists on culture and freedom of expression is endless in recent times. These are only some of the examples of denial of freedom of expression by the communal forces and the state. But if you explore properly, you will be surprised to see that the list is fairly huge, especially in recent times. And with the arrival of Modi, both the Sangh Parivar and the executive machineries of the State became more assertive and more aggressive, with full confidence that there would be nobody to question the misuse of their powers.

The violation of freedom of expression of Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, however seems to be one of the latest on this list. But what is most significant here in all such cases is the fact that the freedom of expression is also linked to the freedom of people to receive such a communication process. Secondly, it is also being proven again and again that only with such assertions of the fundamental rights on freedom of expression by the people themselves, that these basic democratic rights can be protected in this country. Democracy does not exist if people do not assert their rights.

My own personal experiences on freedom of expression as a film maker are also not very different, if not with such intensity of issues involved as in the above cases. Our documentary film `Fabricated’ on the fabricated cases and under trials was blocked by the Sangh Parivar using the police machinery in Alwaye around eight months back. Though they were successful in blocking that particular screening, I was delighted to hear that the organisers organised several screenings of the same film immediately after that in the same district. In Chennai, when I was invited to screen the film `Fabricated’ by the well known documentary film maker Amudhan, I received a call from the Times TV saying that the Sangh Parivar had filed a complaint with the Police Commissioner that the screenings of this film must be blocked. They wanted my responses following which both Amudhan and I spoke on the channel. The support from the mainstream media on this issue was good. Perhaps due to such a support, the behaviour of the police was very decent in Chennai. There were five screenings and the police came for every screening without disrupting. The first screening was organised in a hall which belonged to a book shop and the police came to me and requested for a CD of the film. I told them to watch the film and we could give them a copy after the screening. They said, `No, sir. We will stay here and wait in the book shop itself till the screening ends.’ Anyway, the intelligence people were also there in the hall, watching the film. The police did not know what to do with their time for spending one and a half hours of the screening time. So, they started looking at the books and started reading them casually. After the screening, we gave them a copy of the film. One member of the organising team told me with great excitement: `Sasi, you have made history. You made the Tamil Nadu police read books!’

At another level, the Muslim fundamentalists have been doing similar violation of freedom of expression in many Muslim countries. The cases like the attacks on writer Taslima by the Muslim fundamentalists only helped to provide a justification for the Sangh Parivar for their own actions. A section of the liberal forces got swayed by their campaigns and tried to articulate the issue in such a manner that: `If there are Hindu fundamentalists violating the human rights, so are the Muslim fundamentalists.’ Needless to say that the communal articulation by a section of the Muslims on such issues, could only strengthen the Sangh Parivar, instead of weakening it. But what is most significant in this context, is to evaluate the strength of the majoritarian communal forces in relation to communal forces within the minority communities in any country. The equation for justice changes drastically from such an evaluation.

The violation of human rights and freedom of expression of Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, also indicates another grave reality today. There is also an increasing suppression on the right to dissent, a right that is being violated in many Universities and academic institutions in India, where surveillance is used as a weapon to crush dissent. I am only too relieved to find that many students and teachers have started asserting their rights in many places in India. The assertion of Ambedkar-Periyar study circle, IIT-M, and the wide solidarity actions all over the country, indicate this extremely positive trend. And I am sure, that if the students and teachers express their own freedom, they can play a major role in subverting the entire Silent Emergency that is creeping into our lives in recent history. This community will have to play a central role in the protection of freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution. And I hope that in the coming future, the youth in this country will articulate more strongly against the growing fascism. Remember, it is mainly this same section of youth which was primarily responsible for resisting and removing Emergency of the seventies in India.

It is true that the students and youth during the initial stages of the last three decades have been more or less caught unaware about the erosion of freedom from their own feet. While the public spaces for protests shrank during this period, the right to organisation, the right to unionisation and the right to public discourses in campuses were tightened by a collaboration of the State along with the management of the educational institutions. The loss of values among the political party leaderships provided a public image that politics itself was a dirty word. This also accounted for the lack of strong questioning and protests from the side of the students and youth against the efforts of the State to reduce their political spaces. However, it is becoming more and more clear today that while the teenagers focused their energies on the violations by the State during the seventies, now they are forced to respond more assertively against three forces – the State, global capital and communal forces. For the youth today is under realisation that if they do not respond now, there will be no space to respond tomorrow. The radicalisation of the present day student community and youth will have to be seen from this context.

Back in history, the fascist forces in Germany also tried to do the same. Hitler knew very well that if the artists, writers, academics and cultural personalities enjoyed freedom of expression, he would never be able to maintain his power. Therefore, the first attacks always were on those who shaped the minds of the civil society so that there was no space for criticism or questioning. The idea was to shape a society under a false ideology and do everything possible to convince the people about this false ideology. And those who did not believe in such a false ideology of fascism, Hitler made sure that their lips were sealed. The Sangh Parivar is repeating the same history in India today.

Now it is time to work on the human rights violation and violation of freedom of expression of Kancha Ilaiah. The harassment on Kancha Ilaiah indicates another important signal. The message is loud and clear: `If we can do this to Kancha Iliah, then we can do it to any ordinary Dalit, Adivasi or Muslim.’ It is high time that the same collective energy all over India which was expreessed in the case of Ambedkar-Periyar study circle, IITM, is exhibited on the issue of police cases on Kancha Iliah. What should be spoken, written, discussed, debated, painted or filmed can not be dictated by the Sangh Parivar. That also at a time when many of their speakers are spitting venom against the minorities openly and publicly. While the list of writers, artists, theatre personalities, film makers and academic personalities who have been targeted so far is quite long, Kancha Ilaiah is the most recent victim and appropriate symbol to take up all other such issues of violation of freedom of expression. No democracy will survive without freedom of expression.

K.P Sasi is an award winning film director and a political activist. He is also an Associate Editor of He can be reached at [email protected]