By Ambrose Pinto, Mainstream Weekly,
The Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural organisation that was formed in Pune, Maharashtra in 2002 in the wake of the Gujarat riots, was in Bangalore on November 21, 2014 for a performance in St. Joseph’s College. The venue was booked days in advance. Yet on the day of the performance, the police of the nearby police station came over to the college and the institution was asked to cancel the show. According to media reports, the request to cancel the show was from the Police Commissioner of Bangalore. The reason offered was that the organisation is pro-Naxal and the college should not entertain such groups. There was no way the college could proceed with threats that the Right-wing groups might obstruct the show. Helpless at the last-minute cancellation, the theatre group had nowhere to go. They were here for a show, all young people wanted to pass on a message of concern to students of their age.
Shift of Venue
The organisation requested St. Aloysius Degree College, Bangalore whether the college was willing to host the play. As the Principal of the college, I have always advocated free speech and I was happy to welcome the troupe. That was at 11.00 am. However by 1.00 pm, there were police from the Pulakeshinagar Police Station (the college comes under its jurisdiction), intelligence officers from the Office of the Commissioner of Police and others from the State and Central security coming one after another asking the college not to go ahead with the programme. When asked for the reasons, the police and intelligence had the standard answers. For them the Kabir Kala Manch is an organisation that is in nexus with the Naxal groups and they cannot be allowed to stage their performance in an educational institution. The police inspector of the station was categorical that the organisation had been banned. When asked for proof of the allegation, he would not respond. When I informed him that the information that the institution has is different from what the police have gathered, he claimed that theirs was the authentic information.
After a few minutes of conversation when I told him that the programme would carry on till I get a written order from the Police Commissioner, he was in conversation with the Commissioner of Police. “The Commissioner,” he said, “would send me the order.” He warned me of the consequences if the play was allowed to proceed with the possibility of Right-wing groups creating havoc in and outside the venue. I was not in a mood to listen to his arguments. My contention was that it was the responsibility of the police to see that those who disturb public peace are taken to task.
It was 2.30 pm then and the show was scheduled at 5.00 pm. The troupe was in the college and there was no way I would send them away from the institution. I called up the Advocate General of Karnataka, the Press Secretary of the Chief Minister and the State Public Prosecutor. They were astonished with the behaviour of the intelligence and police. In no time the news was splashed in the media and mediapersons were at the college to know what had happened.
Two policemen from the Commissioner’s Office came over by 4.15 pm and said that they would provide the necessary security to the function. This must have been after instructions went from the officials of the State. One wonders whether the police were acting on Central intelligence or State intelligence! Karnataka is ruled by the Congress. One got the impression that the police were acting on the information of the Central services since the Kabir Kala Manch has taken a strong stand against communalism. The Commissioner of Police, however, denied that he had instructed against the staging of the play when asked by the media later.
Kabir Kala Manch
It is true that the Kabir Kala Manch was framed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. It was alleged that the organisation is sympa-thetic towards Maoists and Naxalites. In May 2011 the Anti-Terrorism Squad of the Maharashtra Government had accused them of promoting Maoist and Naxalite ideology. Some of their members were booked and others had gone into hiding. The charges have never been proved. The group has denied all charges.
It is a frequent practice of the state to frame organisations that are committed to the welfare of the downtrodden. There are so many innocent individuals and groups that have been framed without substantial proof. We have the recent examples of Binayak Sen and many Muslim young men framed and found innocent. The Kabir Kala Manch has been spreading—through music, poetry and theatre—anti-caste, anti-communal, anti-globalisation and pro-democracy messages to the society. Made up of students and young professionals who perform protest poetry and speak on behalf of the voiceless, it was the initiative of the students that was responsible for the formation of the organisation, which took up causes of social inequality, exploitation of the marginalised communities, farmers’ suicides, female infanticide, Dalit killings and the widening net of corruption. Some of the performances of the Kabir Kala Manch have been featured by Anand Patwardhan in his documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade.
Police and Intelligence
Why have the police then taken a hostile attitude to the group? If the group is of extremist nature, the state could have banned it. How could the state, or the police for that matter, ask an educational institution not to allow a group to perform when the organisation is not banned by it? Even if the organisation is banned should they be denied their right to free speech? This surely is an attack on free speech. The attitude of the police was highhanded. They had informed St. Joseph’s College that the Akila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) would protest and create disturbance at the college if the function is held. The police therefore wanted the show to be cancelled. This is how a democratic state committed to free speech operates. The actions of the police were condemnable.
The police exist to keep anti-socials away and not to terrorise individuals and institutions in favour of the Rightist groups. If the ABVP had decided to disturb the performance, the state should have disciplined the group instead of asking colleges not to allow the Kabir Kala Manch to perform. The second argument is equally sickening. How can the police state that the organisation is sympathetic to the Naxalites and Maoists without being found guilty? Even if the group is sympathetic, why shouldn’t they have the freedom of expression? Does any group lose their right to free speech because they are sympathetic to extremist groups? In a democracy how is truth to be explored? Everybody, including the extremists of all kinds, should have the freedom of speech. Citizens should freely be able to discuss and debate issues to arrive at conclusions.
What was more shocking was, according to one of the newspapers, that the Police Commi-ssioner had said that even the Principal of the college, where the show finally had to be performed, is sympathetic to the cause of the Naxalites and Maoists. Such a comment from an official of the state, if made, would be disgraceful.
Police and Education
The police interference in the campus is surely an attack on higher education. While the issue of law and order belongs to the state, the police had no business to caution an institution what should or should not be discussed in the campus. Permitting the police control over institutions will prove expensive for Indian democracy. One of the police officials even said that colleges need permission to hold any function other than functions with students of the college. When I told him that ours is not a “police raj” but “swaraj”, he was troubled. If the police take over the social space of the colleges, higher education surely will lose the academic space as well in the long run. In the interest of higher education colleges should reject any demand of ban on controversial groups or speakers to make a presentation in campuses.
Colleges exist to engage, not to marginalise. Unless views can be expressed, they cannot be challenged. By being places where ideas and beliefs can be tested without fear, institutes of higher education have to act as safeguards against ideologies that threaten open society. Not to allow a group to perform is to keep out an idea from the institution. Colleges cannot marginalise any ideology. They exist not to ban opinions, but to express them. Tolerance and respect for opposing views is essential for the formation of an open society. Institutions of higher education have to be fertile grounds for vigorous discussions and critical thinking.
On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message should be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it must not be expressed. An institution fails to fulfil its mission if it controls or restrains ideas, however repugnant. Indeed, by controlling ideas colleges would set an example of disservice to their academic mission.
One would agree that freedom of thought and expression does not permit bad behaviour. One thing is to provide a space for expression of ideas whereas it is quite another whether colleges could permit bad behaviour. While providing freedom of thought and expression, colleges and universities should adopt a range of measures that penalise socially unworthy conduct and behaviour against defacing property, physical intimidation or harassment, or disruption of campus activities and hate language.
Given the attacks on freedom of speech, the time has now come for institutions to condemn manifestations of intolerance and discrimination, whether physical or verbal. Freedom of expression requires toleration of “ideas we hate”, as Justice Holmes put it. Free speech is not simply an aspect of the educational enterprise to be weighed against other desirable ends. It is the very precondition of the academic enterprise itself.
Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal of St. Aloysius Degree College, Bangalore.