The Hush-Hush Tale of Suppressing Dissent in India’s Colleges

In a recent email to alumni, Symbiosis Law School said it was suspending its association with two former students who were part of the #MeToo movement in 2018, where they called out Srinivas Methuku, then an assistant professor at the Hyderabad-based college. While they were students, Apoorva Yarabahally and Snigdha Jayakrishnan were evicted from the college hostel for ‘disciplinary action’ for their role in outing Methuku. Last month, the college asked for its former students to sign an apology if they wanted to participate in an alumni meet or they would “suspend…their collaboration” with them. Many saw this as a clear punishment for Yarabahally and Jayakrishnan for speaking out. The law school’s director Shashikala Gurpur said that a majority of the students apologized, and the others wanted to “normalize without accountability.”

This latest incident is an indication of how Indian institutes don’t forget or forgive dissent.

Indian colleges and universities  have regularly clashed with their students for speaking out on a range of topics including sexual harassment and politics to freedom of speech.

Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India’s most prominent colleges, has frequently been a battleground for this. It made national and international news in 2016, when a group of students were reprimanded by the university for protesting against the capital punishment issued to a Kashmiri separatist. The university ordered disciplinary action against them and they were later arrested for sedition. The group were accused of shouting ‘anti-India’ slogans. Similarly, in 2018, students at Lucknow University protested against multiple incidents after the university filed disciplinary charges against students for voicing their dissent. 

Ananya Kundu, a student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), faced heavy backlash recently from the institute and on social media after an image of the front page of her dissertation went viral. The matter of contention were the politically sensitive words ‘India Occupied Kashmir’ in her thesis title.

“The backlash and trolling was so bad that she was forced to quit all social media and go underground because she was getting death threats,” a classmate of Kundu’s told Re:Set on the condition of anonymity. “But the worst part was that the institute didn’t back her at all, and in fact distanced itself from the project and Ananya.” 

A day after the incident, TISS issued a statement denouncing the use of the words ‘Indian Occupied Kashmir’ and said that “appropriate action” was being taken. It is unclear what action is being taken but Kundu’s classmate, like many associated with the college, asked why this wasn’t pointed out when the dissertation was being written and reviewed. “There has always been a stifling environment on campus, especially when it comes to students’ freedom,” the student said. Re:Set reached out to TISS for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication. 

Tit for tat

It is a similar story elsewhere in the country, like at the Delhi School of Journalism, where eight students were suspended for asking for better infrastructure and faculty in 2018.

“The facilities were non-existent — there was no media lab, no library, no equipment, not even a canteen. Plus, we had only two faculty members, who were on contract. So we protested outside the administrative offices and held a hunger strike,” Neel Madhav, one of the eight who were suspended, told Re:Set. The college alleged that Madhav, along with other students, disrupted classes and administrative work. While the suspension was revoked the next day due to media coverage, the college did not stop targeting the students, Madhav said.

“It became clear that they held it against us. A few of us, especially the ones who were outspoken, would be given less attention in class, given lesser marks and got less opportunities in class,” he said, adding that the treatment went on for the rest of the two-year academic period. While the specific targeting of students was not addressed by the college, authorities told the media that they were working on fulfilling the students’ demands as they were short of funds. 

While retaliating against students for speaking up is common in Indian institutes, they also go as far as policing their bodies — something that students of St. Xavier’s, Mumbai are familiar with. In 2017, there was a huge furor over the forced cancellation of Malhar, their annual fest. “The principal at the time enforced a strange dress code, which disallowed students from wearing shorts that were above the knee. Now, those kinds of short shorts are usually worn by girls, so while boys would wear their usual shorts, the girls were forced to wear clothing with more coverage,” one former student familiar with the incident told Re:Set.  “When we protested, the college directly threatened us with the cancellation of Malhar if we continued. And when we did continue, they cancelled it,” she said. Re:Set reached out to the college to understand its current policies around student dress code, but the college did not respond at the time of publication.  

“It’s disheartening for students who are just trying to make their voices heard, to be told to not speak up or to be not heard. It makes us feel as if our rights don’t matter,” said the student.

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