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HC seeks State response on MP university prof’s plea against police ‘warning’ on webinar

On Thursday, the bench of Justice Sanjay Dwivedi gave the State three weeks to file a reply, as was sought by the State's counsel.

Written by Iram Siddique | Bhopal |
September 25, 2021 5:35:18 am
In his petition, Prof Rakesh Kumar Gautam, the varsity's Anthropology department HoD, called SP Atul Singh's action “illegal, unjust, under coercion of the complainant outfit and against direction of (the) Supreme Court”.

The Jabalpur bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court has sought the state government’s response on a writ petition filed by a professor of Sagar-based Dr Harisingh Gour University, accusing the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Sagar district of “endorsing malicious propaganda of a group” and making the university pull out of an international webinar in July “under coercion” of the complainant group.

On Thursday, the bench of Justice Sanjay Dwivedi gave the State three weeks to file a reply, as was sought by the State’s counsel.

In his petition, Prof Rakesh Kumar Gautam, the varsity’s Anthropology department HoD, called SP Atul Singh’s action “illegal, unjust, under coercion of the complainant outfit and against direction of (the) Supreme Court”. He also maintained that the officer’s action showed the country in poor light on questions of academic freedom.

On July 30, the university had pulled out of a webinar on scientific temper, organised jointly with US-based Montclair State University, at the last moment following a letter from Singh. The Anthropology department was organising the event, and Gautam was its convener.

On July 29, a day before, Singh wrote to the university’s vice-chancellor, cautioning of possible action under IPC Section 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) “if religious and caste sentiments are hurt”. The letter came reportedly following a memorandum from ABVP, the RSS’s students’ wing, objecting to some of the speakers at the webinar, which included Prof Apoorvanand and scientist-poet Gauhar Raza, among others.

The university administration subsequently asked the department to write to the Union Education Ministry, seeking permission for the event. After Gautam failed to secure a reply from the ministry, the varsity pulled out of the webinar.

In his petition, Gautam stated that the issue of “administration’s approval was never raised earlier and this helplessness and last-minute excuses was a fallout of the letter by the Superintendent of Police”.

The petition stated, “As per the revised guidelines, no such permission was required for webinars on subjects other than those that addressed “national security”, “Jammu and Kashmir”, “Borders” and the “North East”. Such topics would need clearance from MEA, not MHRD. But as of today, as per the circular dated 24.03.2021 issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) no prior permission is required before conducting an international webinar.”

He stated that besides undergoing mental agony and embarrassment, he was deprived of the opportunity to add to his academic score and that Montclair University is no longer willing to collaborate on a few other projects that were in the pipeline “owing to the arbitrary action of the SP”.

The petitioner stated that the SP’s move to endorse the “prohibition” on holding academic seminars, without first having the list of speakers and topics of discussion, severely restricted his academic freedom and had a “chilling effect” on his speech and actions. Gautam’s petition also stated that “a habit cannot be made out by the state authority to accept any version of events made by any group (political or nonpolitical) to try and censor speech and academic seminar”.

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