The in-charge principal and vice-principal of the noted HK Arts College in Ahmedabad, run by the Brahmachari Wadi Trust, have followed their conscience and resigned after the institution was prevented from hosting an alumnus and independent MLA, Jignesh Mevani, at an annual event. Allegedly, there was pressure from students linked to the BJP, forcing the hand of the trust. However, given the stature of the institution, whose mission statement includes, “To set high ethical standards and create a promising generation for society,” more resilience could have been reasonably expected.
The college has always had an open and liberal ethos, and had taken part in the Navnirman Andolan of 1973-74, an extraordinary public movement which had brought down the government of Chimanbhai Patel. In fact, the Yog Nagrik Samiti, which provided intellectual heft to the movement, was based in the college and included several teachers. The trust was inaugurated by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and the noted poet Dalpatram served as its first secretary. At present, the trustees include the influential architect, Balkrishna Doshi, the author and editor, Kumarpal Desai, and the novelist and poet, Raghuveer Chaudhari. A Jnanpith awardee, he has also taught at the college.
For organisations with such solidly independent credentials to cave in to a mere threat speaks of institutional failure. Even if a section of students had threatened disruption, the management could have invited them for a discussion, or called in the police to keep the peace. As vice-principal Mohanbhai Parmar has pointed out, the annual function of the college has been graced earlier by dignitaries like Narendra Modi, the former minister of state for women and child development, Maya Kodnani, and former Assembly speaker Ashok Bhatt. With this history, the refusal to host Mevani, who has been a thorn in the side of the BJP, amounts to muting opinion and betrays either bias or fear. Neither redounds to the credit of the organisations involved. Hemantkumar Shah, the principal who has bowed out, has gone to the extent of calling it the murder of democracy.
Institutions of higher education have been under attack in recent years, and some have stood firm. But the spine of an institution is the people it consists of. If they fail to stand up for their independence, the institution can only drift or founder. HK Arts College and the trust may wish to reconsider, and reclaim their heritage of free thought.