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Limits of freedom: Where do they lie?

Two years ago,self-styled moral policemen stormed into an exam of the famous Arts Faculty of the Maharaja Sayaji University at Vadodara.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | New Delhi |
May 14, 2009 2:13:52 pm

Two years ago,self-styled moral policemen stormed into an exam of the famous Arts Faculty of the Maharaja Sayaji University at Vadodara. A student,Chandra Mohan,was arrested,and the acting dean of the faculty,the well known art historian Shivaji Pannikar,was suspended. Pannikar’s suspension recently went to a university-level tribunal; it has been reported that some more art pieces have now become a point of contention in the faculty’s exam. Fortunately,outsiders are not permitted into the process.

I was asked at one stage to look into the earlier set of incidences by a high-level university authority. Inspite of advice to stay out,I took it on. My state and my country have been kind to me,and I have considerable academic and public experience. My take was that if people like me back out,who will guard the guards,as the Latin proverb asked.

It turned out to be one of the more difficult and nerve-wracking experiences I have had. I didn’t particularly like the pieces of art myself and could clearly see that they would be offensive to many people. But this was a university — one that at one stage had a great reputation. It could,I believed,well manage come back some day. Also,it was a great arts school.

I remember listening,as a young man,to the late Chanchi Mehta playing out Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam all by himself in the course of a private evening. There were others,some of whom are still alive,who made it a great seat of learning. Universities are places where the unacceptable has to be tolerated,because genuine societal progress is made by those who think out of the box,and seldom by those who accept the status quo. Prakash Karat,Sitaram Yechuri and Arun Shourie are all known to me from the time they were in the university. They challenged orthodoxy in a most unacceptable manner when they were students and yet,in some sense,they set the debate. India would have been poorer if they had not been allowed to take their exams or their teachers had been suspended for years.

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These are difficult lines to draw. Shivaji Pannikar himself was clear that if he was the teacher of the student,he would have guided him differently – and that if offence was given,it should have been apologized for. I have family in Vadodara and they were generally very critical of the display of offensive material. Strangely,the eldest of the relatives,a scion of a zamindari family,had a different perspective. She was clear that a liberal view should be taken,since this was art in the university.

We can only hope that the ideals the freedom movement generated are not being belittled.

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