Top university’s academic seminar on Kashmir blocked

One of India’s top universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, has become embroiled in a controversy over a webinar on Kashmir which was blocked by the university.

The JNU administration on 29 October ordered a webinar organised by the university’s Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS) to be cancelled, ostensibly for referring to Kashmir as “Indian-occupied Kashmir”.

A speaker at this webinar was scheduled to be political anthropologist, writer, poet and social activist Ather Zia, who is also associate professor of anthropology and gender studies at University of Northern Colorado, Greeley in the United States. Zia has authored a book on Kashmir titled Resisting Disappearance: Military occupation and women’s activism in Kashmir.

The original notice for the planned webinar said: “This talk will draw and build upon ethnography of Resisting Disappearance, giving an overview of the historical gendered resistance to Indian occupation in Kashmir. It will discuss the fresh challenges to resistance and dissent in Kashmir post-2019 and how it has affected women and Kashmiris [people of Kashmir] in general.”

The subject of Kashmir has always been delicate and sensitive as both India and Pakistan claim the entirety of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The dispute over the region has in the past escalated into three wars between the two nuclear-powered neighbours and sparked several other armed skirmishes.

JNU Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar said in a statement: “As soon as it came to our notice that an online webinar titled ‘Gender resistance and fresh challenges in post-2019 Kashmir’ was being organised by the Centre for Women’s Studies, we immediately instructed the faculty members organising the event to stop it. The programme was cancelled forthwith.”

Kumar said the subject of the webinar “is a highly objectionable and provocative subject, which questions the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country”.

He said the organisers had not sought permission before planning such an event, and noted that the matter is under investigation.

Earlier this year the government made it mandatory for academics and organisers to obtain prior clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs to hold international webinars on topics touching on India’s security and internal issues and on subjects the government believes are sensitive, and to exclude several contentious areas including Jammu and Kashmir. It said the names of all participants would have to be approved by the government in advance.

This policy was officially rescinded after an outcry by academics in India and abroad, but academics said the action by JNU’s leadership showed it was still in place unofficially.

The planned event sparked uproar on social media. Many JNU students and teachers expressed objections to the reference of Kashmir in the webinar. Several teachers lodged strong protests at Kashmir being termed “Indian-occupied Kashmir” in the webinar, and said it was an attempt to portray JNU as anti-national.

The JNU Teachers’ Forum said via Twitter it “strongly opposes such an ‘anti-national’ stand taken by the Centre for Women’s Studies. JNU must take action against those involved in organising it”. It also tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah and Delhi Police.

Dhananjay Singh, professor at the Centre for English Studies, School of Language Literature and Culture at JNU, maintained that the university’s image had been tarnished. “Educational institutions have the right to put forth ideas, but it is not right to challenge the Constitution of India by organising such a programme. Such programmes have no place on the campus of JNU or any other educational institution.”

Dhananjay added that the webinar had “hurt the dignity of the university” and that the organisers should apologise. He said some parts of Kashmir were occupied by Pakistan and not by the Government of India.

Organisers silent

Many who spoke out openly expressed satisfaction over the webinar cancellation. But others were notably silent. The organisers, when contacted by University World News, were not available for comment.

One JNU source said that if the faculty members organising the webinar were to go public in putting pressure on the university authorities, they could face professional repercussions.

“This is something that comes from much higher, it is a government policy so it is not easy for them [the organisers] to go against a university administration that is doing its [government’s] bidding,” the source said.

Webinar invitee Kashmir-born Ather Zia told University World News from the US that she was surprised and concerned at how it had been blown up in India. “It was a small seminar but the amount of attention that was focused on it, it was almost like they wanted to make an example of it.”

“It is a webinar – it’s a classroom where a professor was going to be giving a lecture based on research, and it’s a factual thing. In an academic setting they don’t really need to ask the vice-chancellor about whom they are inviting,” she said.

“It shows the limits of academic freedom, which at the moment I feel is non-existent in India. The self-censorship is huge.”

She characterised the vice-chancellor’s statement as “damage control”, but she also noted the university could have done it in a different way that was more protective of the university’s freedoms. “But throwing them [the organisers] under the bus, he was not covering for them, he was covering [for] himself.”

“Also, this is a women’s studies department and they’re already going against the grain,” Zia noted of the organisers. “It’s like they are being put in their place to be told you have to ask the ‘patriarch’ at the top [of the university].”

Referring to why the seminar might be regarded as controversial, Zia noted that “the kind of information and the kind of documentation and research about Kashmir that is coming out now is countering the hegemonic Indian narrative”.

It’s one thing to hear from resistance leaders (in Kashmir) but the Indian government “can’t tolerate voices that might seem sane and are also heard globally. So, I feel that’s what they want to shut down”.

While much has been shut down in Kashmir itself, Zia pointed to the pandemic switch to online academic panels, and “the pervasiveness of Zoom – so people from all across [the world] can talk on panels, whether you agreed with them or not. So, the Kashmir issue has been internationalised, so to speak, and Kashmiris are on these Zooms. There’s a group of critical Kashmiri scholars who are talking to university students”.

At least one webinar was organised at a private university in India in recent months. Zia also noted disruption and threats, including “rabble rousing in the audience” at university events outside India more recently. “So that is happening increasingly at universities [in the US],” she said.

Organisers declined to comment

The student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), filed a police complaint to the Delhi Police against the webinar organisers. ABVP said that the webinar webpage addressed Jammu and Kashmir as “Indian-occupied Kashmir”, which is objectionable and unconstitutional.

Shivam Chaurasia, president of the JNU unit of ABVP, said the webinar “undermines the integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of India and the Constitution of India”.

The ABVP said the president of the CWS and the concerned faculty members had distorted the facts related to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and urged the police to hold the organisers responsible. The ABVP also symbolically burned the webinar poster.

A Delhi-based lawyer Vineet Jindal has also filed a complaint with the Delhi Police against JNU webinar organisers. Jindal has sought registration of criminal cases against the event organisers for various offences including the serious charges of sedition.

However, another source close to the organisers said “these seem to be intimidatory tactics. The organisers did not in the end hold the webinar so it is not a criminal matter”.