Students pen testimonials to director in support of academic fre-

Recently, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay made headlines over a controversy about documentary screening and talk organised by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) on November 6. 

Theatre personality Sudhanva Deshpande was invited to introduce Arna’s Children, an Israeli documentary on a Palestinian Children’s Theatre Group in a refugee camp. However, a few students objected to some of the remarks made by Deshpande, especially those about prominent leaders from Palestine’s armed resistance. Protests and a police complaint followed, including the gush of vitriol on social media. 

Explaining what had actually happened, the students, who are part of the HSS department have written testimonials to Director Subhasis Chaudhuri of the institute and Dean of Student Affairs, today, November 14. 

In their testimonials, the students have pointed out the “concerns over the loss of academic freedom in the department since the last few months”. The testimonial read, “We feel that the Department of HSS has been targeted unfairly in the past based on the kind of research that we do and the critical discussion that we engage in.” 

“We at HSS often do research criticizing the government policy decisions, we talk on the nuances of Indian society like caste, class and gender that still need to be understood and also work regarding international relations. What might seem like ‘politicizing’ to many people in the institute might actually be a part of our research and academic practices,” it added. 

What actually happened? 

On November 6, as a part of a documentary screening organised by the Department of HSS in connection to Performance Theory and Praxis, a PhD-level course taught by Professor Sarmistha Saha, theatre personality Sudhanva Deshpande was invited by the professor to introduce Arna’s Children

However, a few students of IIT Bombay took to social media, expressing objection to some of Deshpande’s remarks.

Amidst this, on November 8 a few students also filed a police complaint against Professor Samristha Saha for “inappropriately used her position to invite Deshpande, a radical leftist as part of her course work HS 835″, and expressed concern about the “impact that such activities have on the impressionable minds of young students”.

However, taking note of the events happening at the institute, the director Subhasis Chaudhuri sent an email claiming that the administration was not aware of the talk by Sudhanva Deshpande, as it was “not publicised except to the HSS Department”. Further, he said that a fact-finding committee will be constituted  “to look into the actions of the students” and “find out what happened in the HSS class where Mr Deshpande joined virtually, and if his statements, as well as inviting him, were inappropriate”.

IIT B condemns and attacks

IIT B for Bharat, which describes itself as “a group of students and alumni of IIT Bombay aimed at having a common space for Indic civilizational values”, on X was especially strong in its attacks and condemnation of Deshpande’s remarks.

The collective shared an open letter from “The Students of IIT Bombay”, dated November 9, which claimed that Deshpande’s referral of Zubedi as an “incredible visionary” amounted to the eulogising and glorification of terrorism and that Professor Saha and the HSS Department aimed to incite “violent feelings of hatred in the hearts of gullible students” on X. This letter also called out Deshpande for “avoiding mentioning the terror attack of October 7th on Israel.”

Additionally, the collective also used its X handle to amplify criticism of the event, labelling Professor Saha, and Sudhanva Deshpande as “anti-Hindu”, “pro-terrorism”, “anti-India”, and “divisive”.

Concerns mentioned in the testimonials

Mentioning their concerns in the testimonials, the students questioned, “If there is any secure space within the campus to even talk about the recent global issues or any issue on that matter before being branded as ‘terrorist’ or ‘pro-Hamas’ or ‘anti-national’? We as a body of researcher are facing targets based on what we do. With grave concerns we ask how long before our Annual Progress Seminars are violated in this manner? Should we stop publicizing our defenses and presentations if they are critical of the government in the fear that somebody will record and leak to the media?”

As per the testimonials, the students have asked the institute functionaries to take into account their concerns and address their demands:
1. The academic spaces within the department like the seminar room and the classrooms are made open for the students and the faculty to conduct lectures, screenings and discussions without fear.
2. The student who had recorded the class without the professor’s consent must be identified and appropriate disciplinary measures be taken against him.
3. Illegal recording of classroom discussions and using them to expose the faculties and the students to media trials should be explicitly prohibited. Classroom spaces are not meant for intimidation.
4. Canceling lectures and events that are needed for our academic enrichment is a dangerous practice and should be stopped immediately

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