Sudhanva Deshpande @ IIT Bombay — What happened vs what really happened-

A recent talk about Israel’s occupation of Palestine at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay has stirred quite the controversy on the campus of the Institute of Eminence – so much so, that the administration announced a “fact-finding committee” to investigate it!

This talk, which was held on November 6, was part of a documentary screening organised by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), as part of “Performance Theory and Praxis”, a PhD-level course taught by Professor Sarmistha Saha. 

Noted theatre personality Sudhanva Deshpande was invited by the Professor to introduce Arna’s Children, an Israeli documentary on a Palestinian Children’s Group in a refugee camp in the city of Jenin, located in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. 

However, few students of IIT Bombay took to social media to object to some of the remarks made by Deshpande – particularly about prominent leaders from Palestine’s armed resistance like Popular Liberation Front of Palestine leader Ghassan Kanadani and former chief of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade Zakaria Zubedi. 

A video recording of Deshpande’s talk, which was circulated widely on X (formerly Twitter), featured the thespian talking about his meeting with Zubedi in 2015, wherein, the latter quoted Ghassan Kanadani by saying that Palestinians needed guns in order to achieve liberation and that an armed struggle needed to be accompanied by a cultural revolution, to prevent the resistance fighters from turning the guns on each other. 

Deshpande stated that Zubedi emphasised that the Palestine struggle was a freedom struggle, and that “no freedom struggle in the history of the world and colonialism is entirely 100% non-violent.” He also recalled being “struck by the incredible vision” of Zubedi, and the “beautiful vision of a free Palestine.”

Amidst this, another instance comes to mind. A talk by former Delhi University Professor Achin Vanaik, titled “Israel-Palestine: A Historical Context” which was scheduled to be held the next day, November 7 at IIT Bombay, was cancelled by the administration due to “unforeseen circumstances”. 

Students of IIT Bombay also took objection to Prof Vanaik on social media, which was to be hosted by Professor Anush Kapadia of the Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay, terming Vanaik’s anti-Hindutva stance as “anti-Hindu” and some remarks he made at an earlier talk at OP Jindal Global University as “anti-India”. 

Police complaint and protests 
A few students also filed a police complaint on November 8, Wednesday, 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.”

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 his referral of Zubedi as an “incredible visionary” amounted to the eulogising and glorification of terrorism and that Professor Saha and the HSS Department were 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.”

In addition, 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”. 

On November 11, a group of students and faculty members from IIT Bombay, along with Vivek Vichar Manch, staged a protest in front of the campus of IIT Bombay, demanding the permanent termination and arrest of Professor Saha, as well as the arrest of Sudhanva Deshpande. 

It was also reported that the protestors raised slogans like “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” (Shoot the traitors of the country) and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”

Following all these events, Subhasis Chaudhuri, Director of IIT Bombay acknowledged all that transpired in an email to the students and claimed that the administration was not aware of the talk by Sudhanva Deshpande, as it was “not publicised except to the HSS Department”. 

He further 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”.

In the email, the director also expressed concern over the slogans raised by the protestors, saying that “such actions potentially putting the life of a faculty member at risk, are completely unacceptable regardless of what was said in class”.

What really happened, according to the students of HSS
Amidst all this hullabaloo surrounding Deshpande’s remarks, a student who attended the screening attests that his remarks have been taken out of context to intimidate the HSS department. They further say that the HSS department has been at the receiving end of such targetted attacks due to its seemingly anti-government research and academic activities. 

One of the students from the course, who also attended the screening of the documentary, said that there was supposed to be an introductory address by Deshpande before the documentary was screened, which would then be followed by a discussion. However, things could not go that way. 

“Barely ten minutes into Sudhanva Deshpande’s address, we discovered that one student from the audience was recording the event on his phone. When it was brought to the attention of Professor Saha, she asked him to stop filming, as it violates classroom decorum,” the student says, even revealing that the professor invited the filming student to discuss any issue he had with the course and the current session with her, and told him that he could excuse himself from the screening if he liked. 

However, the student allegedly started to behave in a more aggressive and disruptive manner, refusing to leave and even filming the professor herself. Due to this, Deshpande’s address had to be cut short. 

This incident alarmed the professor so much, that she was allegedly compelled to call off the discussion that followed the screening. “Some of us really wanted to discuss the documentary among ourselves, but Professor Saha did not want to have a discussion under such intimidatory circumstances,” the student said. 

Later, 35 students from the HSS department submitted a signed petition to Dr Pooja Purang, the Head of the HSS Department, urging her to ensure that disciplinary action is taken against the student who “recorded the class against the professor’s consent”. 

The petitioners wrote that many of the students were “excited to watch the film”, as they could “engage with the theory and the nuances that this film puts forward in an academic set-up.” However, this disruption of the “introductory lecture given by a celebrated senior theatre artist” by the student, as well as the “recording the professor herself without her consent and creating an atmosphere of fear and tension” did not allow things to happen that way. 

Further, the petition also points towards the attacks on the academic freedom of the HSS Department over the last few months.

Elaborating more, the petition reads, “Recently we have seen talks and conferences getting cancelled at the last moment because apparently they were not ‘academic’. The usage of department spaces has been restricted even for book talks, film screenings and seminars on history, sociology, literature or philosophy that might be seen as critical to the government. However, we assert that this is our research, our work. To restrict us from inviting academicians to the department or to allow the administration to intimidate us by recording our events is tantamount to destroying our academic freedom.”

The petitioners also argue that recording the professor without her consent is not only a gross violation of academic spaces but also amounts to sexual misconduct, and that these recordings are being used to “expose the faculties and the students to media trials”.

Speaking about the backlash against Deshpande’s remarks, the student says, “The address and what Mr Deshpande said are being taken out of context to form a certain narrative and attack the department. Mr Deshpande only spoke in the context of the film, and the larger Palestinian resistance against Israel,” and his address did not contain any condonation of terrorism. 

To bring context, Arna’s Children, the film in question, also heavily features The Freedom Theatre, a theatre collective in the Jenin Refugee camp, in which Zuberi was the director. 

“There were protestors who were calling for Professor Sharmistha to be shot dead, which is an open death threat. Such brazen attacks and targeted harassment have been faced by everyone who is even slightly critical of Israel,” the student further claims, emphasising the dwindling academic freedom and security of the HSS department.

Regarding the director’s announcement of instating a fact-finding committee, the student says that this development is being met with a lot of scepticism from the HSS students. “This is not what we asked for. We wanted the person who recorded the class without consent and disrupted the academic environment to face disciplinary action. There is no clarity as to who would constitute this committee, and how many of them would be from the HSS department,” she says. 

In the meanwhile, the students who are a part of the course and witnessed the turn of events at the screening are preparing testimonials of what actually happened, and submit them to the director’s office today, November 14. 

EdexLive has reached out to IIT Bombay for an official comment on the constitution of the fact-finding committee, to no response. This copy will be updated when a response is received.

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