SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 17, 2021

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Central University of Kerala

Region & Country:Southern Asia | India

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 17, 2021, the Central University of Kerala (CUK) suspended Gilbert Sebastian, an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations, for remarks critical of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu-nationalist organization connected to India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Sebastian has been an assistant professor in CUK’s Department of International Relations since 2015. A source at the university told The News Minute that Sebastian was previously targeted by the administration for attending a political rally and voicing support for the dismissal of a faculty member.

On April 19, during a virtual session of his class on “facism and Nazism,” Sebastian allegedly said that the RSS and its political arm, the BJP, could be considered a “proto-fascist organization.” He also allegedly referred to other political figures and governments that could be considered examples of proto-fascists, including the Spanish general Francisco Franco and the apartheid government of South Africa. Sources reported that during the class Sebastian also commented on the current Indian government exporting of COVID-19 vaccines at a time when the virus was rapidly spreading across India.

Following the lecture, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organization affiliated with RSS, complained to Central University’s Vice Chancellor, H Venkateshwarlu. In addition, Vinod Karuvarakund, a member of the National Monitoring Committee on Education under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, complained to the university that Sebastian was “indoctrinating” students by “spewing hatred and poison against the Narendra Modi government.”

The university’s VC appointed three university staff members to an investigative committee to look into the comments made by Sebastian. According to reports, Sebastian did not deny saying the things he was accused of when brought before the investigative committee. The administration suspended Sebastian on May 17. The New Indian Express reported that Sebastian was suspended on the grounds of Rule 9 of the Central Civil Services Rules, which bars government employees from criticizing the government and its policies. In 2018, the central government imposed CCS rules on publicly funded universities; however, following widespread outrage at the limitations the rules placed on academic freedom, clarified that the imposition of the rules was optional, and not mandatory, for universities to impose.

As of the publication of this report, Sebastian remains suspended from the university.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of his right to academic freedom. University authorities should refrain from retaliating against scholars for the responsible exercise of academic freedom and should protect and promote the same. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, politically motivated suspensions aimed at restricting or retaliating against such academic activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: The vice chancellor lifted Sebastian’s suspension on June 10, 2021 after the professor provided an explanation of his comments to the inquiry committee.