On October 29, 2021, Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) administration ordered the cancellation of a webinar on Kashmir organized by the university’s Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS), apparently based on political considerations.
The webinar, titled “Gender resistance and fresh challenges in post-2019 Kashmir,” was scheduled to take place that evening and featured Ather Zia, a well-known activist, author, poet, and political anthropologist who teaches anthropology and gender studies at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, in the United States. The notice for the webinar stated that the talk would draw from and build on Zia’s book, Resisting Disappearance: Military occupation and women’s activism in Kashmir, to assess resistance and dissent in Kashmir in the wake of India’s 2019 repeal of Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Indian constitution.
JNU Vice-Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar published a statement calling the topic of the webinar “a highly objectionable and provocative subject, which questions the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country” and stated that upon learning of the webinar, the administration “immediately instructed the faculty members organizing the event to stop it.” Kumar also relayed that the faculty members in charge of the event had not sought the university’s permission to hold it and that the matter was now under investigation.
In addition to JNU’s administration, many students and teachers objected to the webinar and called for disciplinary action against the faculty members that planned it. JNU’s Teachers’ Forum posted on Twitter that it strongly opposed the “‘anti-national’ stand” taken by CWS. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ruling party – filed a complaint against the webinar organizers with the Delhi Police for being unconstitutional. They also symbolically burned the webinar flyer during a protest against the event. The head of the JNU’s ABVP unit stated that the webinar “undermine[d] the integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of India and the Constitution of India.” Delhi-based lawyer Vineet Jindal also lodged a complaint with the Delhi Police seeking to register criminal cases against the webinar organizers on various charges, including sedition. In the complaint, Jindal claimed that the language regarding Kashmir in the webinar invitation was being used to purposefully “provoke and instigate people against the Indian Government.”
The organizers of the webinar have remained silent following the cancellation. A source at JNU emphasized that publicly voicing support for the webinar or objecting to its cancellation could result in “professional repercussions.”
Scholars at Risk (SAR) is concerned by the cancellation of a peaceful, academic event, apparently based on political or ideological (rather than academic) considerations. SAR is further concerned by calls for disciplinary action and criminal complaints intended to punish and/or restrict academic activity. Higher education leaders should respect academic freedom by refraining from politically or ideologically motivated restrictions on academic activity. Faculty, students, and members of civil society who disagree with the content of academic activity should also refrain from coercive actions intended to chill or punish such activity. Politically motivated attempts to limit academic discussion and exchange undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.