KASARGOD: Lawmakers from Kerala have condemned the Kasaragod-based Central University of Kerala's decision to suspend political science assistant professor Gilbert Sebastian, who criticised the Centre's vaccine policy and called the RSS-BJP a proto-fascist organisation during his class.
Student organisations, barring the complainant ABVP, have demanded that the university revoke the suspension order.
Congress's Shashi Tharoor too echoed their demands. Debate him, don't silence him, the Lok Sabha member from Thiruvananthapuram suggested.
Writing on Twitter and Facebook, Tharoor said he had expressed concern about the dwindling space for dissent on campuses when discussing the National Education Policy.
Kasaragod Lok Sabha member and Congress leader Rajmohan Unnithan wrote to the minister for human resource development Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' seeking his intervention to revoke the suspension of Dr Sebastian.
"The teacher has all the qualifications and merits to teach. Proto-fascism is a technical term and he used it in his class to describe and elaborate on certain political situations. Such a witch-hunting is a transgression into the academic freedom of the university profession," Unnithan said.
CH Kunhambu, CPM's MLA from Udma, where the university is situated, said suspending teachers for giving lectures would instil fear in the minds of young thinkers and also teachers. In his letter to vice-chancellor Prof H Venkateshwarlu, he said: "The university should revoke the suspension and uphold the academic freedom and create a fearless, healthy and uncensored space for education."
During his online class on Fascism and Nazism on April 19, Dr Sebastian of the Department of International Relations and Politics said: "The RSS and its affiliate organisations, together called as the Sangh Parivar meaning the Sangh family (including the BJP) in India can also be considered proto-fascist."
Proto-fascist movements are those influenced by classical fascist organisations.
In the class, he said Spain under General Franco, Portugal under Salazar, Argentina under Juan Peron, Chile under Pinochet, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Hutu ultranationalist and supremacist movement of Rwanda in the early 1990s could be considered proto-fascist, and posed a question whether India under Narendra Modi since 2014 was one.
In the same class, the assistant professor also criticised the government for exporting vaccines at a time when the country's vaccine needs were not met. "That shows their patriotism," he said.
The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) -- the students' wing of the RSS -- has threatened mass protests if the VC did not take action against the faculty member.
A Vinod Karuvarakundu, a member of the National Monitoring Committee on Education (SCs, STs, Persons with Special Needs and Minority Education) under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, also wrote a complaint to the vice-chancellor. In his letter, he alleged Dr Sebastain tried to "instil hatred and poison" in the minds of the first-semester MA students against the democratically elected government headed by Narendra Modi.
Vinod Karuvarakundu was the former president of ABVP's Kerala unit.
The Congress's Kerala Students Union state president K M Abhijith said this was probably the first time in the country that a teacher has been suspended for the content shared in an online class.
The Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA) of the university said the complaint filed by the ABVP was a distortion of facts and also an infringement on academic freedom. The suspension also amounted to infantilising the students, it said. "Does the university believe aspiring political science graduates are infants who are unable to voice their opinions against their teacher if they find the argument illogical?" it said.
The Students Federation of India (SFI), affiliated with the CPM, said the suspension was evidence of the excessive influence the ABVP and the RSS exerted on the administration. "The ABVP is acting as a vigilante group in classrooms," it said.
The Muslim Students Federation (MSF), affiliated with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), said any attempt to silence the critiquing voices was fascism.
Instead of debating the issue and countering the charge, suspending the teacher makes them (the dispensation) vulnerable to the characterisation, said political scientist, China scholar, and human rights activist Prof Manoranjan Mohanty.
Rajya Sabha member and CPM leader V Sivadasan said Dr Gilbert was suspended for critically evaluating the politics of RSS-BJP in the classroom.
"The suspension is an act of cowardice to curtail academic freedom and critical thinking, without which the idea of a university is dead," he said and added the Modi government should also put an end to the attempts to imprison the universities. "Ideas cannot be suspended," he said.