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Maharashtra: Unexpected fallout

EducationWorld December 2023 | Education News Magazine
Nasrin Modak Siddiqi (Mumbai)

IIt BombauAlthough the latest Israel-Hamas war that began on October 7 when Hamas militia crossed into Israel and took Israeli citizens — mainly women and children — hostage resulting in relentless bombing of the Gaza strip governed by Hamas hasn’t impacted the tenor of life in India, it has had an unexpected fallout on the serene 550-acre campus of the top-ranked Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B, estb.1958). Unexpected, because IIT-B is essentially as the name implies, a tech education institute. And it’s one of India’s most respected universities.

A not so well-known fact is that perhaps in anticipation of criticism that IIT graduates would be “tunnel-vision techies” oblivious of history and the social sciences, ab initio IIT-B has also hosted a Department of Social Sciences on its sprawling green campus overlooking Powai lake in Mumbai/Bombay. Students are free to select humanities subjects as electives and the institute also awards degrees in English and social science subjects.

On November 6 the social sciences department invited actor and author Sudhanva Deshpande to deliver a lecture to introduce a 2004 documentary film, Arna’s Children, made by Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli filmmaker, actor and theatre director. One of the characters in the film is Zakaria Zubeidi, a former military commander of the armed wing of Fatah, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Fatah (aka Palestine Authority) is a political party founded by Yasser Arafat and currently governs Palestine (aka the West Bank) after it was ousted from Gaza in 2006 by Hamas. It’s pertinent to note that an election has not been held in Gaza since then.

This lecture aroused the indignation of Omkar Supekar, a doctoral student at IIT-B who registered a complaint at the Powai Police Station against Prof. Sharmistha Saha, head of the humanities department, for misuse of authority by inviting Deshpande to introduce the documentary. According to Supekar, “Deshpande has a record of glorifying Palestinian terrorist Zakaria Zubeidi. This has troubling consequences for the academic integrity and safety of IIT- Bombay.”

Supekar recorded the lecture on his mobile phone and posted it online. This prompted a protest by the Vivek Vichar Mancha, a right-wing outfit which shouted slogans against Prof. Saha and demanded Saha and Deshpande’s arrest.

According to Deshpande, Zubeidi is not a terrorist by any yardstick of measurement. In an interview with this correspondent, he explained, “When I met Zubeidi in Palestine in 2015, he had given up arms and was advocating cultural resistance. He highlighted the value of culture in the Palestinian freedom struggle. In my talk at IIT-B, I described Zubeidi as a ‘visionary’ because he envisaged a future where the entire territory of historic Palestine would be a single nation, in which all citizens — Arabs, Jews, Christians, and others — would have equal rights. The media has run a malicious disinformation campaign against me and Prof. Saha. To set the record straight, I said nothing that glorified Hamas. I did not even mention Hamas in my talk,” says Deshpande.

Although Prof. Saha was unavailable for comment, IIT-B faculty has closed ranks around her and condemned the “tarnishing of the reputation and physical threats to one of our colleagues via anonymous phone calls and posts on social media platforms.”

Nevertheless this contretemps prompted the IIT-B management to issue “guidelines” against staging of lectures and seminars by students and faculty that could be “potentially political.” The guidelines established a Review Committee which will clear all lectures and seminars involving “external speakers.”

Meanwhile an interim guidelines circular issued by the IIT-B Registrar says that “while the institute encourages free and open discussions on educational subjects, it must remain apolitical in its endeavours. Therefore, it is imperative that students, faculty and staff stay away (sic) from activities/events that may invite socio-political controversies, diverting IIT-B from its primary mission, or may bring disrepute to the institute.”

In short, IIT-B students should revert to being tunnel vision techies.

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