University Disinvites Women’s Activist Sangwan ‘on Haryana CM’s Orders’

Despite facing widespread criticism from a large section of civil society and political organisations, BJP-led state governments have continued to intervene in the internal matters of educational institutions.

Jagmati Sangwan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Jagmati Sangwan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

New Delhi: The trend of governments intervening in internal matters of universities seems to be rising every day. On May 12 2016, the Bhagat Phool Singh Mahila Vishwavidyalaya (BPSMV) in Sonepat, Haryana cancelled an invitation to prominent women’s rights activist Jagmati Sangwan for a university discussion, allegedly on state’s chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s orders.

Sangwan, who is also the general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), has been leading a movement against the state government’s recent decision to amend the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act that sets minimum educational qualifications to contest local body elections. Sangwan is of the opinion that the Act will exclude around 69% women from contesting in elections.

Sangwan told The Wire that the discussion on ‘social enterprise and sustainable development in India’ was planned as an interactive session between the university students and a group of visiting students from the US on May 13, 2016. “I got a late night call by the event’s organiser, who sounded very distressed, on May 12. She told me that she has been asked by the university authorities to withdraw my invitation,” Sangwan said.

“The university official who spoke to the organisers said that the chief minister’s office wanted my name to be cancelled from the event,” she added. “I told the organisers to go ahead with the discussion without me but requested them to announce in front of the students that my invitation was withdrawn by the university at the last moment.”

The BPSMV is a Haryana state-run women’s university located in Khanpur Kalan of Sonepat district of Haryana. It was founded in 2006 as the first publicly-funded women’s university in north India. Located in a rural area, the university has played a pioneering role in providing higher education to women from Haryana, a state known for its poor female literacy and a skewed sex ratio.

Counter-claims from the university

Boston-based Northeastern University and the BPSMW had planned the discussion to give their students a platform where they could share their experiences with each other. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) facilitated the arrangements for the interaction.

Northeastern University’s C. Sara Lawrence Minard, the chief organiser of the event, had invited Sangwan to address the students during this interactive session. “Sara’s sister Mick Minard had co-authored a book with Sashi Gogate about women who have fought their socially conservative conditions to do what they wanted to. The name of the book is The Poetry of Purpose. It was launched with a photo exhibition on the same subject at the India International Centre, New Delhi last year. My life was one of the 20 documented in the book. Mick gave my reference to Sara. She wanted her students to get a real glimpse of rural life in India and how women navigated its spaces. So I had agreed to be a part of the discussion,” Sangwan told The Wire.

After her invitation was cancelled, Sangwan met the American students on May 13 at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi. Minard did not want to speak to the media, given the fact she is leading a foreign student delegation in India. Sangwan, however, told The Wire that Minard had taken all the necessary permissions from the university to invite her to the event.

The vice chancellor of the BPSMV Asha Kadyan, however, denied having any information on Sangwan’s invitation fiasco. “It was not a seminar. It was a discussion proposed by the UNDP, with which we have a MoU. The interaction was planned between the students and faculty of both the universities to explore a long-term association in the fields of academic research. The discussion went on as per scheduled but no permission to host a panelist was taken before,” Kadyan told The Wire. Despite several attempts, The Wire could not speak to the chief minister’s office.

AIDWA has responded strongly against the Haryana government on the issue. “The democratic organisations of the state have taken a very strong note of the incident and have asked the Haryana government to immediately clarify its position on the matter. The state government would not be allowed to close avenues of learning and education to the secular and democratic activists in this dictatorial fashion that seems to be the mainstay of the present government. Increasingly such incidents where activists are being targeted and barred from speaking on different autonomous platforms are being reported from BJP-ruled states in the country,” an AIDWA note published on the Facebook wall of CPI(M)’s politburo member Subhashini Ali said.

Interference in educational institutions

Despite facing widespread criticisms from a large section of civil society and political organisations, BJP-led state governments have continued to intervene in the internal matters of educational institutions. Public intellectuals, in the recent past, have criticised the fact that the university authorities, instead of resisting government’s pressures and protecting university’s autonomy, have chosen to silently obey such politically-partisan orders.

Recently, the Central University of Jharkhand (CUJ) had suspended one of its faculty members Shreya Bhattacharji for inviting the JNU professor N.M. Panini for a seminar. It was alleged that the decision was taken on the order of the BJP-led Jharkhand government. The suspension was revoked after protests.

Similarly, screenings of the documentary film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai… were stopped by Delhi University and JNU on two different days after the BJP-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad raised objections to the event. This despite due permissions having been taken by the administration prior to the screenings.

The screening of the documentary Caste on the Menu Card was also cancelled at the last moment by JNU last year. 

In an unprecedented decision, the BJP government in Rajasthan unilaterally decided to remove references to Jawaharlal Nehru from its school text books. The increasing instances of such clampdown on critical thought under the BJP regime have been criticised by many intellectuals, democratic organisations and students, who see this trend as part of a larger Hindutva design.