IIT Bombay Cancels Conference on Left Movement After 'Call From Senior Official' in Edu Ministry

The decision was announced past midnight, just a day before the scheduled event. In the email, organisers noted they were 'forced' to cancel it.

Mumbai: In a strange turn of events, the management of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has suddenly cancelled a two-day conference organised to discuss the ‘Cultures of the Political Left in Modern India’.

The decision – announced past midnight, just a day before the scheduled event – left most participants both confused and frustrated.

While the official announcement did not give any reason for this sudden decision, sources in IIT Bombay have confirmed that the director took the decision following a call from a “senior bureaucrat” from the Ministry of Education asking to cancel the conference.

The two-day conference, as mentioned on the official website, is funded by the ‘Institute of Eminence Cell, Government of India’.

According to many participants, including PhD scholars and senior teaching faculty from many universities across India and some overseas, the decision was announced at around 1 am on December 11. The conference was scheduled to start on December 12.

“We had already boarded a train from Delhi and covered half the distance. We suddenly got a call from one of the organisers informing us about the decision. They didn’t know what led to the sudden cancellation either,” one participant told The Wire.

A poster on the conference’s cancellation put up by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle. Photo: By arrangement.

In all, over 150 papers were submitted following a call issued at the beginning of November. Of them, 15 papers were selected, a participant confirmed. One speaker, Juned Shaikh, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was to participate in the conference online. These conferences and paper presentations, while leading to important discussions, are also crucial for career furtherance, one PhD scholar from a central university said.

The papers submitted cover a range of topics. To mention a few examples, Devesh Khatarker, a PhD scholar in sociology at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at IIT-B, was to present his paper on ‘The Role of The Din Bandhu (a newspaper run by the Satyashodhak movement led by Jotiba Phule) during the Sweepers’ Strikes of 1889 Bombay’.

Another paper ‘Tracing the dialogue between Marxism-Leninism and folk culture: Emergence of Jan Sanskriti Manch as a cultural movement’ by two PhD scholars Mohammed Kamran Siddiqui and Shivam Mogha was to be presented at the conference.

Posters advertising the conference across IIT Bombay now have a piece of paper with the word ‘cancelled’ on it pasted across. Photo: By arrangement.

A senior scholar participating in the conference told The Wire that some papers were critical of the Left movement too. “That’s what we do as scholars. We are not party cardholders and do not aim to be either,” one academic, who would have participated in the conference, told The Wire.

The conference, organised by Paulomi Chakraborty, Ratheesh Radhakrishnan and Sharmistha Saha, all teachers at IIT-B, aimed to “bring together scholars engaged in identifying and examining the histories of the cultural practices of the political Left in modern India”.

The Wire reached out to the organisers for their comments but is yet to hear from them. The article will be updated as soon as they respond.

In an email, however, sent out by the organisers to the participants, they state: “Following the directive from the IIT Bombay director that the conference on the ‘Cultures of the Political Left in Modern India’ cannot be held due to unavoidable circumstances, we are forced to cancel the event.” While the reason is not clear in the email, the organisers have specified that they were “forced” to cancel the event. 

Meanwhile, to a questionnaire sent by The Wire, seeking a response to the sudden decision of cancellation, IIT-B director Subhasis Chaudhuri said, “Since it was not under any of the six verticals under the Institute of Eminence, we were informed it could not be supported under that budget.” He, however, did not elaborate why this decision was taken just a day before the event and if the budget was not sanctioned, how had the institute taken the decision to go ahead with the conference in the first place.

The Institutes of Eminence was set up as a recognition scheme to empower higher education institutes in India by the University Grants Commission in 2017. The IoEs selected from public sector are given a grant of Rs 1,000 crore by the government for five years.

Just a few hours before the director announced the cancellation of the conference, Legal Rights Observatory (LRO), a right-wing legal collective had raised objections over the “motive” behind organising the event.

“IITs are meant for technological education/research; diverting funds to further obsolete Leftist/ Communist ideologies is a criminal act,” the organisation claimed on its official Twitter handle.

Education minister Dharmendra Pradhan, the Union education ministry’s official handle, and Union home minister Amit Shah were tagged in the tweet. LRO sought “severe punishment” for organising the conference.

Students at IITB say this is not the first time that a faculty-organised event has run into trouble. In the wake of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and two other imminent countrywide exercises, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR), a conference discussing the law had been organised on campus. The faculty members were allegedly asked to cancel the conference. The organising team and the administration allegedly reached a middle ground after the mention of NRC was removed from the conference’s topic.

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Similarly, student-organised events too have been canceled many times in the past years, more particularly after 2014.

In 2015, a lecture titled ‘Kashmir: The Blind Side of Indian Nationalism’ was denied permission by the IIT-B administration. Westminster university professor Dibyesh Anand was scheduled to speak at the event.

In 2019, another event organised by students to discuss the abrogation of Article 370 was also denied permission. The students, however, had gone ahead with organising the talk inside the institute’s park instead of the scheduled venue.