Seminar on Democratic Rights Disrupted After Trust Withdraws Permission

The Malaviya Memorial Trust said the person who booked their auditorium “did not disclose the ideology and ethos of the organisation and the nature of the seminar."

New Delhi: In a new case of an institution bowing to political pressure, the Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviya Memorial Trust, created in memory of the pre-independence nationalist leader and educationist, shut down a seminar on democratic rights. 

The Trust had given permission to organisers to use the premises of the Malaviya Smriti Bhawan, which it owns, to hold a seminar titled ‘National Convention in Defence of Democratic Rights’ on August 31 and September 1. But on Sunday – the second day of the seminar – the organisers were told that permission was cancelled. 

The notice said that the person who came to book the Trust’s auditorium for the seminar “did not disclose the ideology and ethos of the organisation and the nature of the seminar”.

Among many other such examples of capitulation under pressure, the Press Club of India recently refused to allow a fact-finding committee to show footage from Jammu and Kashmir in the aftermath of the clampdown on the state. The New Delhi-based Indian Women’s Press Corps also denied permission to the Bhim Army, a Dalit group, to hold a press meet.  

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In this instance, the Trust surprisingly felt that defending democratic rights was against Malaviya’s ideology and “national interest”. The notice said that when the executive members of the Trust met for a routine Sunday meeting, they saw the convention being held in the premises and objected to it. “These members object that the premises should not be available for the organisation against our ideology and ethos and national interest,” the Trust said while cancelling the event. 

It also asked the organisers to immediately stop the programme. 

The seminar was organised by the Campaign to Uphold Right to Dissent, Defend and Organise, a collective of multiple civil society groups. 

Speaking to The Wire, Kavita Krishnan, one of the persons who spearheaded the event, said, “The Campaign to Uphold right to Dissent, Defend and Organise has been holding meetings over the past several months to organise different programmes and events around democratic rights.”

She added that the campaign has been trying to build opinion on what it perceived to be an escalating attack on democratic rights through strengthening of laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and increasing repression of minorities, Adivasis, Dalits and human rights defenders, and leaders of various social movements. 

She said that the sessions on the first day went about perfectly fine but towards the end of the day, some management officials of the Trust alerted them that they were under pressure for permitting the event at the premises. “They specifically said the title ‘in defence of democratic rights’ was a problem,” Krishnan said. 

Sunday morning, after the Trust handed over the cancellation letter to the organisers, some people gathered outside the auditorium and shouted slogans against the event. When policemen arrived, they left, Krishnan said. 

“We didn’t manage to hold our plenary session. It is appalling that leading rights defenders can’t hold a meeting in Delhi without such obstruction.”

The line-up at the conference was all prominent civil liberties and social activists. Economist Jean Dreze, documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, Communist Party of India leader Annie Raja, journalist and writer Sanjay Hazarika, lawyers Nitya Ramakrishnan and Prashant Bhushan, activist Soni Sori, Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumde and student activist Shehla Rashid all spoke before the seminar was cancelled. 

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The topics included excessive use of “draconian laws” in India, undermining the constitution by acts such as diluting Article 370, politicisation of security, curbs on democratic freedoms, and suppression of dissent. 

It is ironic that Madan Mohan Malaviya spent the majority of his political life – first as a Congress moderate and then as a leader of the Congress Nationalist Party – fighting the British for such rights for Indian citizens.  

Banaras Hindu University, which he founded in 1916, advocated strongly that education was critical for national awakening and informed decision-making. 

It was Malaviya who mounted a militant campaign against the British government’s move to curb press freedom through the draconian Press Act and Newspaper Act in 1908. He organised campaigns and conferences about the issue across north India. He later started an English newspaper, the Leader, and one in Hindi, Maryada, to build opinion about democratic rights and freedom of speech. 

In independent India, members of the Trust built on Malaviya’s name may have forgotten the leader’s history, and are content appeasing the government of the day.