“What happened is extremely condemnable. How can communal harmony, peace, and justice be taboo subjects?” asked human rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad days after she was blocked from holding a talk at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.
Setalvad, who is the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace, an organisation formed to advocate for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots, was invited to deliver a talk on 'Communal Harmony and Justice' by IISc student collective ‘Break the Silence’ on 16 August, Wednesday.
However, she was not allowed entry on campus after Registrar Sridhar Warrier allegedly withdrew permission to hold the talk hours before the scheduled event, student coordinator Shairik Sengupta alleged.
“The guards at the college confirmed Teesta's identity using a picture they had of her on their phone. Then, they told her that she cannot enter the campus,” an IISc student coordinator told The Quint.
The Quint reached out to the Registrar, but is yet to receive a response. The article will be updated as and when he responds.
With the help of a few faculty members, the student collective then managed to hold an informal interaction with Setalvad in the college's canteen.
A similar episode had played out at the elite institute almost two months back when Pinjra Tod activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal were not allowed to hold a talk on ‘UAPA, Prisons and the Criminal Justice System’, saying permission was not sought in advance. Even then, the interaction was held in the canteen.
Why Was Teesta Setalvad's Talk Cancelled?
“After what had happened the last time when Natasha and Devangana were invited, we ensured we keep everyone in the know. We had written to the Registrar, heads of departments, and other faculty members on 9 August, exactly a week in advance about holding a talk by Teesta," student coordinator Sengupta told The Quint.
The students had sought permission to hold the event at the IISc’s Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) Hall on 16 August at 5 pm. “We received no response to the emails seeking permission despite repeatedly following up,” Sengupta claimed.
A faculty member, who The Quint spoke to, alleged the same.
Sengupta, a third-year student at IISc's Interdisciplinary Center for Water Research (ICWaR), said that he was called by the Registrar at around 2 pm on the day of the event and was told that the event cannot be held on campus.
“The Registrar told me that the Director is out of town so we cannot get permission for the event. He told me, ‘You cannot do it here, do it somewhere else’,” Sengupta alleged.
He added that no written communication to this effect has been received by the students.
A faculty member, who did not wish to be named, alleged the institute has adopted a “standard strategy’, wherein it neither gives nor denies permission for holding academic as well as non-academic events.
“This is not desirable. It does not bode well for the institute. It should have a policy on who is allowed to come and deliver lectures and talks.”Faculty member
‘Guards Bolted the Door with Chain and Lock’
“When I reached the main gate of the campus with a few students, the guards refused to let us in. They said that since the Registrar has called off the event, entry is not allowed,” Setalvad claimed.
The Quint has learnt that IISc allows students and faculty to bring in guests to the campus. However, Setalvad wasn't allowed to enter until a few faculty members intervened.
“When they blocked Teesta’s entry, I called a few of my teachers. Two of them came to the college gate and spoke to the guards. They took Teesta in their car as their guest,” Sengupta explained.
“We were surprised that a student was stopped from bringing a guest to the campus,” a faculty member told The Quint.
Sengupta further added that the interaction took place, albeit later than the scheduled time and in the canteen. It was attended by around 35 students and four-five faculty members – and “there was no disruption in the interaction, unlike the last time.”
Sengupta was referring to the alleged disruption caused by security guards when Devangana and Natasha were holding their talk at the canteen in June. Although the guards had then made attempts to disperse the gathering, they were stopped by the faculty members.
However, students and faculty members of other colleges in Bengaluru, who were invited for the event, were denied entry into the campus, Sengupta claimed. He added that the security guards bolted the main gate with a chain and a lock.
'How Can Communal Harmony be a Taboo Subject?'
“What happened is extremely unfortunate but I am very happy that the interaction went ahead in the canteen.”Teesta Setalvad to The Quint
Setalvad said she found the session to be “intense and interactive.”
“We had a discussion for over three hours. If the students did not have their dinner at 8 pm, the session would have gone on till 9 pm or 10 pm,” she said.
She added that the faculty and the students coming together and standing by the event is a “positive sign.”
An IISc student, who attended the session, told The Quint that Setalvad was “bombarded” with diverse questions, which she answered patiently.
A mathematics professor, who attended the informal interaction, said that there is “nothing controversial” about these topics.
When asked if the nature of the subject was a reason that the institute disallowed the talk, he said, “One of the things that scientific temper teaches is to question. IISc should have been more supportive.”
He added that as a member of the science fraternity, he feels “embarrassed” about the talk being disallowed on campus.