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Pinjra Tod Activists' Talk on UAPA: IISc Students Divided Over Cancelled Event

Natasha and Devangana were arrested in May 2020 for their alleged role in Delhi riots and were charged under UAPA.

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“For me, the reason is clear. Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal have not yet been exonerated. They are out on bail. It has not been proven that the charges against them are false. What credibility do they have to hold a talk at a premier institution such as the Indian Institute of Science (IISc)?” said Vyom Sharma, a student of the Bengaluru institute.

An IISc student body called ‘Break The Silence’ had organised a talk by the Pinjra Tod activists at the institute's Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) on 28 June.

Narwal and Kalita were arrested in May 2020 for their alleged role in the northeast Delhi riots, and were charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967. They were let out on bail in June 2021. In June this year, they were invited by a section of IISc students for a public talk on ‘UAPA, Prisons and the Criminal Justice System,’ said a student organiser.

“On the evening of 27 June, i.e., a day before the event, we were informed that the registrar has cancelled the event, saying permission was not sought in advance. But we had taken the permission of the CCE chair approximately a week before and the department hall was also booked,” a student, who organised the event, told the The Quint on condition of anonymity.

The decision to cancel the event has faced condemnation from students, research scholars as well as faculty members from elite institutes across India such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) as well as abroad such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A letter with nearly 550 signatories was sent to professor Govindan Rangarajan – the director of IISc Bangalore – on 30 June, which said, "The actions of the administration reflect poorly on its commitment to upholding academic freedom and democratic values. They have damaged IISc’s reputation, both within the country and internationally.”

The Quint reached out to the students who organised the event and those who opposed it as well as the IISc registrar for a comment. The institute's response is awaited.

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Was Permission Sought?

The event was supposed to be held at three places in Bengaluru – International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), IISc, and a public hall named Ashirwad.

“The event was held without any problem at ICTS. Next it was supposed to be held at IISc, for which we had booked the CCE department hall. If we are holding an event in a department, you don’t need to seek permission from anybody other than the department chair, which we had done,” said Shairik Sengupta, a part of ‘Break The Silence’ and one of the organisers of the event.

The Quint reached out to the registrar’s office for a comment and is awaiting their response.

Even as the hall was booked and the posters were being circulated, the organisers were informed that the event had been called off as permission was not sought from the registrar.

Sengupta claimed that the registrar said that he had received complaints from various quarters over holding this event. "Even some faculty members, who were helping out in organising the event, didn't know what to do next. Since the event was cancelled last minute, in this situation, we thought of holding an informal interaction in the canteen. So that’s what we did. We circulated messages internally,” a student organiser told The Quint.  

The informal session was held at around 4.30 pm in the college canteen and was attended by a few students and some faculty members.

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 ‘Strongly Opposed This Event’

Vyom Sharma, who is a second-year student at the Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing (CPDM) at IISc, claimed to The Quint that "many students were furious that Kalita and Narwal were invited for a talk at the elite campus."

The student organisers alleged that an unsigned letter against the event was widely circulated on student groups on WhatsApp. The Quint has seen the purported letter, which is unsigned. The letter reads:

“She (Natasha) is part of an organisation called ‘Pinjra Tod,’ which leads several high-level conspiracies and treacherous acts in the past to attack the nation's integrity and thus attempts to compromise peace within the state. She has been an associate and supporter of ‘Umar Khalid’, who agitated a large section of the population to openly take arms in their hands to spill blood during anti-CAA protests, thereby fostering the militancy leading to compromise of law and order in the area.”

The letter warned of “unrest in the future if the talk is not cancelled” and stated that the IISc administration and the Students' Council will be held responsible for it.

On being asked about the letter, Sharma claimed that he is one of the students who wrote the letter. He also claimed that the letter was submitted to the registrar in person on 24 June.

The Quint reached out to the registrar’s office for a comment on this and is awaiting their response.

Sharma, who also heads the Entrepreneurship Cell on campus, said that it is required for students to get due permission from the registrar as well as the Public Relations Office (PRO) before inviting someone to hold a talk.   

“IISc is a premier institute. One has to score the top-15 or 20 ranks in GATE to be able to get admission here. What have Kalita and Narwal done except for holding protests? They could have invited credible lawyers and activists instead of people who want to further their political agenda,” Sharma remarked.

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‘Want More Such Events’

Vandana, a student of Interdisciplinary Centre for Water Research (ICWaR) at IISc, who attended the informal discussion that was finally held in the college canteen said, "It was a very interesting session. Devangana and Natasha shared their experiences and spoke about the people that they met in prison."

There were at least 30-40 students at the canteen and around seven faculty members at the interaction.

Vivek, another student from ICWaR, who attended the informal session, described the mood as very “IISc-like”. He said that everyone was very relaxed, listening intently and waiting patiently for their turn to talk.

“We discussed how the judicial system finds itself clogged and how technology can provide a solution to the issue,” he said.

Organisers of the event and students who attended the informal interaction claimed that security guards came to the canteen to disperse the gathering but pulled back after the faculty members sitting there intervened.

“Had the faculty members not been there, the situation could have turned ugly,” said Vandana.

Students who opposed the event were also present at the informal interaction and asked Kalita and Narwal some questions, said Vivek.

One among them was Vyom Sharma. He told The Quint, "I participated in the interaction and asked several questions but felt that I was snubbed and humiliated."

“The students who complained were also there and they were interacting too. This way, they got to know the other’s perspective. It was an eye-opening interaction where real people were having real conversations. I want more of such events to be hosted at IISc,” Vandana said.

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‘Important for IISc To Hear About Natasha and Devangana’s Experience’

A group of scientists and academicians wrote a letter to professor Govindan Rangarajan – the director of IISc Bangalore to express their “dismay at the action taken by IISc to stop a discussion on ‘UAPA, Prisons and the Criminal Justice System'.”

In the letter, a copy of which was accessed by The Quint, the academicians reiterated the observations of the Delhi High Court while releasing Kalita and Narwal on bail:

“In its anxiety to suppress dissent, the State has blurred the line between the constitutionally guaranteed ‘right to protest’ and ‘terrorist activity’. If such blurring gains traction, democracy would be in peril.”

Their bail was upheld by the Supreme Court on 2 May 2023.

Through the letter, students and faculty members have asserted that it was important for the members of the IISc to hear about Narwal and Kalita’s experience and to reflect on the laws that were used to incarcerate them.

“Conversely, if the institute is unwilling to permit peaceful discussions on constitutional questions, it is hard to see how it can foster a spirit of critical inquiry that is necessary for scientific work,” read the letter which has been signed by 545 students and faculty members belonging to elite educational institutions across India and the world, including IISc, IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Oxford University, and Harvard University, among others.

IISc has not yet responded to the letter.     

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