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“Genocide is genocide no matter where […] and to whom it happens”: Faculty and students condemn administration’s decision to ban Pro-Palestine stickers

On May 23, the Ashoka University administration informed the Student Government (AUSG) that students demonstrating any form of solidarity with Palestine during the Convocation ceremony would face consequences. As The Edict reported earlier, the AUSG communicated the details of this meeting with the administration to the student body via email. While the email did not elaborate on the nature of these consequences, it was sufficient to dissuade students from their plans of distributing Pro-Palestine stickers and informative pamphlets.

Nonetheless, a few students wore keffiyehs, scarves symbolic of the Palestinian liberation movement, as they walked to collect their degrees. Many faculty members, most of them unaware of the administration’s move until the morning of the convocation, also wore keffiyehs to express their solidarity.

Days after the Convocation, on May 29, the AUSG and the Democracy Collective released a joint statement condemning the administration’s crackdown on free student expression. The statement alleged that the administrators pressured the SG “to put out a call to cancel protests (wearing stickers) under threat of action towards individual SG members”.

The statement mentioned the administration’s response to the petition circulated by the AUSG in May. This petition had called for Ashoka University to cut ties with Tel Aviv University on the grounds of it enabling the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Ashoka University rejected the petition saying that cutting ties with Tel Aviv University was a “political stance” they were unwilling to take.

The student body, hence, sought to use the Convocation as a space to urge the administration to reconsider its decision. Reinforcing these sentiments, the stickers were to read ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Cut Ties with Tel Aviv University’. Banning the stickers too indicates that the university has “actively taken an anti-Palestine stance”, the SG-Democracy Collective statement emphasized.

Despite the administration curtailing the students’ freedom of expression, faculty wearing the keffiyeh to express solidarity with Palestinians was reassuring for graduating students. The Edict spoke to some of the faculty members who wore keffiyehs at the convocation. While wearing the keffiyeh meant something different to each faculty member, the desire to not remain silent about Israeli violence in Gaza connected their individual reasons.

In an interview with The Edict, Madhavi Menon, Professor of English, said that wearing the keffiyeh demonstrates solidarity with Gaza, where “every single university has been destroyed.” In an email correspondence with The Edict, Mandakini Dubey, Assistant Professor of English, wrote that wearing the Keffiyeh was “an act of love – one that speaks without strident words or divisive gestures”. It opened up the possibility to “express my anguish and solidarity with Palestinians, remember this tragic and brutal truth even in our moment of celebration”, said Professor Dubey. Aparna Vaidik, Professor of History, told The Edict that wearing the keffiyeh, for her, was a “conscionable act as a teacher and a historian”.

For Jonathan Gil Harris, Professor of English, wearing the keffiyeh was a personal decision. During World War Two, “I lost nearly my entire family due to the Nazi extermination of Jews,” Professor Harris said in an interview with The Edict. Last year, he also visited Tel Aviv University on a research fellowship. While he believes that universities are spaces of knowledge production and exchange, he was deeply uncomfortable at Tel Aviv University where he witnessed a “theatre of legitimation for Israeli violence against Palestine”. “As a Jew, I cannot remain silent,” he said. 

All the faculty members that The Edict reached out to said they would be opposed to any attempt by the university administration to crack down on students’ freedom of expression. Professor Menon said faculty were “filled with horror” when they got to know of the threats made by the administration. Calling the administration’s decision to ban Pro-Palestine stickers “bullying”, she pointed out that there is a difference between the university saying it will “not take a political stance” and not allowing any part of the university’s population to take a political stance.

Faculty members also questioned why the administration took such a stance when the Government of India has historically supported the Palestinian cause. Professor Dubey noted, “I grew up in an India where solidarity with Palestine was much more visible than it is now, but even now the Government of India still acknowledges our support of Palestine as 'an integral part of the nation's foreign policy.’” Professor Harris said that while the university administration needs to be wary in the country’s current political climate, he “feared they may be going overboard” as solidarity with Palestine “is nothing that the current government would object to.”

In the last year alone, The Government of India voted for a ceasefire in Gaza and supported the permanent membership of Palestine in the United Nations. Given such a stance, Professor Menon wondered why signs of pro-Palestine solidarity should be viewed with trepidation by the administration? After all, it cannot even be said that we were running afoul of “national sentiment.” “There seems to have been no grounds for shutting down this (Pro-Palestinian demonstration) other than a desire to say that there will be no dissent on campus, no matter what.”

Professor Harris deemed the administration’s move “disturbing acts from the university leadership”. While it is understandable for a university to be strategic in the expression of their politics, “does that mean that its constituent members must never say, think or do anything political?”, he questioned. “For me, genocide is genocide no matter where it happens and to whom it happens. I feel a life-long commitment to not stand in silence,” said Professor Harris.

Some graduating students The Edict spoke to also condemned the administration’s decision, calling it “dejecting, disappointing and demoralising”. For many of them, the administration's move is a continuation, if not the "nail in the coffin" to the crackdown on student dissent over the last few years. This refers to the timeline from the student protests during Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation to the Social Justice Forum’s recent demand for a caste census within the university.

Students fear that these cases of the administration curbing free speech are becoming caveats of its philosophy. Smita (name changed) said that this decision could be an attempt to “cleanse Ashoka’s image in making it seem like a largely apolitical space where students are not interested in anything but education”. They worry, however, that these actions can cultivate a space of apolitical privileged students “for whom protesting is a choice with very little stakes.” Anna (name changed) believed that this move goes against critical thinking and different ways of engaging with the world — two attributes Ashoka University attempts to instil through its pedagogy.

Aside from these concerns, some students felt that the administration does not recognise the gravity of allowing freedom of expression. “The sad part is that they claim it to be a political stance, but it is a humanitarian one and to not take a humanitarian stance is frankly shameful,” they said.

The faculty members were glad that they expressed the sentiments some students might have wanted to demonstrate at the convocation, even though they did not know that the students had been curtailed from doing so. One student brought attention to the worrisome “power imbalances between figures of authority and individual students” who are being threatened with “very consequential punishment.”

Professors amplified that, the university, at its very essence, is a political space and a good education a means to express freely and respectfully. Professor Dubey recalled the “recent events on campuses […] around the world” to explain the importance of protecting free expression within the university space. Professor Harris suggested that the convocation itself was indeed the apt place to express “quiet solidarity with Palestinian academics and students.” The convocation being an event that celebrates the “fact of a university […] made sense to mourn the loss of those universities,” Professor Menon iterated. 

Today, in Gaza, no school remains open; no university has survived bombings. As the death toll in Rafah rises by the day, Palestinians now mourn the loss of more than 36,000 lives.

Note: The Edict is reaching out to members of the administration to seek their comments on the issue. This story will be updated if we receive a response.

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