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Defending Fr Frazer's right to criticise

Friday, 25 April 2014 - 6:05am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

I was a teacher in St Xavier's College, Mumbai, in 1999-2001, and much to the chagrin of many of us, the then principal defended his stand against sleeveless clothes and the increasingly strict surveillance of any college socials at night, on the grounds that as a "minority institution" they could not afford to anger the conservative powers-that-be. Fr Frazer was then my colleague in the Department of Sociology.

St Xavier's unfortunately still has a dress code but some things have certainly changed. Since Fr Frazer took over as principal of the college he has taken several principled stands. He vocally opposed the arbitrary dropping of Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey and the strong arm tactics of the Shiv Sena. He stood by human rights activist and former student of the college, Arun Ferreira, who was in jail on charges of being a Naxalite.

St Xavier's is a far from perfect institution; it wasn't perfect when I was a student, or a teacher there and it isn't perfect now. It was often deeply classist and like other educational institutions, arbitrary in the enforcement of rules. But one thing it always was and is: secular. It was secular when teachers formed groups to carry out relief work in the aftermath of the 1992-93 communal violence and it continues to be secular today.

Today, Fr Frazer has taken a stand against fascism and lopsided development. This is the kind of courageous and forthright college I imagined I was a student and teacher of. Yes, he wrote in his official capacity — and some people think its not quite de rigueur. Some have argued that this is an unacceptable abuse of authority as the head of an institution. Others see it as an impossibly grey and ambiguous area — the act of a Principal writing to students on the eve of an election.

But let's ask why the BJP is so incensed. Fr Frazer is the head of an institution that has an influential alumni. He is not saying anything other commentators have not already said in stronger words. But Fr Frazer is speaking to the "youth", the voters the BJP desperately want and imagine they will have. And more importantly, Fr Frazer is attacking not the BJP's communal agenda but rather its so-called development model, the Gujarat model.

Fr Frazer's email makes a case for why the Gujarat model does not offer any real development, and points to the state's poor performance on the Human Development Index. Further, he praises some of the schemes of the current government. He ends his email, by writing, "Choose well!" He names no political parties or candidates. He offers no threats. He simply offers his opinion.

This reasoned and reasonable letter is written in a time when hate speech and threats abound. The BJP's (over) reaction to the letter reflects their complete intolerance to dissent. Remember also that St Xavier's is a minority institution and doubly vulnerable in a possibly xenophobic environment, which makes Fr Frazer's willingness to stand up and be counted against fascism doubly courageous.

I have been asked how I would react if the Principal of another college wrote an email supporting the Gujarat model. I would write and speak against his/her view and register my dissent. But I would not for a moment argue against their right to speak and be heard. Let us not forget that all education is political.

Faced with threats, however, empty, of being thrown out of the country if we express dissent or criticism, there is every reason for us to speak and to defend the right of others to speak and write. The fabric of our democracy is at stake.

The writer is Assistant Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She is an alumna of St Xavier's College, Mumbai




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