• Don’t Mention Kashmir, or How to Shut Academics Up

    Priyamvada Gopal

    February 18, 2017

    Image courtesy: http://fodi.sydneyoperahouse.com/

    Some weeks ago, I got a request via the University of Cambridge’s administrative offices that was simple enough:

    The brief and background is as follows: we’re asking academics and alumni with particular experience and expertise around India to answer the question: ‘My wish for the next 50 years of Indian independence is…’ Of course, it is entirely up to you how you choose to answer the question – it may feed into your particular area of expertise, or you may have other thoughts related to personal experience, or current events.

    This would be for the alumni magazine, CAM, and it would be commemorating 70 years of independence from British rule.

    A few weeks later, after some prodding and reminders, I sent in the following copy:

    As a scholar who studies empire and the postcolonial world, ‘my wish for the next 50 years of Indian independence is…’ a full and real decolonization of India, one which has yet to take place. I would like to see a country that truly breaks from the legacies and toxic afterlife of empire, and not still deploying economic systems, political institutions and repressive tactics inherited from the British empire. I would like to see what many who fought for independence did aspire to but were not able to see fulfilled: a community where malnourishment and food deprivation are a distant memory; where corporations are not allowed to plunder the environment and natural resources at the expense of adivasi and other communities; where the democratic aspirations of the people of Kashmir are honoured as was once promised, where profit is not the driving force of the economy with a wide gap between rich and poor, where democracy does not mean the sway of the majority religious community and where caste does not continue to form the basis for inequities and violence. In short, I would like to see an India that truly breaks from the hierarchies of power, wealth and violence that the imperial era consolidated and fantastical though it may sound, a community that is truly diverse in equality, committed to economic justice, and deeply democratic in ways that empower ordinary people not corporations and majority communities.

    This was received with thanks and nothing more was heard for a while. I was then sent revised and edited copy to clear. It is enclosed below, along with the accompanying email:

    Dear Dr Gopal,

    Thanks you so much for your contribution towards our My Wish for India feature – we are most grateful. I have enclosed our edited version, below my signature. If you could let me know any corrections or clarifications by close of play this coming Friday, that would be much appreciated.

    Dr Priyamvada Gopal

    Faculty of English

    My wish is for a full and real decolonisation of India: a country that truly breaks from the legacies and toxic afterlife of empire, not still deploying economic systems, political institutions and repressive tactics inherited from the British empire. I would like what many who fought for independence aspired to but were not able to see fulfilled: a community where malnourishment and food deprivation are a distant memory, where corporations are not allowed to plunder the environment and natural resources at the expense of the indigenous people; where the democratic aspirations of the Kashmiri people are honoured as was once promised, and where profit is not the driving force of the economy with a wide gap between rich and poor. Lastly, I’d like to see an India where democracy does not mean the sway of the majority religious community and where caste no longer forms the basis for inequities and violence.

    I didn’t see any great problems here; it had clearly been edited for space. That, I thought, would be the end of the matter. One more thing cleared off my desk.

    A few days passed. Then suddenly, I received this next email and accompanying further edit (unusual by their own admission):

    Dear Dr Gopal

    Thank you very much for taking the time to do this for CAM – it is very much appreciated. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve edited a bit more on page in order to make everything fit. The copy now reads:

    Dr Priyamvada Gopal

    Faculty of English

    My wish is for a full and real decolonisation of India: a country that truly breaks from the legacies and toxic afterlife of empire. I would like what many who fought for independence aspired to but were not able to see fulfilled: a community where malnourishment and food deprivation are a distant memory, where corporations are not allowed to plunder the environment and natural resources at the expense of the indigenous people; and where profit is not the driving force of the economy with a wide gap between rich and poor. Lastly, I’d like to see an India where democracy does not mean the sway of the majority religious community and where caste no longer forms the basis for inequities and violence.

    I trust this is fine, but if you spot any error, please do let me know urgently.

    Thank you very much!

    Spot the difference? Two (directly related) phrases have been removed.

    1. not still deploying economic systems, political institutions and repressive tactics inherited from the British empire

    2. where the democratic aspirations of the Kashmiri people are honoured as was once promise

    It took me, naturally, a nanosecond to spot this but I was particularly shocked by the removal of the latter. I wrote to the editor (who had personally written to me, itself an unusual move, rather than the journalist who was putting the feature together and with whom I had been in contact with regard to edits.) I could not, I said, permit the piece as it stood to be published, depoliticised beyond recognition and with the reference to Kashmir blatantly removed. I did not hear back for several hours. There was no denial that that removal had been done and for that reason. I then contacted the University’s Development and Alumni Relations Office (CUDAR). They told me via email that they knew what I was contacting them about and would respond very soon. The editor also wrote back as follows, neither, once again, denying that the offending phrases had been removed for political reasons nor offering to reinstate it at the expense, say, of another cut (if the issue had really been one of ‘space’):

    Dear Priyamvada,

    I am sorry for the delay in my response – I am out of the office this afternoon and so have only just seen your emails. Please be assured that we will not print the piece.
    I am sharing the content of your emails with the University Office of External Affairs and Communications, who will be able to follow up further.

    In the meantime, I sent this same office an additional query:

    At any rate, it would be helpful for me to know — since, to my relief and gratitude, we are not persisting with the insulting fiction of fitting the paragraph to space — which of the following the University officially has a problem with:

    Democratic Aspirations
    the Kashmiri People
    The Democratic Aspirations of the Kashmiri People

    best wishes,
    Priya

    There was no reply to this. Finally, 48 hours after I first contacted them — at which point they could have simply said there’d be no problem with putting the reference to Kashmir back in — I received this:

    We simply do not agree with you that this is a case of censorship. Aside from the disagreement on CAM, the University is not preventing you from publishing your views on any number of fora, as you have previously done.

    This is interesting, of course, because it admits two things:

    1. There was a disagreement. (When I asked them about it, one of the team leaders advised the others, in an email accidentally copied to me, that they should ‘not engage in debate [with her]’, but that they should say that the disagreement was about my decision to withdraw, something they never questioned — it could have been easily reversed had they agreed to put the missing phrase back in and cut something else instead.

    2. They are, implicitly, ‘preventing’ me from publishing my views on their forum but not on other ‘fora’.

    There is much to say, but I will let you read this for yourself and come to your own conclusions. This much we know: the University of Cambridge, which considers itself a bastion of academic freedom, will not, in its own media, allow the word ‘Kashmir’ to be mentioned even in the most anodyne of ways, for fear of upsetting the Indian state and rich Indian donors.

    As for me, I am not surprised, but I can’t help wondering why, not too long ago, I was wheeled out at the same office’s request to speak at a public event entitled Question Everything and encouraged, through their good offices and with their blessing, to publish my remarks, entitled ‘How Free Are We, Really?’ (They are available here.)

    Question everything. Except, it would seem, one of the world’s longest-running conflicts in the world’s most heavily militarised zone — a conflict that is the source of disagreement and discussion in India itself. Oh, and decisions made by acquiescent overpaid apparatchiks working in public relations and so-called ‘content laboratories’.

    Priyamvada Gopal is a University Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures at the University of Cambridge.

    The article first appeared in Wildcat DispatchesRepublished here with permission from the author.

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