It’s not often that I have to defend myself against personal attacks by fellow academics, overwhelmingly made behind my back, the existence of which has since been brought to my attention. Yet it has come to this point within a few days of my canvassing signatures for a letter addressed to PM Cameron for the so-called Academics for Peace group in Turkey and elsewhere, who asked for a peaceful solution to the Turkish state’s military campaign against civilians in the South East of Turkey, and are now exposed to reprisals.
In retraction of her earlier having distributed an email from me asking for supporting signatures to the letter intended for the PM Cameron, the protagonist among my detractors, Prof. Gurminder K. Bhambra of Warwick University, sent the following email on 30 March 2016 to the group CAMPAIGNFORTHEPUBLICUNIVERSITY-request@JISCMAIL.AC.UK:
It appears that Academics for Peace in Turkey have been infiltrated by supporters of the current repressive BJP regime in India who have no stake in academic freedom per se–quite to the contrary– but are keen to be associated with attacking Islamic governments and contexts selectively. One such would be the person who requested that this letter be posted to the CPU email list. The link below is to an article by him, published today, on the present fight for academic freedom in India, no less ferocious than the one taking place in Turkey, but where he thinks the repression of students and faculty is justified and the critics are simply Euro-American academics who have no right to speak out about such issues.
I, and others, have rescinded our signatures from the letter. Apologies for clogging up your inboxes, but I thought it important that this wider context be circulated given that I had forwarded the initial letter to the list.
Although she does not show the courtesy of mentioning my name, nor of writing to me first and asking what my position on the Turkey situation is and how I reconcile the alleged conflict with my stand on the situation in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), she sent the above email direct to that discussion group. I have written to the group’s list owners to explain what they will do about the breach of netiquette and the defamatory content of Prof. Bhambra’s email.
I now understand that many other emails are circulating in universities although I do not know their contents and what other defamatory material they contain. One result is that several persons who previously wanted their name to be added to the letter to PM Cameron withdrew. Few have provided an explanation why they withdrew although in most cases it is evident that Prof. Bhambra’s email had some effect on their decision to do so. No cognitively convincing rebuttal of my article has yet to be offered to me besides insinuations from others that it has overtones of Islamophobia, apologia for Hindu nationalism or the BJP’s suppression of academic freedoms. Prof. Bhambra’s direct email to me only describes the arguments in my article as “reprehensible”. Besides the distorted reading and misrepresentation of my article as contained her email (as above), no other explanation is coming forth either by her or those who followed her in withdrawing their signatures.
Although Prof. Bhambra mentions that my article in the Daily Pioneer at the link above was published on the date of her email, it was not. It was published on 24 February 2016. Be that as it may, Prof. Bhambra surmises that “Academics for Peace in Turkey have been infiltrated by supporters of the current repressive BJP regime in India”. By this she must mean that my presence among a whole group of 30 or so persons who came together because of concerns about academic freedoms in Turkey indicates that there is an infiltration by supporters of the BJP. This is obviously inflammatory and conspiratorial language. The association with the BJP gets further impetus with Prof. Bhambra’s conviction that it is a “repressive” regime. True it is that many academics and others in India and abroad have also been signing petitions, particularly during state election time, against what they see as intolerance in India. But then there are many who disagree with that diagnosis. On what grounds does Prof. Bhambra privilege one reading and offer that as a reason for her protest and begin to morally condemn those that don’t take her stand? Is she herself intolerant of intellectual diversity?
Prof. Bhambra goes on to note that the BJP’s supporters “are keen to be associated with attacking Islamic governments and contexts selectively”. In so doing, she levels a further charge I am not sure she can substantiate. Since I am assigned the role of exemplar of the entire cohort of the BJP’s supporters, who must amount to millions (170 million voted for the BJP in India during the 2014 general election; not being an Indian citizen this figure cannot include me), presumably, it is my actions or statements against “Islamic governments” that must be at issue. Let’s leave aside whether it is true if I am a BJP supporter. One implication of her indictment might be my reasons are to do with religion. In other words, if were a secular party at the helm of government in Turkey, I would not have raised my voice against the suppression of academic freedoms in Turkey. How does Prof. Bhambra know this? She certainly does not substantiate the charge.
A further implication could be that academic freedoms elsewhere are not a concern for me or other BJP supporters. How does Prof. Bhambra come to know this? How does Prof. Bhambra come to know of what I am keen and not keen on being associated with – does she have some insights into my mental states? To make matters worse her allegations enable the framing of the Academics for Peace support campaign as one designed to undermine Islamic governments in general and that of Turkey in particular. Not knowing what my own background is and what personal and professional links I have with Turkey, and why I should be specifically concerned about the situation there, on what basis does she paint a whole campaign with the broad brush of being against “Islamic governments”? What in any case would constitute an attack on “Islamic contexts”?
And what are “Islamic governments”? Is the Turkish government an “Islamic government”? Is ‘Islamic’ not a theological predicate and, if it is, who is she to evaluate when something is or is not Islamic? But being generous to a fault we can allow that perhaps she means “Muslim” or “Muslim-majority” or “governments dominated by Muslims”. Does Prof. Bhambra know of the extent of relations between the Modi government and many of the Muslim governments of the Middle East? Does she know that on return from his European/American trip PM Modi will be visiting Saudi Arabia? Does she know of the gas deal the Modi government has with the governments of Qatar and Iran? Is she aware that PM Modi featured on a Turkish postage stamp issued in 2015? In light of these factoids, the allegations Prof. Bhambra makes about the BJP government’s relations with Muslim governments appear rather empty and reveal her weak grasp of India and its relations with the Muslim world (in fact of India generally).
Prof. Bhambra also exposes herself to charges of shallowness by comparing and putting on the same level the situation of academic freedom in India as compared to Turkey. As I argue in the article of mine she has taken an issue with, the portrayal of the protests on the premises of the JNU campus have certainly been associated with threats to academic freedom. However, I also point out that they are not to do with that at all and that those supporting the protests by some students at the JNU are in danger of lending (wittingly or unwittingly) their support to terrorism. Many academics and within India and at JNU itself also take that position, as do many members of the public outraged that convicted terrorists who attacked the Indian parliament find support among students. They appear not to register on Prof. Bhambra’s radar. I stand by what I have written and it is up to my detractors to come up with better arguments against what I wrote and to desist from empty moralising, talking and defaming me behind my back. As I see it, the police and the JNU administration were correct in being concerned about support to jihadism. It is a variant of the same jihadism that the sister organisations of the PKK in Syria are fighting.
Prof. Bhambra’s irresponsible antics have resulted in a legitimate campaign to secure academic freedom in Turkey possibly being grounded (certainly harmed), and created an unnecessary waste of time and hassle for those other colleagues trying to run it. She has achieved this on the pretext of a dissimulation about academic freedom and repression in India. In some ways what is worse is the behaviour of the group who have accepted Prof. Bhambra’s empty narrative and insinuations, while choosing to misread my article. Or, if they do understand my article in its proper context, the correct move would be to challenge my version of events in India and the comparisons I make with the attitudes of academics to terrorism in the West. What they should not have done is to sully a legitimate campaign about the safety and welfare of our Turkish colleagues.
The Academics for Peace campaign is not in any case a concrete group. It consists of an anarchic set of academics that hold different opinions and they might agree and disagree on the limits of freedom of expression too. However, none of this should prevent them from signing a petition in support of the Academics for Peace in Turkey or helping to promote it. We do not have to share the same position, same thoughts, etc. but surely we have to respect each other’s views as long as expressed in peaceful form. It is difficult to understand how Prof. Bhambra defends the freedom of expression of students in India who support a convicted terrorist, while she does not see a problem preventing my freedom of expression by making wild accusations against me.
As if it could not get worse, it does. The lessons for academics (and students) to be learned from the actions of Prof. Bhambra is that one can be involved in a campaign only so long as one ‘agrees’ with others in that campaign on issues which are either unrelated or with which only a specious relation can be established. We (and our students) also learn that we should misread or misrepresent accounts we find objectionable and, instead of having a sober discussion about our differing positions, we should sully and hound out those who disagree with us. This is what has happened to me. The climate of political correctness in intellectual life that has taken root in the US is now affecting Europe as well as India, and the consequences of Prof. Bhambra’s actions are demonstrative of its destructive potential. In order to salvage what is left of the Academics for Peace campaign I have bowed out of it, although those who remain are still having to deal with the mess created by Prof. Bhambra and her insinuations. There may be a difference in degree of repressive means in what the Turkish government achieves in quashing academic freedoms, but there is little difference in principle with what Prof. Bhambra and her cohort have been trying to do.