Friday, September 20, 2019 | ePaper

Right To Academic Freedom

And Ethical Practice In The Classroom Environment

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Bipasha  Neharkia Barua :
Professor of English Language and Literature Department of Chittagong University Masud Mahmud has been accused of discussing unrelated sexuality in the class. Following this, Bipasha Neharkia Barua, a student of comparative literature at Jadavpur University on behalf of the Katha Boli , spoke with Professor Masud Mahmud's alumnus Khan Tousif Osman, who is currently engaged in post-doctoral studies at Stellenbash University, South African Historical Trauma and Transformation Studies Center. [This the second part of the article.]  
Two recent developments have indeed been worrying. First, there has been a growing intolerance of dissenting voices in Bangladesh as a state. Being objective in your discourses, even in research, may cost you your career among other more sinister consequences. Secondly, the growth of religious radicalism in recent years has made it almost impossible to hold secular worldviews in public as such philosophies have caused many killings, especially in the counter-secularist wave post-2012 against the Shahbagh movement. The government also has been shrewdly trying to please the religious groups by co-opting their ideas into its policy as a ploy for polling politics. All this has created a general sense of claustrophobia in the academia.
Now tell us about "Students' in Support of Professor Masud Mahmood". What is it? Is it about a person or does it hold an ideological position around an issue?
No, it is definitely not about a person. Well, the movement began as a general outrage against the allegations of sexual harassment against Professor Masud Mahmood, a veteran professor of English with forty years of service under his belt. From there, it evolved into something larger. To make a general statement, "Students' in Support of Professor Masud Mahmood" is about whether or not we have academic freedom to discuss anything and everything as students, teachers and researchers in Bangladeshi universities.
The movement has a core group mainly consisting of academics and artists from around the world; it has its supporters with a considerable online and offline presence. We are reacting to the recent attempts of limiting academic discourses within universities. The allegations against Professor Masud Mahmood have to do with making students uncomfortable by discussions such as the sexual attraction between a mother and a child. Anyone who has a basic orientation with literary studies will understand that what students found so objectionable here was nothing other than a classroom conversation on "Oedipus complex". We had seen a similar incident in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka, where some students objected to the use of certain slides. These events have made us questions ourselves, "Do we need freedom in the academia?" We concluded that we did, so we are raising our voices to claim our right to academic freedom.
Do you know if the allegations against Professor Mahmood are true? If not, why are you protesting? Should the investigation not look into it?
Most definitely. Let me make something clear here once and for all: We are not against the investigation. Rather, we would like the investigation to go on. These are serious allegations, and I believe Professor Mahmood has also written on Facebook that the investigation is necessary to clear his name. However, we are of the opinion that the investigation has two aspects: criminal and ethical. The police are more than adequately equipped to look into the criminal dimension of it. However, as for the ethical practice in the classroom environment, we believe it is beyond the expertise of the police. Therefore, we have demanded that some eminent educationists be involved in the investigation process.
As long as the investigation is going on, we will never say that the allegations are completely false. Who are we to do that? Doubting the allegation is not a healthy practice, especially considering the fact that sexual harassment is rampant in Bangladeshi educational institutions. However, we have raised a few questions about the allegations too. For example, at first 22 students went to the acting VC of University of Science and Technology, Chittagong (USTC) with complaints that Professor Mahmood did not prepare them sufficiently for the exam and that he objected to their wearing hijab. We do not know why the acting VC did not start an investigation to look into these allegations, but he did not. Then students went to a Minister with their complaints, and, surprisingly, these allegations were of sexual harassment. What we do not understand is if Professor Mahmood has indeed assaulted them sexually, albeit with words, why they had to change the allegations. We have come to believe that the general outrage against sexual harassment in educational institutions after the Nusrat-incident may have influenced the students to change the allegations. If that is so, these allegations are mere allegations lacking any ground. Also, some students among the 22 later denied that they had signed in the complaint. Something definitely does not add up here. There are many other questions that we have about the issue, so we demand a neutral investigation involving educationists.
Can you tell me a little bit about the role of media that covered the news?
See, if you only talk about the media that covered the news, you will not be able to appreciate the situation comprehensibly. One needs to talk about the media that did not cover the news as well! The allegations being extremely sensitive made the mainstream media approach the Professor Masud Mahmood issue with unprecedented caution. The general feeling of the entire country about sexual harassment in educational institutions post-Nusrat incident is responsible for this to a great extent, I believe. As a result, we experienced a blackout in mainstream media. No one other than even published our statement where 500 artists, educationists, intellectuals and activists-including 300 university teachers-signed. Only the Prothom Alo, the New Age and a few other news organizations braved the sensitivity of the issue and did responsible journalism.
Meanwhile, the "gossip-column" media took up the issue with an interest in treating it with sensationalism and luridness. They did not care about the fundamental principles of journalism as they rarely included perspectives of all parties in their reports. These reports, as expected, went "viral" on the social media. What worried us the most is when some ultra-conservative and fundamentalism-friendly fake profiles started commenting on the issue. In the comment thread of each of their posts, there would invariably be a number of death threats. Many people began to fictionalize about Professor Mahmood and his other colleagues' past misdeeds, their closeness to the ruling party and even Indian intelligence agencies. This we recognized as an attempt to exploit a social ambience into being where any harm to Professor Mahmood's person would be interpreted as justified. We are fearful of a repetition of the incident of the killing of Dr. Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, who was a Professor of English at Rajshahi University and was murdered by extremists for his liberal views.
What are you thinking of doing next? What is in the future of "Students in Support of Professor Masud Mahmood"?
We have not yet come to a point in which we can talk about the future. Right now we are going to observe the situation closely even as we keep demanding the involvement of educationists in the investigation. We will decide what to do next once we see the reports of the investigation.
Even when the entire episode is over, I do not think we are going to disperse. We should remain united to protest against the assault on the next academic, artist or activist.
(Interview Conducted  by: Bipasha  Neharkia Barua, a student of comparative literature  at  Jadavpur University on behalf  of the talk, spoke with Professor Masud Mahmud's alumnus   Khan Tousif Osman)

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