Ashley Tellis is no stranger to censorship. The media, for obvious reasons is pedestaling the issue of Ashley Tellis’s firing from Saint Joseph’s College, Bangalore, solely on gay rights. I think it would be myopic to categorize it in such binary terms, without any regard to our systemic failure. Without questioning how far institutions will go in order to censor critical thought and non-violent dissent.
As we surge ahead into an increasingly conservative era, we have been pushed to accept a new reality. Now, freedom of speech is conditional, heterodoxy is sin, and hagiography trumps nuanced facts.
This week we’ve lost another teacher who was fighting our insipid, thought-challenged education system from the inside-out. The reason? Tellis was told that his opinions were ‘very much disturbing the students’. A press release offered by the college included ‘While we appreciated his intellectual abilities and his scholarship, we were pained to note that he seemed to pay no heed to the sensitivities of undergraduate students from heterogeneous backgrounds.’
And here lies the contradiction, the fact that intellectual prowess and academic backing, the very credentials education institutes value (at least on paper), usually result in questioning the status quo. Question too much and power structures start to get nervous.
Tellis was brought up in Mumabi and has faced harassment over his sexuality right from his school days. He received a Nehru Cambridge Scholarship where he did his PhD. He’s taught at various colleges including St Stephen’s, Miranda House, Kiroimal College, TISS and St. Josephs.
I asked him where he thought censorship in institutions was stemming from. His response confronts a familiar irony.
“Institutionalized censorship is coming from an insecure authoritarian structure, which could be the Catholic Church or the BJP government. Indeed, the conjunction between the Catholics running these institutions and the BJP and ABVP is cringingly ironic, given that the former are hated by the latter. The ABVP would love all the rules that St. Joseph's has imposed on its students; Christ himself would have hated them. Heteronormativity is one of the motors of this insecurity which is why women and movements like Pinjra Tod are so hated and women are controlled even more than the boys in these colleges and hostels.”
Combine this insecurity with what society thinks education and its end results ought to be and we become a nation celebrating new cogs in the wheel.
“Crony capitalism is the other motor, where students are trained to be unquestioning of the system of gross inequality we live in. The Catholics’ claim is founded on social justice yet their commitment to it dwindles by the day. Their demands of money from students increases by the day. Buildings mushroom on their campuses. The days of commitment to quality education for the poor, if they ever existed, certainly are long gone.”
Today, colleges like St Josephs are fast adopting new free-style teaching approaches, where educators are encouraged to create lesson plans independently. But this seems more like a half-hearted attempt to placate the new global acceptance that a one-textbook approach is not savvy enough. Global savviness aside, the bottom- line for education institutions are a willingness to be appraised solely how many premiere job placements their graduates get.
Tellis thinks that the progressiveness that Saint Joseph's English Department held should be credited to the creative, forward-thinking and extraordinary minds like Cheriyan Alexander, Barbara Naidu, Etienne Rassendren and Arul Mani. Today this valuable space of open, inquisitive minds is on the verge of extinction.
Tellis taught English Literature at St Josephs. His lessons were based off books, essays, and excerpts to provoke critical thinking and the art of healthy debate. His list of books and excerpts he worked with in class was diverse and exhaustive.
‘I used all sorts of wonderful material in my classes from George Monbiot's columns in The Guardian, to Temsula Ao's wonderful stories about the Naga movement. We covered Mizo poet Mona Zote's extraordinary poetry, interviews with Felix Padel and Jean Dreze on tribal rights and demonetisation respectively. Mina Loy's 'Feminist Manifesto' Siddharta Mukherjee's The Gene, Mahasweta Devi's 'Dopdi Kishwar Naheed's, 'We Sinful Women’ a wonderful Pakistani feminist poem. Shorts like The Adivasi Will Not Dance, and graphic journalism like ‘Kushinagar’ by Joe Sacco.
Today, Tellis believes if you teach religious texts as historical and textual, then it’s automatically blasphemous to the BJP and the Catholic Church. And the issue that unites radicals from all religious factions is homosexuality.
Ashley Tellis’s stance reminds me of Ramchandra Guha’s lament. The right-leaning in our country suffer from an intellectual vacuum. Where the naysayers and censors themselves haven’t read a variety of texts and consequently suffer from a gross inability to debate with diverse historical context. If our education filter is controlled by people who have no regard for marginalized voices and put negligible value on being able to argue from an alien point of view, then how will our nation have any chance of accessing progressive education?
Tellis struggles with this truth: we don’t want thinking students; we want to produce generations of cogs in the wheel, victims of thought control. But he is hopeful because of the students (both his own and others who have never been taught by him) who have shown unabashed solidarity through notes, public online post, and, personal messages.
‘There's hope yet for us all and I will not give up this fight. The issues cannot be swept under the carpet any more. They are out in the open for all of us to see. We have to keep up this fight and save education if we want to save the world and build any kind of meaningful future.’ Tellis says. I can’t help but remain hopeful as well. As many doors attempt to shut our minds, I realize a few of us rising to open up new doors will start to let the air in again.
Rheea Mukherjee is a Bangalore-based writer. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in several publications including Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Out of Print, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Bengal Lights, among others. Her first book, Transit for Beginners, was published by Kitaab in 2016. Her previous fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart and was a semi-finalist for the Black Lawrence Press award. She co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore, India.