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What Went Wrong at King’s College?

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“Kashmir: Through My Lens” Event: A potentially exciting and unifying event, which should have led to respect, harmony and mutual understanding between two communities, became the catalyst of fear-mongering among curious members of the public. Can academic institutions really allow presidents of students’ unions to be biased and partial to religious targeting? Who can we hold accountable for powerful panellists exerting influence over event organisers to bow to their conniving demands? Should we be really opening space for family members of society committees to bully innocent audience members?….writes Amar Trivedi

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Academic institutions in Britain are the pride of our education system; the prestigious Kings College London is no different, with leaders such as former Archbishop of South Africa and Nobel Peace laureate, The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, graduating from this university. It takes great care to be impartial to all, encourage valuable discourse, debates and inquiries into a multiplicity of issues. Our educational roots lay in this precise ideology: to allow freedom of expression, open, healthy debate and respect for those around us. In universities today, one can find an array of subjects, and academic ability being pushed to the extreme. Unfortunately, there seems to be another extreme that is resurfacing in our institutions; one of radicalisation.

“Kashmir: Through My Lens” at King’s College London was set to be a panel debate from the perspectives of six expert key witnesses from different cultural backgrounds. The state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, one that has been facing the brunt of 70 years of conflict. Terrorist attacks in India have become all too common from across the Line of Control (LoC) under the guise of “freedom for Kashmir”, resulting in countless deaths of civilians and patrolling soldiers along the LoC; hence the emotional investment of many Indians and Pakistanis around the world.

Thus the debate on 28 October 2017 was anticipated to provide a fruitful and progressive academic insight into the objective facts of the conflict, not a debate on religion, and certainly not a platform for religious hatred and targeting. However, deviating from the topic of Kashmir entirely, one panellist took to the podium to contaminate the academic value of the space with bias and unsupported accusations of fundamentalism in India.

The panellist was fully aware of the Kashmiri Pandits sitting in the audience and his aggressive and insensitive nature towards such a sensitive and contemporary issue showed his complete disregard for those whom this ongoing conflict affects daily. He spoke mockingly of the mass exodus and ethnic cleansing from the Kashmiri valley in 1990 after brutal rapes, murders and looting of their homes, making them relive every moment of their nightmare. The pretence of speaking up for the same Kashmiri Pandits, who he minutes back openly abused, would be laughable if it was not so unnerving. He quite evidently exploited this stage as an opportunity to spew hate-filled and torturous sentiments to a curious and concerned audience.

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Gaurav Arya with Lakshmi Kaul. Vinod Tikoo, Sonal Sher and Sweta Raghavan

The Safe Space Martial and President of the King’s College London Students Union did little to calm the agitated audience, and, in fact, encouraged the panellist to continue with his hate-fuelled rhetoric. Should these people not be held accountable for allowing such behaviour in a prestigious academic institution, or anywhere for that matter? It took the quick initiative of some distressed members of the audience and the maturity of two other panellists, ex-Indian Army officer, Major Gaurav Arya, and Junaid Qureshi, to calm the audience and request the speaker to bring his speech to a close.

Despite a media ban, it was clear that Pakistan-owned media companies had found a way in, and the same panellist was now playing the victim in front of the camera and further inducing panic among the attendees after the event had come to a close. The plan was clear and result was exponential, leaving innocent members of the public frightened, with many hastily exiting the building.

Radicalisation is a fast growing problem. It was only in 2015 that UK’s then Prime Minister David Cameron said: “All public institutions have a role to play in rooting out and challenging extremism. It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom, it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish… Schools, universities and colleges more than anywhere else have a duty to protect impressionable young minds and that our young people are given every opportunity to reach their potential.”

A potentially exciting and unifying event, which should have led to respect, harmony and mutual understanding between two communities, became the catalyst of fear-mongering among curious members of the public. Can academic institutions really allow presidents of students’ unions to be biased and partial to religious targeting? Who can we hold accountable for powerful panellists exerting influence over event organisers to bow to their conniving demands? Should we be really opening space for family members of society committees to bully innocent audience members?

Let us protect our most peaceful and impressionable sections of society from bullying and radicalisation. We must take action to stop ignorance being promoted in the name of academic discourse. We can stomp out religious radicalisation and restore values of freedom and respect in our education system.

(This article was first published in The Sunday Guardian. Mr Amar Trivedi is an architectural designer in England. He enjoys philosophy, politics, sport, art and yoga)