Indian-origin lecturer Priyamvada Gopal in free speech row

Priyamvada Gopal is under attack for her her critiques of pro-colonialist perspectives

Updated - April 14, 2018 01:50 am IST

Published - April 13, 2018 10:01 pm IST - LONDON

Priyamvada Gopal. File

Priyamvada Gopal. File

Academics in Britain have rallied in support of an Indian-origin lecturer at Cambridge University, amid growing concerns over respect for academic freedom of speech, as the right-wing Daily Mail tabloid demanded she be sacked over her critiques of pro-colonialist perspectives.

In an article published earlier this week, the newspaper, which is known for its personal attacks on individuals lashed out at Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, a senior lecturer in the English department at Cambridge University, over her social media posts, and particular her criticism of Nigel Biggar, who is behind Ethics and Empire, a project which has faced criticism from academics for its “apologist” approach to colonialism. In the words of the Daily Mail, his perspective that “while imperialistic wars were waged and the occasional massacre was undoubtedly carried out, our forefathers also ended the Transatlantic slave trade and successfully exported democracy to distant corners of the globe,” meaning Britain shouldn’t “feel guilty about our colonial history”.

The article, going through a selection of Dr. Gopal’s tweets asked how Cambridge could let “this hate-filled don pour out her racist bile?” JNU-educated Dr. Gopal has taught at the university for 17 years.

Academics from across the country, swiftly spoke out in support of Dr. Gopal, including the prominent historian and author Mary Beard, who earlier this year was engaged in a Twitter debate with Dr. Gopal. “I’ve had my differences, sure. But to think those differences might be used to bolster what one suspects will be a thinly disguised racist hatchet job is an abuse of Dr Gopal,” she wrote. Over a hundred students at Cambridge decried the latest attempt by Britain’s “right wing media to curtain the freedom of expression of those who dare to question oppressive systems of thought.”

Members of Cambridge’s University and College Union signed a solidarity statement in support of Dr. Gopal condemning the newspaper’s attempt to call on the university to limit her freedom to express her opinion through personal social media accounts. “It is particularly irresponsible to apply the label ‘racist’ to a person of colour in a county where verbal and physical racist abuse is a daily reality for most people of colour.”

Historian Alex Von Tunzelmann, author of Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire called on Mr. Biggar to denounce the attempt to “harass and intimidate a fellow academic, even if he disagrees with her.”

The efforts to de-colonise curricula under way at academic institutions, and acknowledge the atrocities of empire across Britain has faced a backlash from Britain’s right wing media. Last year, the Daily Telegraph faced criticism after publishing an article on its front page with a picture Lola Olufemi, a black student union representative at Cambridge University, with false claims she was trying to force Cambridge to drop white authors, resulting in her facing a racist abuse online.

Earlier this month, a Daily Mail columnist also wrote a piece attacking Afua Hirsch, a critique of colonialism who has written on her own experiences of racism and its persistence in modern day Britain. “Couldn’t Afua Hirsch summon a smidgen of gratitude?” asked the author in a piece that also criticised Shashi Tharoor’s perspective on Empire.

“I think it’s part of a larger campaign against universities and against the decolonised movement — they are trying to bring two things together,” New Delhi-born Dr. Gopal told TheHindu , adding that she believed that the run-up to the Commonwealth summit in London, also played in to the attack on her.

“In the wake of Brexit, they’ve been pulling this line of the Commonwealth as the alternative to Europe so think any criticism of empire also be put in its place.” Dr. Gopal, who is currently working on a book on the role of British-based resistance and opposition to colonialism and Empire, noted that in addition to hate mail in the wake of the latest story, she had received much support too. “It’s exhausting but I feel it’s not just me facing this and there is something much bigger going on.”

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