Opinion guest column

Finding human territory in a fractured world

Censorship on mailing lists at MIT

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This email, offering support to Kashmiri students, was not permitted through moderation.
Courtesy of Aruna Sankaranarayanan
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Descriptions of Sangam's purpose, as per its website and constitution.
Courtesy of Aruna Sankaranarayanan

This time last year, I was a new graduate student, fresh off the boat, who started early in the summer. Being the first from my undergraduate alma mater in India to come to MIT, and with most of my cohort starting in September, I lacked easy access to a community here and was not having a particularly social summer.

It was during this time that I read about the revocation of Article 370 in the Indian constitution, which would enforce full control of the Indian government over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The act erased the quasi-independent status of Jammu and Kashmir by removing several protective clauses pertaining to the area from the Indian constitution. More frighteningly, the Indian government house-arrested several local leaders to prevent resistance, increased army presence in an already densely fortified area, and cut off internet and telecommunication access from the region of Kashmir. The lack of communication effectively subjugated more than nine million people by snipping their ties from the world. Most Indians, particularly majoritarian Hindus, rejoiced at the revocation of Article 370.

One of my thoughts last summer was, “Are there Kashmiri students at MIT? If yes, how are they coping?” If I couldn’t communicate with family back home in one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world, I would have crumbled. If I, with a family in a safe metropolis, lovely housemates, and some scattered family in the U.S., were feeling lonely and empty, I could not imagine what a Kashmiri student from back home was going through. I decided to write to Sangam, the largest community of Indian students at MIT, to reach out to Kashmiri students — it was a distant possibility that they would be on that list, but I wanted to try.

Surprisingly, my email was not published, and I did not receive an explanation about why it was censored. A week later, I reached out to the moderator of the mailing list seeking an explanation. Irrespective of where their support lay with respect to the revocation of Article 370, surely they would understand why it was imperative to reach out to Kashmiri students at MIT.

My email was deemed “softly political,” thereby disqualifying it from an “apolitical” forum that existed primarily to share events on campus and in Boston. Both Sangam’s charter and their website make no claim in this regard; in fact they emphasize the importance of building well-integrated communities of students from the subcontinent in a world far away from home. After attempting to convince the moderator, and through them the executive board of the group, over several emails, I was eventually forced to give up.

I try, one year later, to objectively explain why I was deeply struck by this incident. When I consider the reasons for such censorship, at best I can assume that the moderators operate on implicit guidelines that only allow for sharing event posts in order to avoid unnecessary traffic on the list, and at worst, assume that they are themselves majoritarian and see this as a scandalous view that must be discouraged. Is this the cost of empathy these days? 

Sangam has since published mails from MISTI and notable alumni on events that are not necessarily “apolitical” (and to their credit, not particularly majoritarian) about South Asians and the BLM movement, and casteism and majoritarianism in the sub-continent, and also published non-event posts, but it did not give me permission to publish information about a Harvard and MIT student-led protest (an event post) against a contentious bill passed by the Indian government or share a document to collect signatures of students and staff requesting the government to reconsider the act. Arbitrary censorship of emails (that are not spam, or fomenting extremism or hate) is in itself deeply problematic since it imposes the biases of the moderator and the executive committee, and sometimes majoritarian views, on the members of the group. If such censorship excludes certain sections of the community, it is inherently cruel, and depending on who is being excluded, undeniably political. Being apolitical is a luxury accorded to the privileged; usually an apolitical stance is simply an implicit expression of a majoritarian stance.

This is not a piece about Sangam — the group’s executive committee pours in a lot of unpaid labour for it to exist, thrive, and evolve, and I acknowledge that. I am simply most familiar with the workings of Sangam since it is my community; however, I am also aware that such occurrences happen in international groups across the campus. From informal conversations with non-Indian international students, I have heard similar stories of opinion suppression, majoritarian views, and exclusion based on academic pedigree in their communities at MIT. Since entry into institutions like MIT is a self-selecting system that commonly filters out those at the lower rungs of privilege, this selection also trickles down to student associations and their leaderships, leading to incidents like the ones I describe. Further, it is often the case that the leadership of international groups at universities of MIT’s stature is connected to the consulate, visiting political leaders, and other spheres of influence. What is “problematically political,” then, is also something that might adversely impact these relationships between the group and influential circles of the community. Such imposition, and selective bias, does not bode well in a polarized world, and most definitely not in a melting pot of countries and cultures like MIT.

Through this piece, I reach out to you, the wider MIT community, to urge you to enlarge your windows, expand your perception, and deliberate on that oft-forgotten world outside your own with the same rigour that you bring to science. It is only by understanding each other, particularly those of us who are not adequately represented, that we can truly calibrate the factors that make up a just and safe campus and world.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab.