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Varsity Beseiged

·       January 17, 2016 – Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad Central University, was found hanging from the ceiling of a hostel room after the university stopped his monthly stipend and closed in on him for raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association.

·       February 12, 2016 – At Jawaharlal Nehru University, Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, and Umar Khalid, a pro-Kashmir student activist, were attacked by ABVP members for allegedly raising anti-national slogans during a protest meeting held in memory of the parliament attack case convict Afzal Guru, hanged in 2013. They were arrested on sedition charges. During court proceedings, a mob in the garb of lawyers’ robes attacked Kumar and his supporters. A year on, the charges may have to be dropped as the police does not have any evidence of anti-national slogans being raised.

·       October 15, 2016 – Najeeb Ahmed, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student, went missing after an altercation with the right-wing ABVP on the previous day. Ahmed’s whereabouts are still unknown. His mother and sister were detained when they, along with other agitating students, marched to India Gate protesting police inaction.

·       February 21, 2017 – Right-wing ABVP protests the participation of JNU students Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid at “Cultures of Protest”, a two-day seminar organised by Ramjas College of University of Delhi. Under pressure, the college is forced to cancel invite to both Rashid and Khalid. Still insatiate, ABVP attacks a peaceful march carried out by students and teachers from campus to Maurice Nagar police station.

·       February 28, 2017 – Gurmehar Kaur, the daughter of a Kargil martyr, was forced to rescind support to the Save DU Campaign she started online after ABVP threatened her with rape and death.

Are these universities that we are talking about here or political battlegrounds with little or no tolerance about them? Each of the aforementioned cases reeks of hatred, hostility and bloodlust. They tell a tale of students who have been robbed of their agency to register dissent by politically sanctioned hooliganism. Vital campus dialogue is being snuffed out, and debates and discussions are being stifled.

There’s hardly a more contentious and complex issue surrounding the use of language, culture, symbol and discourse playing out on campuses across the nation these days. Freedom of speech and expression is dead, as is evident in the case of Ramjas College.

A literary seminar, organised by the English Department of the college, took on an ugly, political shape and soon became a topic of discussion across newsrooms and drawing rooms. Students were roughed up, women were pulled by their hair and dragged across the road, journalists were beaten up and their equipment damaged on purpose, and, worst of all, teachers were manhandled, including Prof Prasanta Chakravarty of Department of English, who was strangulated using his own muffler. Dr Chakravarty, who taught this writer for two years at the Department, has since been undergoing treatment and has been diagnosed with contusion of pleura and lungs, concealed spasm on the abdomen and spinal extensor muscles, and a couple of impaired ribs.

Since when did university turn into a hellhole, is the question plaguing everyone who has experienced the diverse and accommodating nature of varsities. In the light of recent events and the unrest that has followed in the wake of student protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University, often considered a tipping point, it has become imperative to examine what really a university means and what constitutes freedom of speech.

What is a university?

The ideal university is a community of thinkers, engaging in intellectual pursuits not for any external purpose, but as an end in itself. Universities make up a broad, liberal education, which teaches students to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse.

An egalitarian space that fosters free thought and expression, universities have for too long been the breeding ground of innovative thought, creativity and daring.

In fact, a university has two separate objects: First, to enable students to pursue some specialty in order to earn a livelihood. The second object goes beyond mere earning of livelihood and focuses on culture and acquisition of ideas, and general usefulness of the individual to the society at large.

“The aim of the university is a true enlargement of mind … the power of viewing many things at once,” wrote Cardinal John Henry Newman in his “The Idea of a University.”

However, in present times, taking into consideration the issues that our modern universities are grappling with, it is all but evident that the status of varsity as a free space open to thought and dialogue is being crushed.

And the mention of dialogue leads us to…

What is freedom of speech?

Loosely put, freedom of speech and expression means the right to express one’s opinions freely by word of mouth, writing, printing, pictures or any other mode. The constitutional significance of the freedom of speech is contained in the Preamble of Constitution and Article 19(1) (a) as the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.

So far, so good. However, the right to speech is inclusive of the freedom to offend, and this is where the issue gets murky and intractable, and different groups of students take grave offence at opinions that did not merit little or no umbrage at all.

When the twain meet…

There is so much national attention on the issue of free speech in campuses that students have reason to be frustrated. The students have been banging the bell for years on the fact that administrators have been getting away with abuses of power, but now there’s a new challenge at hand – rampant radicalisation of campuses.

Students, on the basis of their political beliefs and opinions, are being hounded and beaten black and blue by so-called patriots. What’s worse is much of this inanity is played out in the name of nationalism and conducted with full state support. In each of the instances listed in the beginning, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has invariably had a villainous role to play. But they have so far not been brought to task for their roguish behaviour.

The “activists”, who attacked Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid have still not been brought to books. For the scene of violence that played out in Ramjas College, there is not a single culprit. Worst of all, the “nationalist” who threatened Gurmehar Kaur with rape is roaming about scot-free.

This is where the extent of harm imposed by free speech can be adjudged – not in the opinions of these students, but in the reactions they extract from self-glorifying, anti-social patriots and nationalists.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-backed ABVP unleashed terror on the lawns of the Delhi University this past week, turning into reality the worst nightmares of many students gathered in a peaceful demonstration for what could rightly be called an academic need and right.

One of the videos captured live from the scene of protest showed a journalist crying her eyes out after she was hit badly and her camera was broken. Another showed students, most of them barely out of their teens, being roughed up without an iota of mercy.

And they say Umar Khalid, who was supposed to talk about his PhD thesis pertaining to the struggles of tribals, is dangerous.

Another victim of misplaced ideology was 20-year-old student of Lady Sri Ram College, Gurmehar Kaur, A screen grab of Gurmehar Kaur holding a placard that says, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war did”, was taken out of context to such extents that the who’s who of Twitterville (read Virender Sehwag, Randeep Hooda) trolled her with their Twitterverse and trivialized her father’s sacrifice for our nation. The screen grab was, in truth, part of a four-minute video wherein she called for peace between the warring nations of India and Pakistan. But, unfortunate as it is, she was forced to desert the cause she believes in and leave the city. So much for nationalism!

Who sets the limits on free speech? How free can be free speech? Is any speech free or offensive? Is ‘thinking’ the most dangerous activity on campus today? When will free speech finally earn the freedom it really deserves?

The worth of these questions is accentuated in this context because of the background against which it is being played out – that of universities.

Cardinal Newman’s articulation of the power of a university education to develop the individual in ways that far exceed the narrow limits of academic ability remains striking. Above all, Newman was arguing that the primary role of the university was to give students a “perfection of the intellect … the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things” that allows the individual to make good judgements.

That is to say, the university is a site to discuss and debate not just between like-minded people but also between warring factions. The way ahead can be forged only through dialogue and the understanding that the two sides may not agree with each other, but they will defend to death each other’s right to express themselves.

(The writer is an alumna of the Delhi University.)

(Published on 06th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 10)#