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India: The Gagging of Free Speech

Tuesday 28 February 2017, by siawi3


Ramjas Clashes: The Attack on The Idea of a University continues

The Quint 28 February 2017
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Amartya Sen recently during his book launch Collective Choice and Social Wefare very aptly pointed out, “India does not have world class universities and the climate of fear (in Indian universities) is detrimental to Indian democracy.”

Sen’s statement comes at a time when freedom of speech and expression in Indian universities is under threat. Coincidently, Noble Laureate Sen spoke about universities on the day when Ramjas College, a University of Delhi college witnessed violent protest where students, teachers and journalists were badly beaten and harassed.

What Really Happened?

A background to the recent uproar is that Department of English, Ramjas College, organised a literary event named ‘Cultures of Protest’. Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, both JNU students, were invited as the guest speakers. The basis of their invitation was the academic credentials they hold. Umar was to address the session named “Unveiling the State: Regions in Conflict – the war in Adivasi areas”, based on his research in Bastar.

Both the speakers were not allowed to speak. ABVP disrupted the program by pelting stones and bricks at the venue. They put forward the claim that Umar Khalid was one of those involved in anti-India sloganeering in the event organized at JNU, now famously known as the ‘9 February 2016, JNU incident’. ABVP also claimed that students were being misguided by such seminars, and that the professors of DU and JNU together, were trying to put forward an agenda against the nation. According to them, the professors were also enacting a policy of ‘divide and rule’ by inviting an ‘anti-nationalist’ like Umar Khalid on campus.

Also read: Ramjas Clashes: In the Name of Nationalism, Was Asked to Go to Pak
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ABVP members protesting against the participation of JNU student Umar Khalid at a college seminar (Photo: PTI)

The Gagging of Free Speech

Disruptions to seminars and attacking speakers or organizers is gradually becoming the new ‘culture of protest’, that we are witnessing in Indian universities.

Protests and ideological battles have been a part of university spaces for long, but violence and hatred is a dangerous addition. Attack on teachers is a new and disturbing trend. Shockingly, this is the first time when such fringe elements are being backed by the government in power.

Also read: Ramjas Protest Gets Violent: Journos, Professors Among Injured

This is quite evident with the deeply disturbing mishaps happening in university campuses. It adds to our disappointment when people in power seem to be more interested in the ‘type of meat’ rather than punishing the real culprits (mob lynching of Akhlaq in Dadri). Rohith Vemula’s caste is given more priority than investigating the circumstances leading to his suicide. There is no trace of Najeeb till date, yet ABVP members remain to be questioned.

The recent spate of events and the serious threat to free academic spaces completes the vicious cycle. It starts from RSS affiliated appointments at the top posts in institutions to the style of functioning.

The Idea of a University Needs to be Revisited

The incidences at JNU or DU capture more limelight than other institutions around the country. However, many other academic institutions face similar turbulence. Heads of these institutions resort to an authoritarian style of functioning, putting forth the agenda of RSS.

It seems the Sangh cadre appointments in the institutions by the Modi Government provide an upper hand to ABVP. At times, they prove to be working hand in hand. Involvement of BJP leader Bandaru Dattatreya in social exclusion of Rohith Vemula, the entry of police in JNU campus, and the dirty play of the doctored videos in the case of JNU, point to the lethargic attitude of administration, and in Najeeb’s case, reflect the collaboration of these two parties.