The dominant slogan of all the fiascos at Ramjas and at JNU has been that of ‘aazadi’. While the sloganeering continues, this ‘aazadi’ transcends from academic freedom to political freedom to freedom of self-determination of conflicted areas. This ‘aazadi’ is then conveniently wrapped up by the left, by a show of constitutional patriotism in defence of freedom of speech.
This constitutional patriotism of the left, however, has had a history of being selective. I am convinced that had this been a seminar organised titled ‘the freedom of drawing prophet’, no matter the gravity of violence and censorship on the organisers, the left student organisations would have remained aloof. This is because the left finds its natural alliance with Indian Muslims and choose to ignore the issues sensitive to the community. This is evident from the fact that All India Student’s Association finds it essential to protest in front of Israeli embassy for Gaza, but chooses to remain mute when it comes to Shireen Dalvi’s rights as a journalist and editor.
The left also conveniently ignores that the stifling and encroachment of academic freedom was initiated by them. Ever since the late sixties till the early nineties, the university space was artificially dominated by left-leaning intellectuals in their various capacities. Many noted personalities like Jagdish Bhagwati found it easier to drift abroad than to deal with the strangulating intellectual environment. This was further accentuated by the creation of bodies like Indian Council for Historical Research and Indian Council of Social Science Research, whichever from their inception remained a Marxist heaven, paying little heed to other methodologies of historical and social research. The dubious functioning of ICHR is extensively documented by Arun Shourie in his book ‘Eminent Historians – Their technology, their line, their fraud’.
Historically too, it has always been the left-leaning politicians and political bodies that have tried to curb dissent. As noted by eminent journalist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the Left Front government in West Bengal produced the single-most systematic assault on an established system of higher education, creating an unimaginable degree of party control. The result of which was that Bengal today has gross enrolment ratio in higher education lower than that of UP. Politicians like Arjun Singh with leftist leanings found it appropriate to appoint 15 new Vice-Chancellors in the middle of the night before the code of conduct was imposed.
A simple glance at the list of invitees at Ramjas College would suffice the accuracy of the long-standing accusation that universities in India have been dominated by left-leaning professors. It, therefore, becomes evident that what is considered as the right to ‘dissent’ is often the mainstream narrative inside classrooms. The result of these decades of passive aggression is, an intelligent, sane and genuine right-wing discourse was never allowed to develop. It is precisely why ABVP finds it hard to counter the intellectual challenge of the left and engages in violence as a substitute.
The invitation to Umar Khalid is the reflection of a larger disease that ails the universities across India. It has become clogged with ideological leverage dumped by the government professors and students alike. ABVP has further infuriated the crisis by designating itself as the sole reactionary and the reaction is often that of violence. In order to navigate this clogged stream, three things become essential. First, the Indian right needs to move away from cropping up ideologues and start focusing upon erecting sound intellectuals to voice their opinions. Second, the course structure of certain courses have to be made more dynamic and accommodative, certain courses like political science and history require an overall restructuring. Third, campus space is a place for ideas and not solely for politics, the election rules and student’s union constitution needs to be re-written to scrub off the archaism.
Lastly, the subsequent lectures on nationalism after the JNU incident, Prof. Paranjape very adroitly questioned, where the students advocating for self-determination of conflicted areas got their legitimacy from. The hint was towards ideology and nothing else apart from it. We need to ask who anointed the left as the torchbearers and deciders of the solution of conflicted areas and what methodology indicates that ‘aazadi’ would be the absolute solution. Perhaps, the university needs its own series of lectures at the University Plaza on the idea of freedom of speech in India.