Centre's intolerance towards dissent

Political openness is an important rule of democracy. One's own political loyalties can't be a value in education.

“Freedom of discussion and meeting was slowly extinguished; complaints, protests and appeals made in regard to these rights were denounced as seditious murmurings; and champions of these rights and freedom were denounced by Government as sedition mongers. This gave rise to a whirlwind of discontent and volcanic political unrest” (Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission by Dhananjay Keer, p 22)

Why was the BJP-led Union government so worried about a political discussion by a students’ group, the Ambedkar–Periyar Study Circle in the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras? And why in Heaven’s name, should a critique of government’s economic policies and observations on Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly activate the human resource development minister? And why did the HRD ministry claim after 48 hours that it had nothing to do with the matter? And why did a minister of the Government of India act with such alacrity on an anonymous letter?

Several surveys have shown that the youth have a robust interest in politics and democracy which is a good sign for the future of our democracy. India is an intensely political place with sites of democratic practice increasing in the polity, as can be seen in the university environment where student politics is quite competitive. Their participation is inspired by political opinions of a large majority of youth that believes in the central values of democracy such as the importance of political opposition, of freedom of expression, and rejection of violence as a tool to settle disputes.

This was also the constituency, including millions of first time voters, that was the target of Modi’s appeal in the 2014 electoral campaign. Modi was preferred as the prime minister among the young voters (much more than among the elderly). About 36 per cent of youngsters had chosen Modi, way ahead of other contenders (cited in Rajdeep Sardesai, 2014, ‘The Election That Changed India’).

Post-elections why is the BJP, despite a massive majority in parliament, intolerant of the same youth? Student outfits of the BJP used strong language against the Congress and its ministers in some of the recent happenings in Karnataka, but surely they were still within their rights to protest? Chief Minister Siddaramaiah did not interfere with their right of expression.

Political openness is an important rule of democracy enshrined in the constitution. One of India’s renowned cartoonists, Shankar Pillai, consistently targeted Jawaharlal Nehru in his cartoons but Nehru said “Don’t spare me from Shankar”.

He said in one of his fortnightly letters to the chief ministers in 1951: “I have made it clear, a grave danger today is the growth of innumerable petty news sheets in various languages, which are often of an exceedingly low standard and indulge in depths of vulgarity. This has little to do with politics although it is often used for political purposes.

Severest political criticism

“I have made it clear in parliament that we shall not come in the way of even the severest political criticism, either of our internal or external policy. Any interference with freedom of the press has to be avoided, except in cases of extreme vulgarity and defamation. In such cases, it is desirable to have recourse to the criminal law… Much was said about pre-censorship. This is rightly objected to and I think it should not be indulged in under any circumstances.”

The Government of India’s failure to respect a crucial civil liberty, the right to express oneself, subject only to reasonable restrictions, began during the 2014 election campaign. Nobel economist Amartya Sen and Jnanpeeth recipient U R Ananthamurthy were criticised in unusually strong terms – often bordering on vulgarity – because of their view that they did not like to see Modi as PM.

Their view was a political statement, not a personal one. Some in BJP wanted Sen’s Bharat Ratna withdrawn, and in Mangaluru, they danced in the streets and burst crackers to celebrate Ananthamurthy’s death! So much for the keepers of Bharatiya sanskriti!

Not content with this, the government refused to continue Sen as chancellor of the
Nalanda University. HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s ministry created serious administrative problems for the well respected academic Raghunath Shevgaonkar who resigned as director of Delhi-IIT, renowned atomic scientist Anil Kakodkar was left with no option but to quit as chairman of IIT directors’ selection board in the face of unwarranted interference by the ministry in the selection.

The nationally and internationally acclaimed historians were eased out of the Indian Council of Historical Research and so on. Not just Irani but her government is now diagnosed as severely allergic to intellectual freedom.

Moving forward from moral policing to intellectual surveillance. Was it inexorable? Perhaps not, if someone cared, or had been brought up, to recognise that education must involve questioning unless you want it to be vacuous. One’s own political loyalties cannot be a value in education.

(The writer, a Congress leader, is a former minister)

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