Leave the varsities alone

Leave the varsities alone

Tense campuses: Eagerness to nip dangers of free thought is reminiscent of a totalitarian regime

Leave the varsities alone
Ever since the BJP-led NDA came to power, atmosphere in several universities and institutions has vitiated with issues of free speech and nationalism occupying their space. As seen at University of Hyderabad and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the two issues culminated in the suicide of a student while in the other, it led to arrest of a few students on charges of sedition which hit national and international headlines. The incidents sparked heated debate which refuses to die.

Education is essentially a political project. This is easy to see. Education meant to prepare responsible citizens for a democratic society will be essentially different from what a feudal or patriarchal society prefers. It is necessary, therefore, to be vigilant against the attitude of the state and the ruling elite to education.

Democracy is the guarantor of citizens’ freedom: the reason why it is deemed the best of all possible governments. Education enables citizens to access the fruits of freedom. For the illiterate, freedom is an illusion. But illiteracy is not the only hindrance to freedom. Equally dangerous, as Noam Chomsky–among a host of others–argues, is the eagerness of the state to condition citizens and stereotype public opinion.

It is against this background that the seriousness of interfering with academia needs to be seen. Conditioning young minds either by abolishing the space for freedom of thought and action or by pitting the might of the state against them is disruptive of the democratic ethos of our country. It is tantamount to pitting education against democracy.
The keenness to nip in the bud the danger of free thinking belongs, according to Hannah Arendt, to the totalitarian, not democratic mindset.

All governments, according to her, exercise authority. Much depends on how authority is exercised. The democratic state, by way of exercising authority, modifies the freedom of citizens. Dictatorships suppress freedom. Totalitarian regimes not only suppress political freedom, argues Arendt, but also human spontaneity, which is the seed of freedom. Academia is not concerned, primarily, with political freedom, not even with civic freedom, but it is concerned with human spontaneity. No civilised society can or should allow the disruption of this seminal freedom. Attack on spontaneity is attack on humanity itself.

This explains why the agenda to regiment academia is so very tempting to those who chafe at the inconveniences of democracy. It would seem eminently desirable to such dispositions to curb spontaneity by re-engineering academia. With the might of propaganda at one’s disposal and the vulnerability of the masses, it is not difficult to persuade the people that freedom of thought and speech is ‘anti-national’.  Or, at the very least, that our institutions of higher education shall be better off if they are secured against the anarchy that some lurking, undesirable elements might unleash under the pretext of free thinking.

It is important to be clear as to why freedom of thought and speech is fundamental to education for democracy. This takes us back to the earliest roots of democracy. The essence of citizenship in democracy, as the Greeks understood it, had two aspects: the right to speak and the right to act. The right to speak includes the right to criticise, but not the licence to libel. The right to act means the right to act ‘significantly,’ but not unlawfully or disruptively. 

Thereby hangs the tale!  And it is something thinkers on education have addressed with utmost seriousness. Education is a process of learning. The freedom to err is basic to learning, otherwise, only the prefect (those who do not err) will be admissible to institutions of learning. But such people do not need no learn! Coercive regimentation–the purpose of which is to forestall mistakes and offences–is sure to destroy the very idea of education.

Freedom to err, at the same time, has to be balanced against discipline. This precarious balance is difficult, but essential, to maintain. It is something that no agency or outfit extraneous to universities can understand, much less respect. Only those who are illiterate about, or indifferent to, education will allow unruly elements, whosoever they be, to play bull in the China shops of liberal education.

Turmoil in institutions

The eruption of turmoil in some of our most liberal institutions of higher education at the present time owes majorly to two factors: the overshadowing of academia by the clouds of majoritarian triumphalism and the annexation of education by the market. Both have one thing in common: distrust for freedom of thought and speech.

There is, however, a bottom-line that everyone has to respect–the rule of law. For all its limitations, which are quantitatively formidable, our judicial system is a zealous custodian of citizens’ rights and liberties. Any activity or advocacy in the academia which smacks of distrust in or disrespect for the judiciary must be avoided. The operative part of “free thinking” is freedom. Freedom cannot exist in anarchy. The judiciary is our bulwark against anarchy and nothing, absolutely nothing, should be done to belittle any aspect of the rule of law, especially in the name of freedom of thought and speech.

There is, as yet, no clarity on the contextual specifics of the JNU episode. Whether or not it was stage-managed to foreground the nationalism discourse we do not know. This much we know: it has been grabbed as an opportunity to do so. Arguably, the sound and fury of ultra-nationalism has no pedagogic sense or sensibility. Nationalism of this kind is a patriarchal project. It is against the spirit of democracy, which requires that freedom to debate and disagree be secured for citizens.

History progresses like the Ganga. Its waters, as they run down from the heights, meet with diverse obstructions and hindrances- boulders, bends, curves and turns. Regulatory obstructions are germane even to waterworks. Unhindered flow of water will not result in its supply to households. The same principle holds good for public life as well. Shallow minds may see disagreement or criticism as a nuisance. Thinking, seeking, struggling individuals like Rohit Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar, Anirban and the like are healthier embodiments of the democratic cause than those who are tempted to overpower academia. And that is so, even if they falter and err many times in the process.

Even then, they need to respect their ideological antagonists. The human being is of far greater value than advocacy of every kind.  Politics is made for man, and not man for politics. Under no circumstance should academia be polarised or turned into a battle zone. Commitment to freedom is proved best by defending the freedom of others to think and act differently from oneself. It is not the elemental fury of ultra-nationalism that needs to be engaged in defence of democracy, but its spirit. The irony to be eschewed is that of this very spirit over-running academia through the naiveté of those who charge against the windmills of ultra-nationalism. 

(The writer is former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi)
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