Freedom of Speech in the University

Written by Partha Chatterjee | Published on: July 19, 2016

Image courtesy Rabindranath Tagore’s utterances about nationalism, montouche

“Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of the nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown the teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideal of humanity… Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.”

These words were spoken by the poet whose song has been converted by a military band into the national anthem of India. Were Rabindranath Tagore to utter those words on a university campus in India today, he would be called “anti-national” and arrested for sedition.

I first encountered Tagore’s Lectures on nationalism in a political thought class at the University of Calcutta in the 1960s. We were the first generation born after independence. Brought up on string tales of patriotic heroism and sacrifice, we did not quite know how to deal with Tagore’s eloquent condemnation of modern nationalism. Later, in the course of my own research, I delved into the careers of many revolutionary nationalists. Needless to say, they rejected Tagore’s critique of their politics. But I was struck by the way in which virtually all of them recounted in their memories their deep immersion of Tagore’s poems and songs as a source of solace and inspiration during their darkest days underground or in prison. At that time, the best patriots had an immensely rich and subtle grasp of the culture of their country.

Image courtesy Tweenyjodd

Today, I also find it remarkable that my professors in the university — in the early decades after independence — should have required us to read Tagore’s passionate critique of the very idea of the nation. Were they challenging us to get underneath our comfortable patriotic common sense to seek new and nuanced rebuttals to Tagore’s arguments? If they were, they were in fact teaching us that neither reverence for the nation nor reverence for Tagore was the right approach to true knowledge. The attitude of bhakti has no place in the modern university.

We are now being told that it is a criminal act to question the integrity of the nation or the provisions of the constitution or even a Supreme Court Judgment within the premises of a university. The utterly bizarre application of the sedition law to words spoken at a gathering of students deflects comprehension. It shows utter disregard for the very concept of a constitutional democracy and its place in the university.

First of all, a serious argument can be made that the sedition law, as defined in section 124 A of the Indian Panel Code, had no place in a constitutional democracy based on the sovereignty of the people. The colonial law was designed to protect a government that was necessarily external to those over whom it ruled. One can see why any word, sign or visible representation that brought into hatred or contempt or excited disaffection, including disloyalty or enmity towards the government, might have been considered punishable by the colonial state. But how can the same argument apply to a government that is set up through periodic elections within a constitution that the people have given to themselves? The government in India today is not external or prior to the people constituted as a sovereign republic. Given the enormously wide meaning of “sedition” under this law, any criticism of the government of the day could be designated as incitement to disaffection and punished. Our courts, so fond of the modus vivendi rather than clear interpretation, have shied away from pronouncing section 124 A unconstitutional but have instead, in repeated judgments, emphasised the distinction between advocacy and incitement, and insisted that mere speech unconnected to actual harm caused against the state cannot be punished under this law. But who cares? The administration in every state has used the law to harass and intimidate the political opposition.

Entry into the University

Now we see this applied in a vicious form to the Indian university. This is not the first time the police have entered a university campus in India to arrest students. The old British convention of the sanctity of the university began to collapse in India from the 1970s when the campus became a site of political agitation drawing supporters and critics from outside. But leaving aside the years of the Emergency, never has a general campaign been launched by a national party in power that targets university students and teachers on the evidence of their speech alone as “anti- national” and charges them with sedition. It matters little if the charges do no stand up in court t in the end. Till then, intimidation and violence will be pursued by loyal vigilance gangs with impunity. It could lead to the tragic death of Rohith Venula, the horrific beating of Kanhaiya Kumar inside the premises of a court, or the harassment of hundreds whose names have been found on the phones of the arrested students.

There is a concerted campaign in the political arena, the media and even Parliament questioning the presumed autonomy of the university. The law must apply equally everywhere, we are being told, and so why should the university enjoy a special privilege? There is a fundamental confusion here, caused by lazy thinking or deliberate obfuscation, about the actual limits to freedom of speech in the university and the appropriate authorities who can enforce them. It is not as though anything can be said on a university campus. I cannot imagine a physics teacher wasting valuable time in class, except perhaps as a comic diversion, on someone claiming that the earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the earth. Depending on the appropriate forum, discipline and standard, university authorities always make decisions on what kinds of speech are irrelevant , confused or plain wrong. This includes discussions held outside the classroom which are an essential part of a vibrant campus life. But the crucial point is at the agencies of the state cannot be the appropriate authorities to make that judgment.

Take the issues involved in the latest controversy over University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Are we to accept that the present boundaries of the Indian nation state cannot be critically examined in the classroom or seminar? Are History students not to be encouraged to explore the archives to unearth the history of colonial conquests, treaties and partitions that resulted in the territorial boundaries of present-day India? When the sovereign state of India has added a territory (such as Goa and Sikkim) or given up any territory (most recently through a treaty with Bangladesh), are those not to be studied? And since when are judgments of the Supreme Court exempt from public discussion in India? Can students of law and the constitution not be expected to answer questions about the Afzal Guru judgment when eminent persons who oppose capital punishment as a matter of principle and others who feel the weight of evidence in that case was insufficient to merit the death penalty, have gone on record with their views? Is the status of Kashmir and the northern Eastern states a taboo subject in the university when the daily news is full of stories of protests and violence in those places? Can resistant forms of religious and cultural practice that differ from those of the dominant mainstream not be discussed by teachers and students? In that case, the university might as well be declared dead. Instead , let the government build national seminaries designed to produce patriotic morons.

Limits on freedom of speech

Should there not be limits to freedom of speech on campus? There already are. There are governed by conventional practices that are not always the same on every campus and are enforced by appropriate university authorities. Last week, an MA student made a presentation in my seminar on the publicity material and school textbook produced by Daesh (or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. The material was spine-chilling in its crude militarism and in the intensity of hatred. But the students were able to engage in a serious discussion on why this poisonous message might attract some people. That is what a university should be able to do. Perhaps the discussion might not have been appropriate for younger, less mature students. But that is a judgment that teachers have to make.

We must insist that a judgment on what can or cannot be said within the precincts of a university cannot be made by the agencies of the state because they are not equipped to make such judgments. There must be a clear separation of jurisdiction. If there is a murder or robbery or riot on campus, the university authorities will recognise their inability to deal with the matter and hand it over to the appropriate state authority. On all matters concerning speech and expression, however, the university authorities must be the sole judge to decide on the limits. No other principle is compatible with the ideas of the modern university.

Why has the attack on the university come in this form at this time? We could explain it by pointing to the evaporation of the Modi magic, the collapse of his promises of quick economic prosperity, and the recent electoral reverses of the Bharatiya Janata Party. That does explain the increasing assertion by the core right-wing Hindu organisations and the impunity with which their cards can indulge in violence and intimation. But who are their targets on university campuses? Both at the University of Hyderabad and JNU, they have targeted students and teachers associated with a new, somewhat loose, platform that bring together dalit, adivasi and minority students with radical left groups. This is a new formation that has emerged in the last decade or so, especially in the campuses of the central universities where admission policies have brought in larger numbers of students from socially and economically marginal groups. This form does not quite reflect the party structures at national or state level and, as a result, has shown itself to be far more innovative and adventurous than the traditional parties in picking its causes and mobilising support.

This is the formation that the Hindu Right-wing has targeted on the university campus. Perhaps it thinks that the recent and rather loose organisation of these campus groups will make it easy to isolate and corner them. Whipping up fears of lurking terrorists and hatred towards their anti-national sympathisers might silence the mainstream opposition parties. The latest campaign is not unlike that against “Un-American Activities” launched by the right- wing Joseph McCarthy in the United States in the 1950s. The targets then were Communist and Soviet Sympathizers in the universities, the Science laboratories and the film industry. Something similar is happening today in India.

Broad-Based Resistance

Fortunately, the resistance has been dramatic, resolute and broad-based. The lead has been provided, most remarkably, by the accused students themselves. Nothing has galvanised the protest more than Rohith Vemula’s incredibly moving suicide note and Kanhaliya Kumar’s allegedly “anti-national” speech. They are testimony to the indomitable struggle against adversity that brought these two young men into the best research-based universities in the country and the utter sincerity of their commitment to a just and human future. That young people like them, who should have been the pride of their communities and nation, were instead attacked as anti-national criminals for noting more than their expressed opinion, has outraged everyone associated with the university everywhere in the world.

If the criminal charges against these students collapse in court, it might perhaps serve as a damper on the Hindu right-wing campaign, but it would be unwise to count only on that. The university is too precious a place for critical thought to be left to the vagaries of uncertain judicial decisions. Those who have a stake in the pursuit of knowledge as a vocation must mount a resolute defense of the autonomy of the university in India. And here, teachers would do well to learn a thing or two from their students.

Partha Chatterjee is a political theorist and historian. He studied at Presidency College in Calcutta, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester. He divides his time between Columbia University and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, where he was the Director from 1997 to 2007.
We thank the EMS Smrithi Organizing Committee, Ayaanthole for allowing us to publish this essay from Idea of India, Background Papers, EMS Smrithi Series compiled by M.N. Sudhakaran et al, Thrissur, June 2016.