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Why Academic Freedoms Matter

18/02/2016 3:37 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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An Indian student holds a placard demanding the release of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar during a protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Students, journalists and teachers protested in the Indian capital Tuesday after a student union leader's arrest and subsequent violence by Hindu nationalists. The uproar has once again sparked allegations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are displaying intolerance and cracking down on political dissent in the name of patriotism. (AP Photo /Tsering Topgyal)

The JNU controversy has captured the public imagination in an unprecedented manner. There is both outrage and seriousness about the current state of affairs. Thus far, the government has refused to climb down from its stand that Kanhaiya Kumar, the 28-year-old president of the JNU Students' Union, chanted slogans against the country on-campus.

This has riled up the student community, faculty members and countless young people across India's universities, who smell government high-handedness in this episode. Several noted columnists and legal luminaries have spoken against the federal government's attempt to crack down on the university. Undeterred, the government told Delhi's High Court, "Whether it (the allegedly seditious behaviour) was youthful error or international conspiracy is still being investigated."

To say that we will take away your right to question and criticize -- on the grounds of nationalism -- is to go against intellectual discourse.

Public outrage over the episode peaked yesterday, when journalists along with several students and professors from the prestigious university were harassed and beaten up by men dressed in lawyer's robes in the Delhi High Court. A BJP legislator from Delhi was seen openly thrashing an activist.

Shocked by the turn of events, the Bar Council of India asked a retired high court judge to investigate the violence. While the overwhelming sentiment is that no one actually supports anti-national behaviour, the feeling on the ground is that the university should have been allowed to handle the matter itself. Instead, a witch-hunt was launched. For the government of India to use its political capital and power to clamp down on students in this fashion has made it appear both brash and stony.

Take the example of roughing up members of the JNU faculty, reporters and students the other day. If the idea is to simply crush dissent, trample upon thinking, wipe out all free thought, then we have got it all wrong. In any democracy, dissent should be valued. It must be an act of faith. To quickly reduce it to some "anti-national" trope is an insult to the nation's much-vaunted democratic traditions.

To brand everyone who disagrees with you "anti-national" and "pseudo-secular" not only reflects the poverty of the cultural right's vocabulary but its addiction to anti-intellectualism. The crackdown on JNU is asinine at many levels. A university is a workshop of imagination. It is where ideas clash, nurture, commingle, sparkle. JNU has always maintained an intellectual leg-up. Criticism and critique have been the timber that jazz up its academic life.

An attack on academic freedoms is akin to an attack on the freedom of conscience -- the progenitor of all other liberties.

No wonder the debate has amped up in India over the last few days. Rebelling against authority is a rite of passage in the young. More so in JNU, which is seen as the academic equivalent of universities like the Paris-Sorbonne. To say that we will take away your right to question and criticize -- on the grounds of nationalism -- is to go against intellectual discourse.

For decades JNU has been a hub of ideas and ideologies -- fresh and polemical, left and centre, controversial and brilliant. An attempt to silence it in the age of internet and technology -- where social media amplifies even ordinary voices -- is plain ludicrous.

Force can never be the answer to a question, however uncomfortable. For it is through dialectics -- reasoning, which proceeds from opinions, and criticism -- that the path to the principles of all inquiries can be found. An attack on academic freedoms is akin to an attack on the freedom of conscience -- the progenitor of all other liberties.

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