NEW DELHI -- A question which frequently popped up during the Jawaharlal Nehru University row was whether an event to commemorate Osama Bin Laden, who claimed responsibility for carrying out the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, would be allowed on an American university campus.
The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 claimed the lives of 2,977 people in New York City, Washington, DC, and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011 in Pakistan.
In an interview with The Indian Express, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said that he would allow an event commemorating Bin Laden, and he would not discipline students who organized such a program.
“We would and should tolerate that. It would be very disruptive. People would be very angry about the statement. But we would not discipline somebody for making statements of that nature,” Eisgruber told the newspaper.
“We at Princeton believe that it is a fundamental advantage for a university to be able to tolerate even offensive kinds of speech and to respond to bad arguments when they are made with more speech rather than with disciplinary actions,” he said.
Eisgruber, a constitutional scholar, was elected Princeton University's 20th president on April 21, 2013,
In JNU, 21 students are facing disciplinary action for allegedly organizing an event to mark the third anniversary of Afzal Guru's hanging on Feb 9, this year, and three students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested in a sedition case in connection with the event. Kumar is now out on bail.
Afzal Guru was convicted for plotting the 2001 parliament attack, which left 14 people dead. He was secretly hanged and buried in Tihar Jail in Delhi by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government on Feb 9, 2013.
Bin Laden vs. Afzal Guru
While Bin Laden claimed responsibility for carrying out the terrorist attack in the U.S. on September 11, Afzal Guru's conviction and execution has always been a subject of controversy because there are those who believe his role in the attack did not merit the death penalty.
Others argue that he was given a fair trial by the Indian judiciary.
“The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender," said the Supreme Court judgment which upheld his death sentence.
Former Home Minister P. Chidambaram has said that there were "grave doubts about the extent of his involvement" in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.
"There were grave doubts about his involvement in the conspiracy behind the attack on Parliament, and even if he was involved, there were grave doubts about the extent of his involvement. He could have been imprisoned for life without parole for rest of his natural life," he told The Economic Times, last month.
The Congress Party-led government was criticized for pulling Afzal Guru out of the death-row queue and executing him out of turn, in the run up to the national election.
Asked And Answered
The U.S. Constitution has an almost absolute allegiance to freedom of speech.
During the JNU row, Union Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu had asked whether the U.S. would allow a campus meeting to mark “Osama Bin Laden martyrdom anniversary." Retired Major General G.D. Bakshi had asked the same question.
Eisgruber told The Indian Express that he might have to issue a statement disagreeing with the students, who organized such an event, but he would not discipline them.
“We would permit that (event) and there would be no disciplinary action of any kind against those students. That’s unambiguous. It could be very offensive. I might be called upon depending on what the students said or did. Under some circumstances, I might have to speak out and indicate my disagreement as the President (of Princeton) and say that what the students were expressing was not consistent with the views of the university. I expect in the circumstances you are describing, there would be a number of people who would call on me to take action. I get people writing to me saying you must discipline a speaker. We don’t do it even when the views are very offensive," Eisgruber told the newspaper.
“We think that the university, as we conceive at Princeton, is founded on the idea that overall you are better off letting offensive ideas be stated even when they are very offensive. And responding to them and letting truth come out of the discussion rather than stepping in and censoring speech in one way or another,” he said.
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