The former British Prime Minister and a Noble laureate in literature, Winston S. Churchill, of whom I am not a great admirer, had once remarked, "Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop."
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), as an institution, has always claimed to be a bastion of free speech and liberty of thought, with its students and professors as noble warriors in the cause. It claims to have a history of standing up and fighting for the right to express dissent. It claims to embrace a plurality of ideas. But how true is this? Do they indeed stand for their passionate ideals? Do they really respect dissent or differences in opinions?
Justice Katju has several times termed JNU as an overrated institution, and the students as having no scientific ideas to solve India's problems...
It doesn't exactly look like it if you analyze the matter in the particular context of Justice (retired) Markandey Katju. Here's the thing: Justice Katju has more than once expressed a wish to address the students of JNU, but an invitation for him to do so has not been forthcoming.
A quick background.
Justice Katju has a reputation for the highest integrity and is just as well known for his outspokenness on a number of issues. I've been following him on social media for a number of years and don't agree with all his views. But even if one doesn't agree with him one can't ignore him. He writes with a refreshing candour that is also underlined with idealism: He wants the Indian people to live a prosperous life. He wants poverty to be eradicated from the country and he firmly believes that it can only be done with scientific ideas and not with meaningless slogan-shouting. Now, Justice Katju has several times termed JNU as an overrated institution, and the students studying there as having no scientific ideas to solve the massive problems of the country such as poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and so on. However, he also severely criticised the arrest of JNU students by the police for allegedly raising anti-India slogans. He had argued that the interrogation of the students could have been done without arresting them. Though I do not agree with his stand on the JNU issue, I honestly believe that he has always been supportive of students' rights.
Is the so-called bastion of free speech afraid of Justice Katju might say?
To me, it is quite saddening that for all its claims to support dissenting voices, JNU seems to be balking at giving a platform to someone who disagrees with some of their ideologies. It is hypocritical of JNU to dig in its heels and not invite Justice Katju to address the students. Is the so-called bastion of free speech afraid of what he might say?
A couple of months ago, Justice Katju revealed that some JNU students had invited him to speak on campus. He made this informal invitation public and also wrote a gist of what he would say if he got the opportunity to speak at JNU.
"A student of JNU telephoned me just now and asked me to address the students of JNU on any day. I said that I can come, but on the condition that the students hear me patiently without interruption for some time, and then they can put any questions. But I will not attend a panel discussion. Also, the JNU students association must pass a resolution inviting me. I do not want any controversy that only one section of students has invited me, while others have not. If invited, I intend to begin my speech by saying that JNU is a highly overrated institution, and I have a poor opinion about it, and students like Kanhaiya etc.
Of course the students of JNU know how to shout 'halla bol', 'azadi', etc. but there is no deep scientific analysis of the country's problems and how to solve them. It reminds me of a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth 'It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'. Some JNU students are regarded great orators and revolutionaries, but if after hearing them one asks what is the substance of what they have said one finds it was all empty froth. The main problems of the country are socio-economic----massive poverty, massive unemployment, massive malnutrition, massive lack of healthcare and good education, etc. What is the solution offered to solve these massive problems by Kanhaiya and the other 'heroes' of JNU? It is zero. So if invited I will dwell on these issues and present my solutions. Let us see whether invitation comes at all."
This post might have infuriated some students and academicians in JNU, leading them to not follow up on the invitation to Justice Katju. The brilliant judge seems to have sensed this would happen too, ending his post with the sentence, "Let us see whether invitation comes at all."
Initially, the JNU students may have thought that Katju would be a suitable speaker since he has been critical of the present BJP government at the Centre, and could be expected to reliably fulminate against it. However, once the Justice made his intentions clear, the students may have reconsidered inviting him.
If JNU really believes itself to be a fort of free speech, then it must invite Justice Katju without any further delay.
Incidentally, Justice Katju mentioned in a recent Facebook post that he met JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar at an iftar party and asked him why he wasn't being invited to speak. Kanhaiya apparently responded that the reason was a vacation at the university – which sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse.
Ultimately, it seems as if JNU is not as great a champion of free speech and expression as it thinks it is and nor does it give space to dissent.
The American philosopher Elbert Hubbard had once said, "The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment." If JNU really believes itself to be a fort of free speech, then it must invite Justice Katju without any further delay.