The controversy over JNU and free speech leaves me somewhat bemused. The hypocrisy on all sides of the debate is truly astounding. What is common to all sides is that their idea of "free" speech is not so about any principles but about "convenient" speech. For all sides in this debate, the only "free" speech they recognize is their own right to speak, the only speech they will defend is speech they agree with and all sides will oppose any "free" speech that disagrees with their orthodoxies. A good example is a recent essay by two of my colleagues that I have responded to in a companion post, immediately following this post. [I wanted to include it here but as it was getting a bit long, I split it into two posts]. Read these posts together.
As for the political parties, the less said the better. BJP leaders haven't exactly covered themselves in glory with their ill-advised statements and actions. The BJP is today the only politically relevant centre-right political voice in the country and this episode once again demonstrates the crying need for a center-right alternative to the BJP that will be based on libertarian principles of limited government and freedom rather than the religion-based conservatism that the BJP represents.
And then we have the Congress, which has spent the better part of its several decades of rule banning anything that any section of the population had any objection to, now suddenly masquerading as a defender of free speech! As for the Left parties, that they can even mouth "free speech" without bursting into flames is a wonder. It would all be comical if it weren't so tragic.
So, it is important to assert the essential liberal point: that free speech requires us to accept speech that we find personally offensive. Free speech means nothing at all if it does not include the right to offensive speech. I found the video of students shouting slogans against India and in support of a terrorist like Afzal Guru disgusting. I have little doubt about Afzal Guru's guilt or that he should have been hanged -- if anything, I think the government of the day unnecessarily dragged its feet in carrying out the sentence. [On the other hand, I think the underhanded, surreptitious manner that the sentence was carried out also undermined India -- why such defensiveness when carrying out a legitimate action, sanctified by the highest court of the land?] But as offensive as I found the slogans to be, I would still defend the right of people to shout such slogans, just as I felt it was necessary to defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons that many in the Muslim community found offensive. I would not have published the Charlie Hebdo cartoons because, as a personal value, I do not enjoy hurting the sentiments of others. But as a matter of principle, it is absolutely necessary to defend those who push the boundaries of free speech. That includes not only Charlie Hebdo but also the paintings of M.F. Hussain that some Hindu groups found offensive.
This also goes for the charges of "anti-national", whatever that means, that some of my colleagues have faced recently about questioning the Indian claim to Kashmir. The history of the entire accession process is so convoluted that it is indeed possible to question India's claim to Kashmir and many academics and experts (Alastair Lamb being the most notorious) have done so before. My own sense is that despite these questions, India's claims on Kashmir are easily far stronger than that of Pakistan or of those chasing the fantasy of an independent Kashmir. Others can and do disagree, and it should be their right to do so. To say that no one can question India's claim on Kashmir is foolish and short-sighted. It is foolish because such forced conformism will not eliminate such views and it is short-sighted because it prevents us from countering such opinions at the intellectual level, where they need to be and can easily be countered. Equally importantly, if there is truth to such claims, it is better we acknowledge it, so that we can move forward to deal with its consequences than do that ostrich thing.
I would suggest that free speech can be curtailed but only in a few instances. Free speech does not protect someone if there is libel involved, nor does it protect someone who reveals state secrets. There might be a few others along these lines. But there are also a couple of big ones here: free speech does not grant anyone the freedom to produce or distribute child porn, nor does it permit incitement to violence. This last one, of course, is key in the JNU case because there are accusations that some of the students shouted slogans that could have been considered incitement to violence. This was not very clear in the videos, though it seems fairly clear that Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU President, did not shout any such slogans and he should not have been arrested unless the police had other evidence that is not yet public, which I seriously doubt. [I should mention here that I do not know Kanhaiya Kumar, though he is a PhD student at the School of International Studies, where I teach] On the other hand, it is possible that some slogans [despite the fact that it was not clear who was shouting these slogans] might meet the requirements of incitement to violence though many legal luminaries have suggested they don't. The point is that this ultimately can only be resolved by a Court. The opinions of individuals matter little here, even if they held important legal posts in the past. I thought (for whatever its worth) that the slogans I heard, distasteful as they were, did not amount to incitement to violence, even if they may have come very near the edge. Calling for the destruction of the country come perilously close to an incitement to violence, though I still think it does not cross the line because there was no specific call to take up arms or indulge in violence. One question I am unclear about is whether even incitement to violence should lead to charges of sedition.
I also found arguments about the police entry into campus somewhat silly. JNU is hardly sovereign territory, and the police have every right to enter if they believe that it is necessary in the interest of preserving law and order. Saying this does not excuse their despicable behaviour in many instances, including but not limited to their failure to protect journalists and Kanhaiya Kumar from lawyer-thugs in the Patiala House court premises. I am not even sure where this idea of exclusivity of JNU from the police come from. May be the fear is that the police, as an arm of the state, will be an extension of state control over intellectual thought. If so, it is not the police we should worry about but the mandarins of the MHRD and India's political leadership and their policies which have driven India's higher education into the dismal state that it is in today. There are a couple of excellent monographs from Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur about what ails Indian higher education that I would recommend -- and they make it clear, implicitly, that state interference is something that has fairly deep roots [These works were published about a decade ago, so it is not with reference to the current government or controversies].
I suspect the problem might go beyond political parties: it does appear that India is not, and has not been, a society that has accepted the core elements of liberalism, especially free speech. And the Indian state simply reflects this. We are a procedural democracy, but in many ways not a liberal one. The fact that we accept without questioning the logic of a state-established censor board that decides what adult Indian citizens can watch says a lot about India's political and social culture. Other "liberal" democracies are not perfect, of course: most European states have laws that also curtail free speech and expression, such as outlawing Holocaust-denial, or banning of wearing religious symbols or symbolic clothing in places such as schools. [I would consider anyone questioning the Holocaust a nut, but even nuts have the right to express their opinions, however ridiculous these might be.]
These basic points have been lost in all this din. We are being asked to choose between an incompetent political and government machinery, backed by street thugs, and a Left [to which in any case I am not sympathetic] which has never truly supported free speech but which is now draping itself in that flag. I refuse.
[Part 2 in the next post]