Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The JNU Free Speech Controversy-2

This is a continuation of my previous post about free speech in JNU.  As I mentioned there, Happymon Jacob and A.K. Ramakrishnan, both colleagues at the School of International Studies, JNU, wrote recently in the India Express about threats to free speech in Indian universities.  They argued that what was happening to JNU was part of a pattern and that the very idea of the university was under attack.  This was rich, I thought, considering that the Left has hardly a great record as defenders of free speech.  I wrote a response to their essay and send it to the Indian Express immediately but since Indian Express has not published it, I am posting it here in full. 

JNU and the Myth of Academic Freedom

Two of my esteemed colleagues from JNU argued in these pages a few days back (Happymon Jacob and AK Ramakrishnan, “There’s A Cop in My Class”, February 27, 2016) that the very idea of the university is under threat from the BJP government, that the attack on JNU is part of larger attack on “academic spaces and intellectual freedom”.  I hold no brief for the BJP government, and I fully support the right to free speech, especially when it is speech with which I disagree (such as some of slogans that were shouted in JNU on February 9). 

But it is important to point out that academic freedom and free speech is threatened not just by the State but also by the oppressiveness of one dominant ideology in the academy.  JNU itself is the best example.  When the academia itself practices ideological oppression and suppresses free speech and debate, we lose some of our moral heft in challenging State interference.  This is the fundamental problem with their argument: it is difficult to take their concern about academic freedom seriously when such academic freedom existed only for one side of the argument to begin with.  The Left dominates the academic discourse in India, which is not by itself a problem – but it becomes one when this dominance is used to stifle alternative voices and perspectives. 

Want some examples? Just go to the YouTube videos of the teach-in on nationalism that took place in JNU, where you will find plenty of criticisms of nationalism in general and ideas of Indian nationalism in particular.  What is striking about it is the complete absence of any views defending the idea of the Indian nation, especially in the context of a world of nations.  Even more remarkable is that this is so normal that I have yet to see one comment about this ideological whitewash.  Questioning the idea of a world divided into nations and its reproduction domestically in India is perfectly justified, of course.  What is not justified and is indeed ‘unacademic’ is the complete absence of any alternative viewpoints.  What was being taught in this teach-in was only one side of the argument and it is emblematic of the Left’s ideological dominance in JNU and the Indian academia in general, not free debate or speech. 

The problem goes beyond posturing in public lectures and has serious pedagogical consequences.  For example, there has been an active campaign to limit the study of Israel in JNU’s School of International Studies.  Ironically, one of the authors of the essay belongs to a department that has successfully prevented an MA course on Israel from being offered, despite large numbers of students endorsing a written appeal for the course.  Similarly, the Israeli Ambassador was prevented from addressing students on campus.  Refusing to listen to opinions you disagree with robs students of the opportunities to get all sides of the debate.  It also belies claims of ‘free debate’. 

The dominant Left’s silences are also equally significant.  Those now crying hoarse over free speech on campus were nowhere to be found on the Charlie Hebdo issue.  A JNU Left community that protests on issues all over the world found little time to defend free speech then, suggesting that what is meant by free speech is only their right to speech, not the principle itself. 

So prevalent is this ideological dominance that anyone outside of this dominant ideological consensus has to think several times before challenging it, leading to a form of academic self-censorship.  Would I want to go to the trouble of inviting a speaker if s/he is going to be prevented from speaking?  Should I offer a new course if it requires me to engage in an extended multi-year fight with my own colleagues?  Or should I spend the time instead in writing another article or book which, thankfully, my colleagues (still) cannot stop? 

Those now claiming to protect the academia’s and JNU’s tradition of ‘debate and challenge’ are speaking for an ideological majority within the campus and they are no less oppressive than the Indian State.  That they are fighting the State does not give them the license to practice an even more insidious academic oppression within and even more importantly, whitewash out of existence views with which they disagree.  State interference in academic freedom should be opposed.  Unfortunately, this hypocrisy makes it more difficult. 


  1. I agree with most of your points. Left claim themselves as defender of free speech and diverse of opinions.But they will not allow PM of this country to speak inside the campus. Even human resource minister cant speak in an official event in JNU. That is the situation right now in the campus.

  2. Thanks for the article Professor. I do feel that being a student of JNU I have been exposed majorly to one side of the debate particularly during this movement. I'm from SIS and had signed the request to continue the course offered on Israel but regrettably that course was dropped. I believe that we need to be critical of existing limitations on free speech inside JNU along with criticising present government.

  3. Thank you for underscoring the essentials in such cacophonic times. We are indeed just about a procedural democracy and probably not on the path of becoming a liberal one. Where the article falls short (which might be beyond its purview of course) is on the question of the way ahead from here. The defenders of free speech have dubious records themselves. Where then, do alternate liberal views attempt to articulate themselves? Though the debate is sharply polarised, such voices are indeed beginning to be heard. A most obvious example is the dissent of most JNU students from Kanhaiya's distinction between Gujarat 2002 and the Anti-Sikh pogrom. There are several others. That the current churning is making it urgent for alternate voices to strive to be heard is the only silver lining.

  4. Makarand Paranjpe also makes the point about "hegemonic" role of the Left in his "Teach in" intervention. The hegemonic politics garbed in the name of principled politics may ruin great institutions like JNU if the alternative and un-committed viewpoints do not rise and assert. We should not just wail over the distortions but and must stand up steadfastly. I very much liked Rajesh's standpoint, although I must say I have not read the pieces by two other distinguished colleagues.

  5. Is there any country specific course at SIS, JNU ? If not, then dropping a country-specific course can be justified. But if there is country-specific course other than Israel at SIS then I do not support of dropping course on Israel. And on nationalism ? Yes, there has been a debate on nationalism even among the Marxists. Prof. Achin Vinyak in spite of being a Marxist couldn't deny the power of nationalism. I myself think nationalism is more powerful than religion. Kurdish people having Islam as the religious identity are more concerned about their national identity than religious identity. I am sharply critical of Marxian understanding of national question. I am not a Marxist. To the best of my understanding of myself I would say I am not bound with a particular ideology / line. I am a free thinker. Hence, I would again say that intolerance is everywhere -- among the marxists,rightists, extremists and so on. But I do not agree with many points the author raised here. "... What was being taught in this teach-in was only one side of the argument..." --- this not at all true. Many of the teachers spoke of an all inclusive nationalism. Speeches of Prof. Gopal Guru, Prof. Partha Chatterjee, Prof. Mridula Mukherjee, Prof. Achin Vinayak and of many others were not one sided at all. And also Prof. Makarand Paranjape was given the longest time to speak. And in the current context, the role of the state(Indian state), must be protested. We cannot deny that the state is trying hard to play very much authoritarian role.