My reading of Prabhat Patnaik's essay (“Parliament's say extends to the classroom,” The Hindu, May 22, 2012), on the recent controversy regarding the removal of a cartoon from a textbook, is somewhat different from Neeladri Bhattacharya's (“A disquieting polemic against academic autonomy,” May 29, 2012). If I understand that essay's argument, it had two points to make. The first is less important than the second, but it is nevertheless not negligible.
1. Unlike, say, a novel, a poem, a painting, or even a self-standing cartoon, a cartoon that was not the work of the authors of a commissioned textbook but selected by them to merely illustrate a pedagogical point, was not a paradigmatically creative act of expression and so this controversy was not to be seen as one about freedom of expression, even if it was an issue about free speech in a general sense.
Nothing deeply expressive was at stake in it and so the very special complexion that free speech issues take when it is claimed that censorship thwarts free creative expression on the part of individual, does not enter into this controversy.
Bhattacharya does not acknowledge this distinction in Patnaik's essay, but implies instead that he was attacking free speech.
2. The central argument of the Patnaik essay, as I understand it, had a dialectic with two parts.
a) It began by saying that Mr. Sibal was wrong to make a peremptory judgment from on high. He, in this case — like in all such cases of controversy over text books — should have appointed a committee of academics to assess the matter as to whether the cartoon was deeply offensive and inappropriate. How this is seen to be undermining the autonomy of the academy, if it is academics that are required to be assessing the matter, is a little puzzling to me, but Bhattacharya manages to suggest that about the essay.
b) Having made that point, Patnaik went on to say that it was ripe for misinterpretation. It may be taken to imply that the academy stands aloof from the mass of people whom it serves as a frameworking educational institution of society. But in a genuinely democratic society, nothing public stands aloof from the mass of people in a society. And there has been an increasing tendency in a culture that is transforming the notion of knowledge to the notion of expertise, that it wishes to view the academy as standing aloof and apart in this way.
Bhattacharya doesn't quite recognise that this is the chief point of the essay. I would think b) is indeed a point worth making in this context precisely because it is easy to misinterpret a) as claiming a false form of dichotomy between ‘expert' and ‘ordinary people.' Most of the essay is spent on giving arguments for b). Patnaik is not trying to undermine free speech within the academy. He is only trying to sound a warning that controversies of this kind which, in their specificity, can only be adjudicated by academics (a point explicit in the essay and explicitly therefore acknowledging the relative autonomy of the academy) should not be the occasion to feed a false dichotomy between experts and the ordinary mass of people. The ordinary mass of people are possessors or potential possessors of any knowledge that it is the business of pedagogy in the academy to produce. Expertise, on the other hand, is the sort of thing that is defined as that which the ordinary mass of people cannot actually or potentially possess without ceasing to be what they are: ‘ordinary,' ‘mass,' or that which, in its generality, is represented by the ‘political class' in Parliament. I assume the point was not to elevate Parliament as the only or final agent of intellectual production. It was rather to stress an institution — there being no other, unless one were to count mass movements as an institution — that is supposed to represent the much-needed constraints on the political sway of expertise that can only come from the democratically-based knowledges that ordinary people in a society actually and potentially possesses.
So, the essay was taking the occasion of a controversy of the present sort to assert, not deny, that the academy has autonomy, and then proceed to warn against reading false implications as following from that.
Unlike Bhattacharya, I find the argument to be both honourable and plausible.
(Akeel Bilgrami is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy and Global Thought, Columbia University.)