Vikram Singh Chauhan vs Kanhaiya Kumar

If the threat of sedition hangs heavily on our campuses, we’ll have cyber zombies and ideology slaves emerging from them rather than innovators and radical thinkers

Updated - November 17, 2021 02:38 am IST

Published - February 19, 2016 01:56 am IST

Consider Pakistan. Both its Nobel laureates had to live abroad in virtual exile. One of them, its finest scientist, left the country protesting against constitutional amendments that impinged on his religious freedom, while the other, its most famous teenager, was shot at for going to school and speaking up for her rights.

The >plight of Abdus Salam and Malala Yousafzai is instructive of what really is wrong with Pakistan. More importantly, their lives exemplify what happens when freedom of expression and dissent are suppressed by those in power, or violence becomes the response to even what might sound like sedition.

Ms. Yousafzai >got the prize for braving the terrorist’s bullets on behalf of Pakistan’s children, especially young girls, because she dissented against the brutal narrative that had emerged in her country against education and other universal rights of children. Salam left Pakistan in 1974 after its National Assembly amended the Constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. A devout Ahmadi, he went to Europe and died there in 1996. His body was brought back and buried in Rabwah in Pakistan’s Punjab, with an epitaph that read he was the “first Muslim Nobel Laureate”. Actually, he was the second Muslim to win a Nobel — a year earlier, Anwar Sadat of Egypt had shared the Nobel peace prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Today the word ‘Muslim’ has been defaced from Salam’s epitaph.

Ironically, in his Nobel acceptance speech Salam quoted the Koran to justify his scientific curiosity — probably a unique occasion in the hallowed Stockholm Concert Hall. But around the time Salam was telling the world that, Pakistan was getting on to the conveyor belt of radicalisation with Hudood ordinances.

For political scientists, one of the key lessons that emerge from studying modern Pakistan is the dangerous erosion of its democratic foundations, the fact that cleavages between its institutions disappeared over the years, and the Pakistan Army became the only national institution with the ability to run the country. The military also provides significant social mobility, thus attracting some very fine talent into its fold.

Robust democracies, on the contrary, should be dynamic theatres with healthy competition between various institutions. To create that healthy tension, democracy needs to be built on a strong foundation with freedom of expression and dissent. Without both, the institutional and progressive tensions will disappear and when that happens, usually the only institution left standing is the military. There are historical reasons for it, including the fact that the military is consistently fed and nurtured by modern nation-states because it carries out the fundamental duty of ensuring its security. Pakistan is no exception.

Dissent and scientific progress It is also noticeable that scientific progress of societies has a direct correlation to dissent and freedom of expression. That is why Western Europe and the U.S. have been consistently ahead on the invention curve in modern times. Scientific progress germinates in campuses where unadulterated dissent, even if it is seditious to many, is allowed.

It may not just be a coincidence that it was from the American campuses of the 1960s, in the grip of anti-Vietnam war protests and equal rights movements, that many great inventions came. That has been the history, and that would remain the future. The question is whether India is willing to absorb that lesson. That dissenting, almost seditious, culture of higher education campuses would also explain why the Muslim world does not have even a single university in any of the lists of world’s finest institutions. There are great Muslim minds, but political Islam that rules societies is an enemy of innovation and higher learning because of its skewed perspectives on dissent and freedom of expression.

Democracy, with healthy protection of dissent and freedom of expression as cornerstones, also has a strong direct correlation with economic growth. Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital in 2011 looked at 150 countries over 60 years and found that countries tend to become more democratic as income levels went up, and when the gross domestic product per capita goes above $10,000, democracy becomes deep-seated.

The corollary is also true. Except countries that depend on natural resources for its income and probably Singapore, a city state, all other countries with high per capita are mature democracies. This is why many believe China could be headed towards political change as its per capita income climbs up.

The facts are simple, and well proven: India’s ambitions to emerge as a mature democracy, turn into an innovation centre, lift millions out of impoverishment, and play a major global role are all directly dependent upon its ability to allow a strong culture of dissent. If the threat of sedition hangs heavily on its campuses, then zombies will come out of it, not innovators. You will have cyber coolies and ideology slaves emerging from the campuses rather than innovators and radical thinkers. It is a choice between advocate Vikram Singh Chauhan, who led the mob that attacked journalists and students over two days in New Delhi despite Supreme Court intervention, and Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar who was challenging his rivals to debate. You don’t need to look beyond Pakistan to understand what academicians have long argued.

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