What is a university?

Vice chancellors hold charge of the university in trust. To give the police a free hand militates against the very spirit of the university as a space for critical engagement

February 16, 2016 12:31 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

"It is our right as citizens to question the government, to question arbitrary rule, and to organise against injustice.” Picture shows JNU students demanding the release of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar in New Delhi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

"It is our right as citizens to question the government, to question arbitrary rule, and to organise against injustice.” Picture shows JNU students demanding the release of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar in New Delhi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

We live in strange and difficult times. The elected national government, holding office under an oath of allegiance to the Indian Constitution, proclaims commitment repeatedly, and without exception to “Bharat Ma”, the Hindu scriptures and divine intervention. It governs in the name of Hindutva and criminalises all dissent using the slogan of “national interest”, by which it means the interest of the Hindu Rashtra.

Freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom to organise are guaranteed as fundamental rights under the Constitution. The right of dissent and agitation are ingrained in the fundamental rights. The Constitution sets out a plural framework and refuses any scope to define the country in religious terms. The national interest in this scheme is constitutional rule. To recall B.R. Ambedkar, it is only constitutional morality that must guide the government, not any whimsical invocation of narrow-minded, parochial figureheads and mythical characters.

It is time to remind the holders of public office that once they have formed government, whatever their personal politics might be, they are constrained to rule in strict accordance with the constitutional framework. Mere assumption of political power does not confer the power to propagate narrow party and supra party ideologies in derogation of constitutional principles. It is a matter of deep regret that today we have actually fallen to the level where even this simple fact needs to be stated.

Tolerance of intolerance

It is our right as citizens of this free country to question the government, to question arbitrary and capricious rule, and to organise against injustice and demand the supremacy of the Constitution above all else. For us to allow the untrammelled use of the charge of sedition to quell dissent and freedom of expression amounts, to reiterate Amartya Sen’s words, to being too tolerant of intolerance. Indeed, I would even say that it amounts to us abdicating our collective responsibility to uphold the Indian Constitution. It is time to recall Mahatma Gandhi’s historic defence of seditious speech: “…I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me… I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a Government which, in its totality, has done more harm to India than any previous system” (Mahatma Gandhi before Judge Broomfield, March 10, 1921). We have come full circle.

The orchestrated trigger for the Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarians and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in both the University of Hyderabad and in Jawaharlal Nehru University was student protest and debate against the death penalties awarded to Yakub Memon and Afzal Guru. These are issues that have already been subjected to public debate and they consist of two parts: first, whether the death penalty constitutes judicial murder; second, whether Memon and Guru were given a fair trial. The debate has involved a close study of jurisprudence, international human rights standards and the fair conduct of the trials. A sizeable section of intellectuals and human rights defenders from across the country expressed the view that the death penalty without exception violates the constitutional guarantee of the right to life. Others held the firm belief that both Guru and Memon were executed without a fair trial. This is a debate that must be carried out, not only in this case but in every case where the death penalty is ordered. There was even a debate on this very question following the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi and before the Justice J.S. Verma Committee. While the victim’s parents demanded the death penalty in the rape case, in the case of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Congress President Sonia Gandhi herself wrote to President K.R. Narayanan requesting clemency for those convicted for killing her husband. These are difficult, heart-wrenching, but necessary debates and no repressive clampdown can suppress the flow of ideas, questions and fundamental interrogations of the meaning of justice.

Asking questions

An important part of education, particularly higher education, is to learn to ask questions and to develop the capacity for disobedience and reasoned arguments. What is the promise of the university? Lest we forget: “Where the mind is without fear/ and the head is held high/ Where knowledge is free/ Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls/ Where words come out from the depth of truth/ Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection/ Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way/ Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit/ Where the mind is led forward by thee/ Into ever-widening thought and action/ Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, Let my country awake.”

Vice chancellors (VC) hold charge of the university in trust — not of political powers but of the university community in which students are the core. To call in the police or act on their advice and abdicate responsibility, or to give the police a free hand militates against the very spirit of the university as a space for critical engagement and free-flowing debate. The reduction of the position of VC to being a watchdog of the government is a danger of unimaginable magnitude and destructive of the fabric of higher education — the structure will determine form, content, possibilities and importantly, futures.

Finally, back to the question of national interest. The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha observed Republic Day as a “black day” in Meerut and has been consistently organising protests against the Constitution of India. The leaders of this group have also declared their intention to install a statue of Nathuram Godse. This was a public show of strength in the service of a Hindu Rashtra widely reported in national newspapers — but clearly none of our ministerial compatriots saw this either as an assault on national interest or as an incitement to violence. Yet, when Rohith Vemula organised a protest against the execution of Memon and JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar spoke out in defence of the Constitution of India, our parliamentarians and ministers rose to defend “the nation”.

Which nation is this? Whose country? To end with Faiz Ahmad Faiz: “ Hum dekhenge, laazim hai ki hum bhi dekhenge ...”

(Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. She is an alumna of the University of Hyderabad and of JNU.)

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