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JNVU controversy sheds light on growing friction on several campuses

Clampdown on free speech within the university — as in a campus in Jodhpur — robs it of its vital gift.

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February 20, 2017 12:08:22 am
Credit: Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur Source: Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur

The brouhaha over a seminar held at Jodhpur’s Jai Narain Vyas University (JNVU) reflects shrinking minds — the opposite of what a university aims to accomplish. Speaking at a seminar titled “History Reconstrued Through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture”, JNU professor Nivedita Menon is alleged to have made “unpatriotic” remarks about Kashmir, which Menon later clarified, saying an “unnecessary controversy” was created “based on rumours”. But even as Menon fire-fights, the JNVU seminar organiser has been suspended. In addition, Rajshree Ranawat, assistant professor of English, faces the prospect of the university syndicate possibly “terminating her services”. The university claims this is because, amongst other reasons, Ranawat “encouraged Menon before her lecture” — a charge that is incredible, if not downright amusing.

The state of free expression within the university isn’t amusing. There has been growing friction on several campuses, with students, and now, faculty, facing harsh measures from a range of authorities if they do what they are there to do: Discuss diverse thought, formulate new ideas, learn to make a stage where multiple concepts can confront, collide and create. This is what makes the university, and its learning, different from school; the freedom to think anew and not recite by rote, the freedom to voice difference without fearing punishment, the freedom to coexist in a world — a universe — where there can be a hundred ideas of the same ideal, vibrating with empathy and electricity, in a fabulous laboratory of thought, a youthful senate of citizenship.

Worryingly, that was not the freedom seen in Hyderabad Central University, where Rohith Vemula, a young Dalit research scholar, was hounded to suicide — he had demonstrated against the death penalty for Yakub Memon and protested the ABVP’s disruption of the screening in Delhi University of a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar riots. That was not the freedom accorded to JNU, when students voiced different perspectives on Kashmir. Instead of the university being an island of ideas, where even extreme views receive the light of a democratic sky, in these cases, politics intervened, using labels like “patriot” or “anti-national”. Yet, a university, more than other social institutions, must debate such labels with sincerity and passion. The university must allow members to express what they believe in, and develop the maturity to allow other views to live, and not choke them. This is the “growing up” a university helps its students accomplish. Ironically, this is the quality most painfully absent, it seems, from many Indian universities today.

This first appeared in print under the headline Higher Bigotry

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First published on: 20-02-2017 at 12:08:22 am
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