The free speech hypocrisy in JNU debate

Deep Halder
Deep HalderFeb 22, 2016 | 09:01

The free speech hypocrisy in JNU debate

Eighteen years ago, I stood on the road and watched a bus burn. I don't know if they would call it an anti-national act today, but it sure was a criminal one!

My fellow students, comrades if you please, and I were protesting hike in the price of admission forms from, if I remember right, Rs 10-13. How would our brothers from the hinterland, coming as they did from families of impoverished sharecroppers, pay 13 rupees for an admission form, we shouted.


Classes were disrupted, dharnas held, a few policemen who came charging at us to break away the procession were beaten up and a state bus was set on fire. This was my initiation into the intoxicating world of student politics. But as I stood and watched that rickety bus burn I did not realise what damage I was doing to my career. How the academic session would get postponed by more than a month because of our "agitation" over such inane issues and postgraduates in my batch would not be able to apply for MPhil to various prestigious varsities outside the state, including JNU.

As my colleague Astha Saxena reported in today's Mail Today, the current academic session in JNU has been severely affected by the Afzal Guru show, JNU Students' Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar's arrest and the "nationalistic" protests that followed. In several courses, only 20 per cent of the syllabus has been completed. Not just that JNU-ites are now being hounded out of PG accommodations outside the campus. Even some auto drivers are refusing to take students to and from JNU. Surely, a heavy price to pay for supporting a hanged terrorist!


But let us not get into that. It is okay to want to change the world and undo perceived injustices through adda and agitprop. Many of us may find it in poor taste but if you really want to stretch the limits of free speech and want to commemorate Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru as a martyr - even that is fine.

Even though the highest court in the country has said otherwise, one man's terrorist may well be another man's T-shirt emblem. Where JNU has gone horribly wrong is the doublespeak on free speech - a grouse the BJP's student wing ABVP has had for years now and which may have found a vent in the current crisis.

Like in Mamata's West Bengal or the Left front's before her, the free speech argument is conveniently forgotten when it comes to hearing out the other side.

An Indian Express article on JNU on January 21 quotes a leading political scientist who had a short teaching stint at the university. He says while it is "a university with a distinct identity and culture", it has a degree of "intellectual narrowness".


The article also quotes a student of the varsity, an ABVP supporter, who says: "They talk of free speech but when it's our turn to speak, they shout us down. They recently called (former DU professor) SAR Geelani on campus, but didn't let us in because we wanted to ask a few questions. And when we decided to call Ramdev to our Sanskrit Centre, they refused to let him in. Every year, they mark Afzal Guru's hanging as Shahid Diwas, we don't say anything. During Navratri, they caricature Durga Ma and say Mahishasura represents the downtrodden and Durga is the evil oppressor. We tolerate all that."

How is it okay to commemorate Afzal Guru's death but not allow Ramdev to enter a university campus? Former ABVP activists from JNU I spoke to said being un-Hindu, anti-Hindu even, is encouraged in gatherings below the varsity's speaking trees, stubbing out voices of protest.

And this has been on for years. After Modi's thumping electoral victory and the start of the process of saffronisation of education, a clash of ideologies was bound to happen in Left bastions like JNU. The free speech hypocrisy only made that process easier.

As far as the Hindu Right is concerned, a lot has already been posted and tweeted. No matter how much some of us may whine, it's a given that shoeshiners of all ruling dispensations get plump postings in institutions, academic and otherwise.

It is also given that such hard-earned political victory for the Hindu Right would have brought about tectonic shifts in our society. But the idea to convert a hardcore Leftist hub in the heart of the capital into a nursery of chest-thumping, NCC-type saffron soldiers should have been given some more time.

Instead, the mob descended on JNU like kar sevaks on Babri Masjid. The 56-inch hyper-nationalism got reduced to thrashing a bunch of hapless students and abusing their mothers and sisters. In the name of Bharat Mata, that too.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: February 23, 2016 | 17:03
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