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Rohit Dhankar

Professor Partha Chatterjee makes a strong case for protecting freedom of speech in universities in his well-written article[1] published in EPW March12, 2016,  vol L1 no 11. His argument for the freedom of speech in general and in the universities in particular is sound and one should have no problem in accepting that. However, it seem to me that the article makes several claims that may not be sustainable in a rigorous scrutiny. While agreeing on the general issue of freedom of speech I would like to refute a few claims he makes either explicitly or by implication.

Professor Chatterjee begins his article by quoting Tagore and states that “[w]ere Rabindranath Tagore to utter those words on a university campus in India today, he would be called “anti-national” and arrested for sedition.” This claim I would like to refute. What he quotes from Tagore is as follows:

“Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.… Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.”

Professor Chatterjee’s claim is plainly wrong as much is routinely said about the nationalism and Indian state which actually might be stronger than this statement of Tagore and none of those people are arrested. Being called “anti-national” by some people in the society is as much an exercise of free speech, albeit crude and unjustified, as making statements is. The state authority cannot be directly blamed for that, even if the party in power is instigating that. Just to take one example Professor Nivedita Menon claimed that whole world believes that India has illegally occupied Kashmir, and that 30-40% of the country is under emergency. A parliamentarian stated in the house itself that by nationalism he understands the sentiment that was popular in Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler; and he does not agree with that kind of sentiment. There are many more statements floating freely in the media which condemn nationalism and even India and none of the people who made such statements are arrested. It seems Professor Chatterjee is opening up his article by an unsustainable polemical statement; which does not help bring any clarity to the debate about freedom of speech.

Then he goes on to claims that “[w]e are now being told that it is a criminal act to question within the premises of a university the integrity of the nation or the provisions of the Constitution or even a Supreme Court judgment.” Further he claims that “a fundamental confusion” is being “caused by lazy thinking or deliberate obfuscation, about the actual limits to freedom of speech in the university and the appropriate authorities who can enforce them.” He goes on “[a]re we to accept that the present boundaries of the Indian nation state cannot be critically examined in the classroom or seminar?” Further still he questions “since when are judgments of the Supreme Court exempt from public discussion in India? Can students of law and the Constitution not be expected to answer questions about the Afzal Guru judgment?” I would like to argue that there is nothing in the JNU case (which is the context in which Professor Chatterjee is writing his article) and related government action which justifies his suspicion that freedom of a university is being threatened in the kinds of cases he mentions here. All these claims are patently false. What is actually happening is that BJP wants to capture the universities, and for that purpose is promoting ABVP. In this process it is also bringing in the ‘academics’ of its own kind. But that does not mean that the classroom or seminar discourse is attacked more than it always has been.

However, before I go further it must be stated that the government action on sloganeering students without waiting for the university processes was unjustified and condemnable. (I would also like to state in the present climate that refuting Professor Chatterjee’s claims does not mean supporting the BJP and the government position. All it does is to caution that a just fight cannot be sustained on false charges and polemics alone.)

Actually it seem to me that these charges draw attention away from the real issue which Professor Chatterjee doesn’t even mention in his article. The real issue for which the police entered JNU, sedition charges (rightly or wrongly) slapped on students, arrest of JNUSU president and later two more students; all happened because of the slogans shouted in public gathering and not for scholarly discussions in seminars or classrooms.

It seems to me that Professor Chatterjee thinks that there is no difference in questioning of the integrity of India in a seminar/classroom and shouting slogans in a public gathering. And that is the crux of the matter. The whole JNU discourse constantly talks of freedom of examining integrity, constitution and court judgment in the seminars and classrooms; while the general public sees the matter as that of slogan shouting. Since my understanding of politics, political thought and history is at a level much lower than that of Professor Chatterjee, and therefore, I might be wrong, but I do think that discussion in a seminar is not the same thing as slogan shouting in public gathering.

To make my point through an example I am taking three slogans which were undisputedly shouted by the arrested JNU students. Columns one and two in the following table (headings “Statement-1” and “Statement-2”) represent the kinds of statements that might be given in a seminar. Column three contains the slogans.


SN Statement-1 Statement-2 Slogan
1 We as Indians should be ashamed that our highest judiciary failed to do justice in the case of Afzal Guru. He did not deserve capital punishment. We are ashamed that the judges and the prosecuting agency personnel who managed to hand Afzal are still alive. अफज़ल हम शर्मिंदा हैं, तेरे कातिल जिन्दा है. (Afzal, we are ashamed that your killer are still alive.)
2 If the judicial system works in this unjust manner it will produce Afzalz in every home. How many Afzals will the judicial state will kill? We will make sure that every household produces a Afzal. कितने अफज़ल मरोगे? घर-घर से अफज़ल निकले गा.
3 It is clear on the available evidence that the violent struggle in Kashmir will not end till the Kashmiries get the azadi which they want. We will make sure that the violent attacks on the Indian state will continue till the Kashmir gets its freedom. कश्मीर की आजादी तक, जंग रहेगी. (There shall be war till Kashmir gets freedom.)


Suppose someone states in a seminar or in a classroom that We as Indians should be ashamed that our highest judiciary failed to do justice in the case of Afzal Guru. He did not deserve capital punishment.”  This person is sharing his/her analysis and understanding of the judgment. Allowing others to counter this statement with alternative analysis. All that is happening is at the level of ideas and exploration as to what would be the most rationally justified opinion on this issue. The academics are maintained by the society to do this job, and I don’t think they can be attacked if they do that.

The same person making the second statement is saying something very different. “We are ashamed that the judges and the prosecuting agency personnel who managed to hang Afzal are still alive.” Here the debate is not at all about whether Afzal hanging was justified or not; that question is already supposed to have been settled. Now it is expression of shame that those who perpetrated that injustice are alive; by implication they should have been dead. This also expresses the speaker’s advocacy to kill those people. This may fall short of instigating any particular person to kill them; but attempts to provide a moral justification to kill them, which will be available to whosoever wants to make such an attempt. Therefore, it is an open ideological justification for a violent reprisal. I am not a legal expert and am not sure if the state should ignore preaching theories that justify violent reprisals.

Now let us see the slogan shouted in a public gathering: Afzal, we are ashamed that your killer are still alive.” Like the second statement here the issue of whether the Supreme Court judgment and hanging of Afzal was justifiable or not is already deemed settled. It is assumed to be wrong, no debate. The sloganeers here are expressing self-shame on failure to fulfil a just pledge they have already taken or should have taken. And this public shouting of that shame is renewal of that pledge as well as seeking public support to such an act.

In spite of a feeling of belabouring the point let’s do a similar analysis of the third set of statements and slogan. We have to keep in mind that at this very moment there is violent terrorist movement going on in Kashmir. Whether we like it or not it is powered by religious bigotry as well as political discontent. People are dying on both sides and a foreign power is providing moral as well as all kinds of material support. These are not irrelevant facts. I am saying nothing here about whether this violent terrorist movement is for a just cause or not. (I have my opinion but that is not relevant for the analysis of the third set of statements I am offering here.) All I am saying is that the statements and slogans are happening in this context.

Imagine someone states in a seminar or a classroom: It is clear on the available evidence that the violent struggle in Kashmir will not end till the Kashmiris get the azadi which they want.” This person is offering an assessment of a political situation. Thinks that there is evidence to support it, is leaving it open enough for others to counter through arguments. It is a genuine attempt to make sense of the situation.  I don’t think the Indian state even now is stopping or punishing anyone for such a discourse. There are people in the society who will react to such statements, there might be politicians who would like to use such statements for political gain; but the state does not seem to interfere directly in this.

Now imagine that our speaker in the seminar or classroom states that: “We will make sure that the violent attacks on the Indian state will continue till the Kashmir gets its freedom.” This is not presentation of assessment of a political situation. It is expression of a political commitment at the level of action, the commitment at the level of idea is assumed. The speaker is declaring that there is a group (we) and s/he is part of that group, and that that group will ensure that violent attacks on the innocent Indian people and Indian state continue till Kashmir gets its ‘azadi’. This is a pledge to kill innocent Indians.

I do not know what would be the legal position on such proclamation, but as an ordinary Indian citizen allowing such proclamations unchecked seems to be too dangerous to me. I will come to it later.

Now let’s consider the slogan: There shall be war till Kashmir gets freedom.” As I have stated above there is a ‘war’ going on with foreign help. This slogan is neither a discourse on justification of that war, nor an explanation of it, nor is it an academic prediction. It is a plain and simple war cry uttered in a public gathering. It expresses direct involvement in continuing the ongoing war. It is an expression of a commitment on the part of sloganeers and an abetment and instigation for those who are listening and being influenced.

I, a common Indian citizen, am completely unable to understand Professor Chatterjee’s claims that the freedom of speech is throttled for the statements like given in the first column of the table above, and completely ignoring the meaning of statements like listed in the second column and slogans listed in the third column. Of course, I might be wrong. Professor Chatterjee is a political scientist and maybe he has an argument which justifies treating the statements in the first column and slogans in the third column the same in meaning and intent. That is what his article implies. Actually his article goes further, it implies that an attempt to stop slogans in the third column is tantamount to attack on freedom to make statements in the first column. I would like to learn what could be the arguments for that conclusion, but at present I can imagine none.

Now it seems by the admission of JNU-lobby intellectuals that Maoists do not accept the legitimacy of the Indian state and elected Indian government. They want to overthrow the elected government and capture the state through violent armed revolution. It is being argued that: (1) preaching of such ideology should be accepted in the limits of freedom of speech, and (2) even instigating people to directly participate in such struggle, helping them materially, and helping in keeping their ideological commitment intact; all are part of freedom of speech.

It seems to me the point one in the paragraph above (keeping it at the level of discussion) should be considered within the bounds of freedom of speech. But that has implications that must be accepted. If one is allowed to preach an ideology of capturing the state through armed revolution; I don’t see how one can object preaching an ideology of capturing the state to form a Hindu-rashtra or capturing the state for implementing sharia? What I am saying is that if you allow preaching of Maoist ideology openly; you have to allow preaching Islamist ideology and Hindu-rasthtra ideologies openly as well.

Points 2 above clearly transgress that limit and have to be dealt with legal action. I am not saying that legal action should be sedition, do not know enough about it; but some kind of legal check is required for actions of the kind listed in point 2 above.

Even preaching such ideology in a university sounds too dangerous to me. The young students can be swayed too easily towards idealising these positions. If one listens to the open lectures in JNU and response from the students that does not give one confidence in their analytical capabilities. I am sorry to state, but the general impression the students’ response creates is a dangerous lack of balance and analytical capabilities. Professor Chatterjee through this article which obfuscates between academic discussions and slogan shouting does not help develop that analytical capability. He actually helps in a kind of dangerously woolly thinking and shifts the point of argument.

There are well respected academics whose heart goes to students who want to overthrow the elected government through armed struggle and do not accept the legitimacy of the Indian state. They even want to adopt them as their sons. Well, it is their choice of what kind of children they want. But I assume an average Indian would want to have a dialogue with the child who might have been misled into such an untenable ideological position. And please, don’t attack me for calling these revolutionary naujawaan students ‘children’, I am not doing that. All I am doing is referring to the overflow of parental love and pride in them expressed by respected academics. One wonders whether that implies considering them children though!

The JNU intellectual lobby is constantly and only engaging with the lunatic rightist fringe that abuses on the social media and attacks people in the courts. I do not claim that this fringe is not used by the ruling party, perhaps it is. Still I feel that they are insulting the Indian public by assuming that this lunatic fringe expresses the positions and worries on freedom of speech and nationalism of an average Indian. It is completely wrong. They have lost touch. I am assuming, again I might be wrong, that the kinds of questions and doubts an average Indian has in the mind are what I am expressing here. And the JNU intellectual lobby seem to have no response to these questions and doubts. Professor Chatterjee’s article is no different.


[1]Freedom of Speech in the University, EPW March12, 2016,  Vol L1 no 11.