Universities fear political threat to free speech

Many Indian universities, particularly in the capital New Delhi, are becoming increasingly concerned by politically driven attempts to curb freedom of speech, according to academics and students, after a University of Delhi college seminar titled ‘Cultures of Protest’ spilled out of the debating hall and sparked violent street clashes and demonstrations, with thousands attending a march on 28 February.

Following violence at Ramjas College, University of Delhi on 21 February, during which 20 people including a professor were injured, Amnesty International India’s Executive Director Aakar Patel released a statement describing it as “a shameful reminder of how intimidation and threats continue to restrict free speech on university campuses”.

"Authorities need to protect academic freedom, which is crucial to the right to education. The Delhi police must ensure that students at universities can express their opinions without fear of repression by anyone," Patel said.

The 21 February demonstrations began after the college authorities withdrew an invitation to speak at the Ramjas seminar to two students from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, including Umar Khalid, a JNU student who was released on bail after being arrested on sedition charges at a JNU event last year. The move to bar the JNU two has been seen by many at the university as a curb on freedom of expression on campuses.

The withdrawing of the invitation came after the seminar was opposed by the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, leading to clashes on 21 February between ABVP and rival All India Students' Association supporters. The seminar organised by the college’s English department was then cancelled.

Ramjas College Principal Rajendra Prasad said though the college advocates freedom of speech, the decision to cancel the seminar was taken “keeping the situation in mind”.

“Tuesday’s [28 February] march was not just about violence and right-wing student politics, though this was surely the trigger which brought people out on the streets to express their serious concern and anger,” said Rajat Datta, an organiser of the mass rally to protest against the violence at the Ramjas College, Delhi University on 21 February.

“It was about defending civil society under attack from the hard right, near-fascist, brand of politics unleashed on India since the arrival of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in May 2014.”

ABVP students have claimed the seminar and slogans raised by students during protests were “anti-nationalist”, a common accusation levied against opponents. Ramjas College students objected to the use of the undefined term.

Datta, a professor of history at JNU says concern at politically-driven attempts to curb academic freedom on Indian campuses began with similar attacks at JNU a year ago.

JNU debacle

The JNU attacks reportedly orchestrated by the ABVP in February 2016 were followed by the arrests of leaders from the left-wing All India Students' Association on charges of sedition that are yet to be upheld in court.

The trouble at JNU drew widespread attention with more than 400 international academics signing two separate letters to Jagadesh Kumar, vice-chancellor of JNU, condemning the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, then president of the JNU students' union.

One of the letters said JNU authorities appeared to have "defended and aided these repressive actions by the police, rather than defending the students who were involved in a non-violent activity". Describing the right to debate as “a basic pillar of academic ethics”, the letter accused JNU management of showing "a complete lack of appreciation of the concept of academic freedom".

A second letter, signed among others by Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, and Robert Wade of the London School of Economics and Political Science, was more strongly worded, condemning “the culture of authoritarian menace that the present government in India has generated”.

“The support that is emerging from the international collegiate of academics against these kinds of infringements is very heartening and welcome,” says Datta.

“The recent attacks on freedom of speech and expression have been extremely disturbing, for the violence is not just about pelting stones or trying to beat protesters, but about violently enforcing a narrow, straitjacketed, and a right-wing view of nation and nationalism in which voices of minorities, left, the secular, the feminine and the marginalised have no place.”

As before, the police have been accused by students and academics of being partisan, but they did arrest two members of the ABVP for trying to disrupt Tuesday’s rally. Also, three policemen were suspended on charges of using excessive force at Ramjas College.

Government statements

India’s Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, who is responsible for universities, was accused of ‘"remaining silent" on the protests. However, he has said the government would not intervene.

“How can we intervene? They [Delhi University] are an autonomous university. Police will investigate and take required action,” he was quoted by the Press Trust of India news agency as saying.

During a five-day visit to London last week, India’s Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, labelled student protesters subversive, saying free speech is “subordinate to the needs of the sovereign state”.

In his youth Jaitley was an ABVP student leader and became president of the students' union of Delhi University in the 1970s.

In remarks that angered protesters, Jaitley, who is also a former law and justice minister, referred to an exemption in the Indian constitution that allows “reasonable restrictions” on free speech in the interests of the “sovereignty and integrity of India”.

He maintained that an “alliance of subversion” operated on campuses. “The separatists and the ultra-Left are speaking the same language in certain university campuses. So they must be willing to allow others with a different opinion to put a counter viewpoint.”