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'What is happening in India today is similar to the McCarthy era': Partha Chatterjee

There is something ominously new in the manner in which the attack against freedom of thought and expression has been launched this time, says the noted political scientist.

Full text of the statement titled by the noted professor of political science to his colleagues and students at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata

This is not the first time that freedom of thought and expression has been attacked in the Indian university. But there is something ominously new in the manner in which the attack has been launched this time.

We know that the sedition charge was applied across the board by British colonial rulers against anyone who expressed anti-colonial or nationalist views. Writers, artists, poets, and thousands of students and teachers were arrested for sedition alongside political leaders and agitators. But the British colonial officers, who were themselves among the best students of British universities who sat in a fiercely competitive examination to enter the highest paid civil service in the world, respected the British principle of the self-governing university. The unwritten rule that the police must not enter a university campus was observed in the early decades of independent India when I went to college. Student agitators engaged in a street fight with the police would often run for safety into the college campus, and the police would unfailingly stop at the college gates. The rule began to be violated from the 1970s. In regions of the country rocked by political agitation, the university campus was drawn into partisan conflicts between the government and the opposition. Students and teachers were arrested on charges of participating in violent agitations. Needless to say, in the North-eastern states or Kashmir, where state repression is long-standing and indiscriminate, the university campus was not spared.

Not since the Emergency

But I cannot remember, except for the period of the Emergency in 1975-77, a national campaign that asserts that certain political questions cannot even be talked about in the university. Are we to accept that national loyalty must be so unquestioned that the origins and present status of the nation and its boundaries, the nature of the constitution and the laws, the mutual relations between different regions and cultures, the demands of oppressed peoples and minority groups, cannot even be discussed and debated among students and teachers? One would have thought that such debates were the very essence of a democratic public life. And of all public places, the university campus is the most precious arena where freedom of thought and expression is the foundation of the vibrant intellectual life of a nation. Even in the United States, that paradise of market-controlled capitalism, university professors are protected by tenured appointments on the specific ground that they must not be exposed to victimisation for the content of what they teach or publish. This demand was recognised after the experience of the notorious McCarthy witch hunt against alleged communists in the 1950s.

What is happening in India today is similar to the McCarthy era. Whether the alleged “anti-national” slogans were raised on the campuses of Hyderabad University or JNU by those who have been charged is, of course, important for the future careers of those students – for Rohith Vemula the matter is, tragically, beyond rectification. But as far as the broader issues are concerned, that is beside the point.

What school of jurisprudence is it that claims that a sentence of capital punishment pronounced by the courts and the subsequent political decision to carry out the execution cannot be debated in a democratic public forum, especially in a university?

What is the constitutional theory that says that the existing boundaries of the nation-state or the structure of relations between the constituent units of the Indian Union are not open to question when only the other day the Indian government transferred dozens of hitherto Indian villages to neighbouring Bangladesh through a treaty and the number of constituent states of the Union and their federal relations are regularly changed by constitutional amendments?

Or is it the claim that while grave matters like these might be left to the mature decisions of politicians, impressionable students must not be exposed to such dangerous scepticism? Is the plan then to turn the university into some sort of patriotic seminary designed to produce brainwashed nationalist morons?

A blanket licence

While we may be forgiven for laughing about the farcical quality of the latest campaign, with such gems as the decision to fly national flags from 207-foot high steel poles on every Central university campus, it is actually spine-chilling in its implications. What has now been sanctioned by the highest political authorities of the country is a blanket licence to every Hindu right-wing vigilante group to target individuals belonging to the Left-Dalit-minority fraternity on university campuses. They can be identified as “anti-national” simply on the basis of their political convictions. Charges of sedition brought by the police would help, but it does not matter in the least if they do not hold up in court. The object is to smear and intimidate. The extreme example was set by the murder last year of MM Kalburgi. What we are seeing today in the attack on Kanhaiya Kumar and his friends in the Patiala House court or on Professor Vivek Kumar of JNU in Gwalior may only be the beginning of a long and bloody series.

A great deal is at stake. We must be strong, resilient and united.

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