Dissent is a right, but students of JNU are selective about liberty and freedom

To claim that the institutional climate in JNU is conducive to free thought and neutral ideology is a joke
Dissent is a right, but students of JNU are selective about liberty and freedom
Dissent is a right, but students of JNU are selective about liberty and freedom
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By Arvind Ilamaran

The latest debacle at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has opened up a Pandora's Box to say the least. But it has also provided context to discuss the larger issues which have been plaguing what JNU stands for in the larger discourse.

Now, let us be honest. No one in their observant mind is going to say that JNU is a non-leftist institution. By the curse of Gods or deeds of its inhabitants, JNU has come to symbolize the progressive and sometimes hardcore left in Indian imagination. The best personal experience I had in that regard was seeing hundreds of students standing in an open amphitheatre in JNU campus, in 2013, cheering wildly to a Pakistani band performing, with the message that it is time to abolish private property. The same student community, which today is raging on the streets that freedom is under attack, wanted the freedom to own property abolished.

Whatever the status now is regarding the issue, it all began with a vigil for Afzal Guru, a convicted terrorist, who was held responsible for attacking the Indian Parliament. Within this vigil was a group of students shouting that India is occupying Kashmir by force of might, and that Kashmir needs to be freed from Indian clutches. Probably, within this sub-group there were other fringe elements who were chanting slogans calling for India's downfall.

Beginning with Afzal Guru, he was not convicted by a Khap Panchayat. He was convicted under open trial with provision of evidence and arguments open to scrutiny of civil society, by legitimate judiciary institutions of the Republic of India. If that was not enough, what does JNU's protesting community actually want? Should we subject all judicial decisions to JNU's idiosyncrasies and then come to a consensus?

The student union which is openly aligned with Indian left wants a strong government that strongly regulates private activity in the markets. Apparently international security is orthogonal to the subsistence of a strong state and economic freedom is somehow outside the realm of principles of liberty.

I am an unapologetic defender of freedom. This embracement of the principles of liberty is neither selective nor partial towards any ideology. I believe in political, social and economic liberty. I stand with JNU students on their right to dissent. I stand with them on their claim that sedition laws are archaic and have no role to exist in a civilized democracy. But when the JNU students claim that freedom is under attack, they conveniently forget to underscore the fact that they are enraged only due their freedom to express being curbed.

Is this freedom to express selective? What happened to these rights when applied other sections of the society, even if they are extreme? I cannot remember the number of times I have heard from JNU students that “hate speech” has to be very strongly dealt with by the government. Now they are enraged when their speech is construed as hate speech and the government wants to intervene?

This blatant abuse of the notion of freedom has been the dominant political narrative of Indian left and unfortunately even the progressives today. Students claim that JNU is a free university and the bastion of academic excellence, and that the students' freedom is being curbed and essence of the university destroyed by recent government actions. As someone rightly pointed out, as taxpayers, we pay JNU students for their studies, not their politics. If they should so inclined to take away time from academic pursuits to indulge in political propaganda, they may do it outside the University and leave the space for more deserving students to truly pursue academic goals.

To claim that the institutional climate in JNU is conducive to free thought and neutral ideology is a joke lost upon me and probably on many others as well.

Again, to reiterate, the freedom to dissent is absolute. But to use the legitimacy of this right as a justification for students' action will be an intellectual failure. The protestors claim that this was a non-violent and non-confrontational protest. This is the same community which argues that aggression and oppression in non-physical forms are equally harmful and detrimental to society. I agree with that. But then, shouldn't we use the same lens to understand this problem as well? Is holding a public meeting and calling for the vivisection of the Indian State with elements supported by Pakistan, which is bent upon Balkanisation of India on religious grounds by force of arms and terrorism, a non-violent, non-confrontational act which can be ignored?

JNU students have a right to dissent but the way they did it is not acceptable. Universities are places which offer classrooms and forums to discuss and debate such issues courteously and with responsibility. Universities are not places for rabble rousing and jousting grounds for non-university actors like politicians to vent their ire against ideology they are against. Neither the faculty nor the students have displayed any sign of responsibility or restraint in the language that they used. Gandhiji withdrew the Satyagraha agitation when the Chauri Chaura incident took place. He acknowledged that he had erred in overestimating the maturity of the Indian population and his own ability in controlling such passions when aroused. Can any of these so called leaders display the same humility?

Arvind Ilamaran is a Master of Public Policy student at University of Chicago. Previously worked with Center for Civil Society, Freedom Team of India and 5th Pillar. Written with contributions from Ravichandran Swaminathan.

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