December 6 was disconcertingly quiet in JNU. A slew of programmes — lectures by CPM leader Prakash Karat and, on the other side of the ideological divide, by Subramanian Swamy, and a seminar on Babri Masjid and Ramjanmabhoomi — slated to be held on campus to mark the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya were cancelled by the administration ostensibly to “maintain communal harmony”. In a rare convergence of views, the Left and Right among the students in JNU agreed that the university administration has overstepped its brief. The ABVP, which had invited Swamy to speak, described the directive issued by the dean of students as a “Tughlaqi firman”, and JNUSU president Geeta Kumari equated the cancellation of the seminar to censorship. They must stand together and talk back to the authorities. Because debate and discussion are the life-breath of a university and enforced silence militates against harmony.
Ever since the nationalism controversy that convulsed the campus after the slapping of sedition charges against slogan-shouting students in 2016, the JNU administration appears gripped by a fear of debate. By all accounts, the thinking seems to be that any talk or discussion on a politically-charged subject falls outside the purview of academics and is a threat to order. While defending the decision to cancel the December 6 events, the university administration said, “academic discussions on various themes are always permitted that contribute to knowledge enhancement and social order”. How is a lecture or a seminar on a political issue that radically transformed Indian politics and rearranged communal relations in the past three decades, unrelated to “knowledge enhancement”? It would seem that the JNU authorities need to rethink their idea of what constitutes knowledge and how it is produced. Past statements from the JNU establishment reek of a repressive view of a university as a constricted space where speech and expression are regulated by officials. This also shows a lack of trust in the larger JNU community, which includes students, faculty, scholars etc, and its commitment to the preservation of the institution as a centre for learning and debate.
The onus is on all parties in the university to start a conversation that is vibrant and informed and that can also address real and imagined fears. India’s best-known public university cannot hope to buy “peace” and “stability” by wrapping itself in silence.