President Pranab Mukherjee, while delivering his K S Rajamony Memorial lecture in Kochi, resounded the spirit of India, above all, as a constitutional democracy with a commitment to social justice and preserving vibrant plurality. His comments were particularly notable in the space due to a want of categorical condemnation from the top echelons of the government against the use of violence as a clamp down on dissent in Ramjas college.
In the wake of Delhi University unrest, shrinking academic spaces of dissent and threats received by Gurmehar Kaur for voicing her anti-ABVP protest, Mukherjee’s comments were hard-hitting and unambiguous in their call to eschew violence and intolerance against those holding different opinions.
Indian universities in the recent times, instead of becoming bastions of liberal education and vibrant discussions, have surrendered to monochromatic tones, intolerance towards alternate views and even thuggery. The President recalled the ancient Nalanda and Takshashila centers of learning that earned international renown for being knowledge societies championing free thinking. Alluding to the events of violence, he lamented that universities which are meant to provide the space to engage in “reasoned discussion and debate”, had been “caught in the vortex of violence and disquiet”.
Union minister Kiren Rijiju and actor Randeep Hooda had commented over social media that a ‘young girl’ holding a protest would be doing so as a pawn of (Leftist) politicians, thus questioning her ability to think for herself in backing the cause of opposing the ABVP for its violence. More importantly, Gurmehar Kaur faced harassment, intimidation and was targeted over social media by violent threats including that of rape. In this context, wherein the spectre of gendered violence that periodically rears its head, Mukherjee’s words that the acid test of any society is its attitude towards women and children finds special relevance. “India should not fail this test”, he said.
Mukherjee praised freedom of speech and expression as a pillar of democracy — enshrined in the constitution and bequeathed to each and every citizen as a fundamental right. Press freedom – which is closely linked to Freedom of Expression — is a crucial pillar of democracy and India in 2016 ranked a miserable 133rd in the global index of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders – behind even Afghanistan (120) and Qatar (117). This should be a matter of grave concern in a democracy that at its inception, defied all expectations by not succumbing to a dictatorship or state of anarchy in spite of glaring plurality within a newly independent nation.
Sensationalist debates have been deceptively shrunk to pitting freedom of expression against nationalism. Lately, attention has shifted away from the understanding that diversity of expression (in speech, language, lifestyle, religion, caste, class etc) is at the heart of the idea of India and is inevitable to being a nationalist in the true sense of inclusivity. The President, from his position, did well to remind and emphasize those aspired values.