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US envoy Richard Verma repeats: Free speech a key tenet

In response to a question on the JNU row, he said, “It should be left to the government and students to decide (on the free speech debate).”

By: Express News Service | Patna,new Delhi | Published: February 24, 2016 3:36:00 am
Richard Verma in Patna on Tuesday. (Express Photo) Richard Verma in Patna on Tuesday. (Express Photo)

A day after he said that free speech is a “central tenet” of what India and the US “hold dear”, US ambassador to India Richard Verma Tuesday reiterated his comments, saying that “free speech” is the “hallmark of democracy” in both countries.

“Every democracy has to decide the contours and space of free expression it gives to individuals. Free speech has been the hallmark of democracy both in India and the US. It is the diversity of languages and ideas that makes India great,” he said during a visit to Bihar.

In response to a question on the JNU row, he said, “It should be left to the government and students to decide (on the free speech debate).”

This is Verma’s first trip to Bihar after he became the US ambassador to India in December 2014. Asked if the US would go ahead with its plan to supply F-16 aircraft to Pakistan, he said, “I know your concerns. The matter is before Congress.”

This is the first time a diplomat based in India has spoken out on the controversy surrounding JNU. In May last year, Verma had expressed “concern” over the “potentially chilling effects” of regulatory steps taken by the Narendra Modi government against certain NGOs, including the Ford Foundation.

Two diplomats from western European countries also expressed concern at the situation involving universities in India, including JNU.

“Our political team has been tracking the developments here. I don’t need to tell you that freedom of expression is facing a challenge right now. But we hope sensible people within and outside the government will handle the situation in a manner which does not lead to further unrest,” a diplomat who has spent two years in India told The Indian Express.

Another diplomat said the unrest could impact the “economic climate”. “We are looking at the parliament session, which might get affected due to the current state of politics. We are hoping that the GST legislation is passed, since a lot of investors are watching the space. It will be good if the government is able to resolve these issues, so the economic agenda can go forward,” said the diplomat.

A Russian diplomat said there appeared to be “provocation” in JNU and the government had to respond in an appropriate manner, while a Chinese diplomat said the situation was “complicated” and there was “no easy solution” to the issue. An envoy from Africa called it India’s “internal matter”.

On Monday, in response to a question in the capital, Verma had said, “It will be hard to find a country more diverse than India. That is a great attribute of this country. It is what will propel India forward in the next century. That’s also a part of both of our democracies, particularly on college campuses, and it is something both of our countries frankly have celebrated and welcomed over years and over decades and these are called the laboratories of thoughts.”

“The fact that both of our Constitutions start with we the people, the fact that we both protect and uphold minority rights and celebrate diversity. What I have seen again in both of our countries is that those traditions are so important in US and India and I believe they will continue to be what makes both of our countries great,” he said.

Verma said that all democracies at some point grapple with questions over the appropriate amount of freedom to give to people. “Ultimately this is a question for Indian society to resolve. It is one of the great hallmarks of India and US to have this diversity of thought and diversity of speech and the fact is we are constitutional democracies, where speech is a central tenet of what we hold dear,” he said.

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