It is regrettable that “independent thinking and freedom of expression” in universities are “under threat”, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Friday. Speaking at the bicentenary celebrations of Presidency University here, Singh said, “We are witnessing around the world a rise of nationalist tendencies, populism and hatred against backward classes and minorities in disregarding reason and rationality… these tendencies could be extremely destructive. We must protect India from this trend and universities have a vital role in this regard.”
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In his address at the event to mark Founder’s Day, Singh said, “Regrettably, independent thinking and free expression in Indian universities are now under threat.” In a veiled attack on the Narendra Modi-led government, he said, “Recent attempts to interfere with free expression of the student community at Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University are of particular concern. Attempts to suppress peaceful dissent are not only inimical to learning but also undemocratic.”
Pointing to the rise of neo-nationalist tendencies across the world, Singh said that the “extremely dangerous” tendencies responded to “populism and directing hatred against backward classes and minorities”. In such a situation, “We must protect India from this trend and universities have a vital role in this regard.”
“I believe that every university must give the freedom to pursue knowledge even where the knowledge may be at odds with established intellectual and social traditions. We must guard this freedom very zealously,” he said.
The former PM’s speech was brief. But at the end of it, the question he had posed — on the role of a university in a space where dissent is not tolerated —- found resonance across the campus. A massive banner declaring Presidency University to be the institution that has asked “inspiring life-changing questions since 1817” dominated the varsity. The advertisements argued that this culture of asking questions had produced “3 presidents, 1 Prime Minister, 1 Nobel laureate, 1 Oscar Winner, 1 explorer, 7 inventors”.
Banners reiterating the questions asked by these Presidency alumni — Aparna Sen, Amartya Sen, Satyajit Ray, J C Bose, Nabaneeta Deb Sen, P C Mahalanobis, Ashutosh Mukherjee, Subhash Chandra Bose, Satyendranatha Bose, Pramathesh Barua, Prafulla Chandra Roy, Meghnad Saha, Rajendra Prasad —were displayed across the campus. The questions ranged from Ray’s “Can Indian cinema touch the world?” to Prasad’s “What is the future of a fledgling nation?”