Updated: July 7, 2021 7:27:38 am
No student should be punished for exercising their right to free speech within the university space.” In an argumentative democracy, that sentence — along with much of Delhi Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Manish Sisodia’s letter to the Principal Secretary, Education — should be a truism, not a statement to be lauded. Yet, the fact that Minister Sisodia publicly stood up for the right of a student of Delhi’s Ambedkar University (AUD) to criticise university policies and allegedly, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, is welcome. The notion that a “university should be a safe space for students to freely voice their opinion, debate and develop their points of view” has been increasingly under threat from various governments, including and especially at the Centre. And the fact that one of the top leaders of a state government has stood up for the right to free speech and dissent on campus could help guide the public conversation, both within and outside universities, back to fundamental constitutional principles and guarantees.
A final semester MA student at AUD was fined Rs 5,000 for her remarks during the online convocation ceremony attended by Kejriwal. The high-handed manner in which this punishment was announced is of a piece with a dismal pattern that has been taking shape in universities across the country since at least 2016. That eventful year saw the suicide of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University, the labelling of students at JNU as “anti-national” for holding a political programme as well as charges of sedition being filed against some of them. During the anti-CAA protests, subsequently, the police stormed the Jamia Millia Islamia and AMU campuses and many scholars and students have been arrested under the provisions of the draconian UAPA. In all this, students and their right to disagree and dissent have been pitted against muscular and homogenising ideas of nationalism. In fact, even Sisodia’s own AAP government in Delhi gave its sanction to prosecute former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar for sedition.
In this climate, Sisodia’s defence of dissent acknowledges that the university is a space where the shibboleths of nationalism, and the claims of the powerful, are up for constant challenge and review. To maintain the campus as a site for creativity and innovation, students and scholars must be allowed to question accepted pieties and wisdom. The Delhi minister’s letter is a reminder that the state and those in society who disagree with its functionaries are not at odds. More representatives of the former — across states and at the Centre — need to stand up for the rights of the latter.
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