The controversy around Ashoka University’s conduct has made die-hard supporters of free speech angry and upset. Many have already shown disgust at what the university did or called out for liberalism or the lack of it in institutions in India and somehow made a connection between the attitude of the university and the worldview of this government. And on free speech, this government does not have an impressive track record.
On the other hand, those sympathetic to Ashoka University have argued over how it’s a private university and it should be allowed to manage its own affairs. That those filing letters and petitions for the cause of Kashmir should be dealt this way, that free speech has certain restrictions under the Constitution and its being done to score political points against the government.
Both sides are not entirely wrong but not completely right either. This is not to say that the last bit on this controversy has already been heard. And yet, it feels as if all of us are trapped in constant déjà vu over free speech.
Anyhow, its important to examine what the University is accused of in its “crackdown” over free speech. Primarily, two allegations are worth looking at. First, members of the administrative staff and an assistant professor quit because of the “displeasure” shown by the management after their petition on “Kashmir” went public. This does seem out of the line but the argument doesn’t stand considering it’s the university’ prerogative to hire or fire, which means the real problem lies elsewhere.
The second issue is of the change in university’s email regulations “in the same week” the petition came to light. The university made it compulsory for emails to be exchanged between “students and alumni through a moderator.” The timing is certainly suspect and many will rightly question why such email protocol wasn’t changed earlier. And in any case, why does the University need to moderate exchange of emails among students or anyone? Let people debate what they want to but at the same time, it’s also unfair on students’ part to expect the University to endorse their agenda. After all, the University never stopped anyone from discussing the issue publicly or openly.
The idea is not to defend Ashoka university and attack liberals (or vice versa) but to find a middle ground where one can be a free speech absolutist and condemn the petition filed on Kashmir (which the university did) by some individuals at Ashoka. One doesn’t necessarily have to choose and take sides but can stand for both — free speech and upholding India’s sovereignty.
This is where, at times, the liberals in India are deeply cut off from public opinion. Maybe deliberately or otherwise, but they are. Many rightly feel that it’s become fashionable to play victims of free speech to selectively advance their agenda. After all, no other controversy can attract such attention from the media.
Liberals, on the other hand, fail to see this point of view. They are amazed and shocked over the irrational love that people have for the country that doesn’t allow others to say or do what they want and criticize the government on issues it should be.
Jonah Goldberg, the popular conservative columnist in the United States, in one of his earlier pieces described such a situation succinctly. He says, “The lethality of every poison is in the dosage. We all understand too much authoritarianism, socialism and nationalism can be terrible but one should also understand too much freedom, too much democracy can be terrible too.” He then argues “that such balance should be set far over to the freedom side of the table but just not all the way to ten”.
This is a very sensible and a valid argument. People demanding absolute free speech should see what important role patriotism plays in keeping nation/states together. When they ignore the strong emotion that many feel over the issue of Kashmir and focus solely on free speech they are wildly underestimating their lack of credibility among the people of this country. And that is precisely the reason a majority of our country is unable to relate with them.
Ashoka University, therefore in this case, has more supporters than adversaries. There may be a case against moderating email exchange but students and alumni are “free” to use other mediums for communication to raise “any issue” that they want to within the university. All that the University has asked is not to use its brand and platform to raise issues it did not agree with.
So, yes free speech is a cause worth fighting for but it will be heartening to see many liberals to indulge in a bit of patriotism. People will actually take them a lot more seriously if they raise the issue of terrorism in Kashmir with the same enthusiasm as they raise the issue of complete free speech.