Ramjas College protest: India's student unions have lost all means of respectfully engaging with each other

Who is welcome on an academic campus? For years, we heard the cries from the Right that it was their thinkers who were not welcome on an academic campus. That the Left-run student unions would ensure that talks by the Right-wing people were disrupted. That Right-wing academics would be hounded out by protest tactics like gheraos and intimidating protests by Left organisations on campus. 'Forced into exile' — it was always the case of the Right that academia in India had become this Unitarian space where only one form of thought was acceptable and palatable.

Now, we are beginning to see something quite different at a very different sort of university. The Delhi University is not the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). In the primary sense that it's a collegiate university whose primary focus is undergraduates. So when you have undergraduate students, the message you send about India and her culture of diversity, dissent and protest becomes doubly important.

Protests at Ramjas College. News18

Protests at Ramjas College. News18

Which is why this author was pained to learn that Ramjas College decided to cancel it's two-day seminar 'Cultures of Protest' on Tuesday after Delhi police allegedly could not protect the seminar or it's attendees. The issue: The college had extended an invitation to Umar Khalid to participate. Khalid, if one's memory needs refreshing, was part of the now infamous group, who along with Kanhaiya Kumar from JNU last year, were accused of sedition and spreading 'anti-national' slogans at an event associated with commemorating the one-year anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru — convicted of conspiring to bomb Parliament and consequently waging war on our Republic. They called the execution of Guru a judicial murder, thereby, stoking passions across the board.

The passions of the ABVP, the ruling party in the Delhi University student council, appear to have still remained stoked though. The party has lost no time in registering its protest against Khalid being invited on campus and even today there have been clashes between AISA and ABVP members when AISA members attempted to take out a protest march against the cancellation of the event.

For years, the Left has argued that aggressive protest is a valid tool against power. Even today, as in the case protests at FTII, gheraos were witnessed along with other 'coercive' means of 'non-violent' protests. Short of direct clashes, there are many means of protest that Left-wing organisations have used on campus that barely fit within the ambit of non-violence. The same is true with the Right. Today we see Left intellectuals condemning intimidating protests by Right-wing groups. In recent memory, we saw Right intellectuals condemning the same by Left-wing groups.

But now the question that comes is this: What are we telling our students when we tell them that speech is subject to 'public safety'. That if you can make your protest one that has the potential for so much violence that the police cannot control the security, then the event itself would be cancelled. It's a cop out for the next generation. One one hand, we teach them the value of things like peaceful civil protest and how our constitutional scheme values such an idea, on the other hand, we show them the effectiveness of threatening mob violence. Obviously in most cases, the latter works out better.

But should it work out better? Khalid should have the police protection and the seminar should have gone on. If people didn't agree with what was being said, they should have not attended it. No one is forced to attend something they disagree with. That's how speech works. If you don't like something, don't listen to it. If you don't like an argument, don't listen to it. If you think the argument is wrong, then the answer is not shutting down an argument, it's making a better argument. That's democracy. It's the clash of ideas and arguments. It's not one bunch of people telling the other to shut up.

Right now, India's student unions (both on the Right and the Left) appear to be well trained to create law and order problems and seem to have lost all means of respectfully engaging with each other. Obviously in such a situation, the college debate will boil down to stones being thrown at a seminar hall. The country should wake up to the fact that as a nation we have failed to teach our youth how to respectfully engage with ideas. College is the ideal space to train them in this form of engagement. We watch in horror as the DMK and the AIADMK threw chairs at each other in the Tamil Nadu Assembly the other day. We saw news channels say that it was a sad day that Parliamentary democracy had come to that situation. Well, parliamentary democracy begins on a campus and it begins with events not being cancelled because the cops can't keep everyone safe.

It should not be the duty of the citizens to ensure that their speech does not provoke people to disorder, but it should be the duty of the administration to ensure that a citizen may speak freely and that order is maintained while they do so.

It is shameful that the police could not secure the event. It is even more shameful that the event at Ramjas had to be cancelled. What is worse is the way the ABVP students proceeded to disrupt the seminar violently. No type of nationalistic passion can justify such boorish behaviour. To think that they represent India's educated classes casts only a darker stain on an already stained democratic fabric.

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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2017 20:15:15 IST

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