Universities must foster a culture of debate and dissent, writes an IIT Madras prof  

By Srilata K 

Editor’s note: A set of 38 faculty members from IIT-Madras wrote to the President, stressing the urgent need for free speech at educational institutions. Firstpost invited one of the signatories of this petition, K Srilata, professor of English, Department of Humanities and Social sciences, IIT Madras, to write a short note explaining why her colleagues dispatched a letter to Mukherjee. A different group of 56 faculty members from IIT-Madras has also written to President Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday, voicing a different concern that institutions of higher learning in India had been turned into “warzones”.

Universities must foster a culture of debate and dissent. This ought to be the foremost of their goals. That is more important than textbook learning and passing exams. The reason I value my years at Hyderabad Central University is precisely that. Those years forced me to think in ways I had never thought before. Not all of it was comfortable. But changes in perspective are never comfortable. I learnt that it wasn’t alright to put up with the world such as it was. It was important to engage with it, wrestle with it, to change it in some ways if one could.

I think there is an increasing narrowness in our public culture these days. We tell our young people, often young people tell themselves that they must focus on their “studies” and not “poke their noses into others’ business”. And “studies” or “academics” seem to have become the be-all and the end-all of everything. I think this is absurd and certainly not the way to function in an educational space – whether it is a school or a university. Divisive politics arises from this sort of narrowness and fragmentation of ideas and people. Telling people to mind their own business and work only for their own betterment is the world’s way of driving people apart.

I strongly believe that what happened in JNU – charging students with sedition – is untenable. There is no way you can defend that action. The scale of recent events has had no precedent and I think it hurts and shocks all of us. It worries us as educators, as parents of young people who will now be afraid to speak their minds. Curbing freedom of speech and the culture of debate is simply not on – not in the university, not anywhere at all. And to accuse those who are raising their voices in support of JNU of creating hatred and playing politics is to miss the point entirely. For “politics” is never outside any of us. The extent to which we may be aware of it, the extent to which we publicly engage with it may vary. But to bury our faces in the sand is not the answer.

Updated Date: Feb 25, 2016 07:30 AM

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