Published: 14th February 2019
Today, Ambedkar and Periyar would have been called seditious. When India's biggest student unionists debated dissent
The right-wing panelists said that while dissent was important it was not right to criticise the country
It was one of those rare discussions where the right and the left sort of agreed on the topic of dissent. They both agreed that it was needed, but the right wing panelists were of the opinion that no comment made against the country can be pardoned.
The battleground for student politics is usually Delhi, but on the second day of ThinkEdu Conclave 2019, the battleground was shifted to Chennai for about an hour. JNUSU President N Sai Balaji, DU AISA President Kawalpreet Kaur, BASO member Apeksha Priyadarshini, National Coordinator of Research Scholars of India, Nikhil Gupta, ABVP National President Dr S Subbiah and Tejasvi Surya from Karnataka's BJP IT Cell were the panelists at the debate on 'Does dissent still have a place in India's campuses?'.
When asked if she felt like she had freedom on campus, Apeksha Priyadarshini said that it depended on which side of power the protesters were on. Kawalpreet stated that she definitely felt that spaces for dissent were shrinking rapidly in the country especially in universities. The JNU Students' Union President N Sai Balaji answered the same questions with an example, he spoke about how 14 AMU students had been slapped with sedition charges just for speaking. "There lies my answer," he said.
Dr Subbiah said that while dissent was important, it was not right if dissent becomes unfettered and uncontrollable. To this Tejasvi agreed, adding that people who demand the 'tukde tukde' of Bharat did not deserve the right to dissent. "People who call for the disintegration of the country cannot be allowed to hide behind the excuse of dissent. But our very cultural DNA is liberal," he said.
The issue surrounding dissent is not just four years old, the session's chairperson Shankkar Aiyer pointed out. It has always been around and there have always been issues and debates surrounding it. But the point is the sort of restrictions that are present in today's scenario, as Apeksha pointed out, "There is a fine line between curbing hate speech and curbing reasonable opinion."
Kawalpreet pointed out that between 2014 to 2018, 112 people had been slapped with sedition cases, but only two had actually been charged. At this point, Apeksha also explained that with regard to the sedition cases against JNU students too, the case was also murky, "It's been three years and none of them have seen the chargesheet yet!"
"When we protested in front of the MHRD, we were arrested. What did we do to deserve jail?" Nikhil Gupta questioned.
Dr Subbiah claimed that the Hindu way or the Indian way of living allowed dissent, but added that in our campuses, dissent is parochial. He brought in the issue of how BM Hegde's lecture was criticised at IIT and how Rajiv Malhotra suffered a similar fate. "The JNU students don't want a Vivekananda statue on their campus, then how can they say that they support dissent?" he questioned.
To this, Apeksha was quick to reply that the students were not opposing the statue because it is a statue of Vivekananda. They were opposing it because the administration had decided to spend lakhs of rupees on the statue, but claimed that they had no money for scholarships. "They don't have money to pay stipends, which is just ₹5,000, and they cut library funds too this time. What we are asking for is accountability and transparency about where the funds are being used," she added.
Bringing in a little bit of history to make his point on dissent, Sai Balaji said that today, the freedom movement would have been called 'seditious'. "Even Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar and Periyar would have been called seditious," he said.