Innovation is essential for growth and the essence of innovation is dissent from conventional wisdom. A society intolerant of dissent is likely to be neither innovative nor entrepreneurial. Neither can a knowledge economy be rooted in an academia subservient to the government of the day. Accepting the intolerance of dissent and assault on academic autonomy displayed at Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Vadodara can thus have pernicious effects on our growth. But, transcending any such instrumental benefits, some tenets are intrinsically valuable and need to be protected. For us, as a newspaper and as individuals, freedom of expression is one such belief.
In the MSU incident, both the state’s ruling party, whose leader started this sorry episode, and the state itself— through the police who arrested the artist—behaved in the best traditions of fascism and fundamentalism. In actively collaborating with such intolerance, the MSU administration acted in an unforgivable and reprehensible manner. This is but the latest, if among the more egregious, of such assaults. One of our most eminent artists remains in exile, fearing for his liberty if he returns. The Supreme Court just upheld the ban on Dharmakaarana for offending a section of people in Karnataka and our Union minister for information and broadcasting claims his committee alone can decide what is “good taste” for all Indians.
The archaic nature of the law is but a feeble excuse, as shown by the remarks of the judge while granting bail to the student. Indeed, even a cursory reading of these laws shows that they can apply much more against the local rabble-rousing leader than the art student.
The concomitant assault on academic autonomy—by suspending the dean of fine arts, which, shamefully, still stands—is especially painful since it emanates from the person charged with preserving it, i.e., the vice-chancellor. One reason that free societies zealously guard academic autonomy is because it fosters dissent in a culture of introspection and debate. This constructively canalizes dissent into the mainstream, making it a vital ingredient of progress. Education is about nurturing intellectually curious and questioning individuals, who collectively are vastly more than the sum of their individual parts. If academia were to bend to the whims of government, it is but a short step to the indoctrination of young minds, turning them into automatons that are mental clones of each other.
Regrettably, academic autonomy is debased at will, and with minimal resistance. Our ministers for human resource development seem to consider violating it a prerogative, if not a virtue, and our academic leadership seems eager to surrender without a fight while the broader community remains strangely quiescent. There were few protests when government directives on admissions were issued in the recent past, and while there is a little more noise in the current MSU case, this is mostly in the media and among artists. Protests from those outside MSU and the discipline are mostly notable by their absence.
MSU needs to immediately reinstate the dean, provide full support to its student in dealing with an utterly unnecessary legal situation and proceed instead against those who invaded the university.
Indeed, we dream of the day when crowds of various denominations will protest vociferously but peacefully against an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art titled Dissent, featuring portrayals of Hindu gods in various states of offensive undress next to irreverent cartoons of the Prophet, blasphemous depictions of Christian icons and disrespectful representations of our national symbols. At the entrance would be an aphorism attributed to Voltaire: “I will disagree to the death what you say but defend with my life your right to say it.” Sadly, such a day may be receding further into the future.
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