So the mob wins again in India.
A week ago, slogan-shouting students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), opposing American “imperialist” policies, succeeded in preventing the US assistant secretary of state, Richard Boucher, from speaking at the campus about Indo-American relations.
In the grand narrative of the Indian Left, this might go down as a major victory, even if it was entirely pyrrhic. Their symbolic act will not make an iota of difference to US foreign policy. Instead of taking on the US diplomat intellectually, the Leftists behaved like Mao’s finest cadres during the so-called Cultural Revolution. In the process, they took the reputation of a university that likes to call itself among India’s best a few notches lower.
Contrast the Leftists’ juvenile performance with the way an American university dealt with a speaker it had no sympathy for. In September last year, Columbia University invited Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at its World Leaders Forum. Ahmadinejad not only denies the Holocaust, his regime has been intolerant of gays, dissidents, and has restricted women’s rights. Columbia faced pressure from local and national political leaders, including a few Jewish groups, not to invite Ahmadinejad.
Instead, Columbia went ahead, and its feisty president, Lee C. Bollinger, gave a startling address, where he stressed that universities should be committed to the pursuit of truth. They do not have the power to make war or peace. But they can listen, and ask questions. Then he systematically destroyed Ahmadinejad’s record, reminding his audience of the Iranian regime’s crackdown on scholars, representatives of the Bah’ai faith, homosexuals, journalists and human rights activists; its persistent denial of the Holocaust (Bollinger called Ahmadinejad “brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated”); its calls for the destruction of Israel; its funding of terrorism; its attacks on US troops in Iraq; and its nuclear programme. He ended, saying: “I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.”
It was an astonishing, tour de force performance, delivered in what Bollinger called “the great tradition of openness that has defined (America. ...inviting Ahmadinejad was) consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies… [it] is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear.”
Boucher is not Ahmadinejad, and the United States is not Iran. But if only the JNU students had half of Bollinger’s eloquence, and the open mind to listen to what Boucher had to say!
Curiously, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP’s student wing, led a counter demonstration at the campus that day. They wanted Boucher to stay, and one ABVP leader even said there should be freedom of expression on the campus. That comes too late. ABVP’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom is charming and touching, given that a few months ago its goons had ransacked the history department of the University of Delhi because a professor had asked students to read an essay by the late poet A.K. Ramanujan, which highlighted the multiple narratives of the Ramayan. The essay, the students claimed, “blasphemed” Hinduism. Earlier in 2004, another Hindu group had vandalized the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, because an American professor, who had written a book about Shivaji that the group did not like, had consulted some manuscripts at the institute. Years earlier, Mushirul Hasan, the distinguished academic, had to leave his post at the Jamia Millia University in Delhi after Muslim students protested against him, because Hasan considered the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to be a bad idea.
When confronted with such crises, what does the academic leadership do? In May 2007, the vice-chancellor of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda decided to suspend Shivaji Panikkar, the dean of its renowned faculty of fine arts, because Panikkar correctly refused to close a controversial art exhibition that some Hindu activists wanted stopped. Instead of standing up to these bullies— be they from the Left, as at JNU, Muslim groups, as at Jamia Millia, or Hindu groups, as at the University of Delhi or in Baroda—India’s academic leaders are acquiescing with the thugs, preventing intellectual exchange to flourish.
Something is rotten with India’s campuses, if mobs of half-educated students led by semi-literate politicians-in-waiting hold campuses to hostage. They force their view on others, preventing other students from exchanging views with speakers they might even disagree with. Amartya Sen extolled Indians’ “argumentative” nature. Indian academics who run these universities seem to have forgotten it; but it seems Bollinger, at Columbia, understands that concept, when he lets Ahmadinejad on his campus. But JNU’s Leftist students don’t get it.
Maybe they should be elsewhere, like the JSU — I mean the Joseph Stalin University.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org