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Academic Freedom in Kashmir and Elsewhere

The gags on student politics in Kashmir University is yet another instance of the throttling of freedom of speech and association in universities across the world. Alexander Downs' book on university politics in the United States shows why students and faculty must come together to codify political rights on campuses such as Kashmir University.

Civil liberties

Academic Freedom in Kashmir and Elsewhere

The gags on student politics in Kashmir University is yet another instance of the throttling of freedom of speech and association in universities across the world. Alexander Downs’ book on university politics in the United States shows why students and faculty must come together to codify political rights on campuses such as

Kashmir University.

A G NOORANI

A
cademic freedom is under threat all over India from the state, which wields vast powers, from politicians outside and also from sections of students who stifle dissent on the campus. But nowhere are the first two influences more pronounced than in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Greater Kashmir of June 12 had a report by Naseer A Ganai on the controversy between students of the Kashmir University (KU) and the Jammu University (JU) over elephant fossils allegedly taken clandestinely from KU to JU. It raised questions. He wrote: First, whether Kashmir University (KU) students enjoy such freedoms like going for cordon of a department and holding news conferences as their JU counterparts are currently busy with? Second, why an issue of purely scientific nature has been turned into Jammu versus Kashmir issue? Here we have a different atmosphere; if we come out with press releases we’ll be choked even the issue might be of graver dimension. ‘Last time when some students called for demilitarisation of KU campus during Chief Minister’s visit, they were asked to explain their position’, said a student of Law Department. He said the way the JU students have raised the fossil issue – they enjoy wide support of Hindu extremist groups – speaks volumes about the freedom of expression in the JU campus. The grievance was that KU students enjoy far less freedom than those of the JU. The University of Kashmir ordered a probe into protest of students when chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad visited the campus recently. The inquiry officers will question four students of the Law Department, who had protested against frisking in the campus during Azad’s visit. The students had demanded demilitarisation of the campus when Azad visited the campus. Senior officials of the university confirmed that a probe has been ordered. However, they said, it was not against the particular students. ‘It’s to see why the students went for protest’, said an official. He said there is a ‘grievance cell’ in the varsity and if any student has any problem he should approach the cell. The chief proctor told Greater Kashmir the university does not allow any ‘undue protest’. He said the university students were not allowed to raise protests having political overtures. As with our democracy, academic free

dom is not allowed to cross the Pir Panjal

range. So much for our Atoot Ang (inalien

able part). This is nothing new. The Times

of India reported on October 21, 2001: The Kashmir University campus has been declared out of bounds for journa lists by its vice-chancellor Jalees Ahmad Khan Tareen. University teachers have also been instructed to keep away from the press and avoid talking about politics. Sources said that governor G C Saxena, who is also the chancellor of Kashmir Univer sity, was upset by some lecturers talking about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir on private TV channels. The VC subsequently passed the orders whereby all print and TV journalists will require permission from the VC’s office to enter the campus. The controversy erupted when some university teachers made some anti-national remarks during a discussion in a programme on a private TV channel. A J and K minister was also participating in the discussion. Kashmir has always had bureaucrats

or, since 1990, army men or policemen as governors. Not long ago Vikram Chandra of the NDTV took some journalists to the KU campus for a panel discussion. When he sent the issue to the floor his face fell – students, almost to a man, opted for secession. You cannot blame them. They reflected opinion in the Valley. There are army bunkers on the campus. The army has taken over the guest house. Very many of the students have lost dear ones to bullets. It was left to a super patriot among the journalists to upbraid Vikram Chandra in a column for “holding a plebiscite in Kashmir”.

Controls on Academics

Tariq Bhatt’s report from Srinagar for the Indian Express showed that the situation was in fact worse (October 27, 2001):

Alarmed by the recent utterances of some teachers and the anti-US and pro-Taliban protests on the campus, Kashmir University is planning to constitute an ‘intelligence wing’ to spy on ‘erring’ teachers, scholars and students. The intelligence wing will record all activities of staff and report the same to the vice-chancellor for action. The idea of keeping an eye on staff, especially teachers, was mooted by chief minister Farooq Abdullah, also the university prochancellor, at the apex university council meeting on Sunday (October 21), sources said. ‘The chief minister asked the VC to constitute an intelligence wing, probe the activities of teachers and students and throw all such elements out of the university’, an official who attended to the meeting said. Abdullah also told vice-chancellor Jalees Ahmad Khan that he would be provided with personal files of the activities of faculty members for information and necessary action. The vice-chancellor informed Abdullah that he had already warned teachers to stay away from politics and concentrate on academics, the official said. Khan is said to have summoned his deans of faculties and heads of all departments and warned them of stern disciplinary action in case any faculty member was found indulging in activities bordering on politics. ‘We have been barred from commenting on events unfolding in the region and Kashmir. In fact, there is a ban on even speaking to the media’, a professor said strictly on the condition of anonymity. Kashmir Times on October 27, 2001

reporting the same developments added:

Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2007

This is worth mentioning here that the Jammu and Kashmir government, so far, has issued two orders during last one decade forbidding the faculties of the university of Jammu and Kashmir and University of Jammu to write or speak on political issues unless permitted. While the faculty of the University of Jammu opposed the move, fought it, violated it and managed the status quo ante, nobody from the KU chose to even issue a few lines statement. We need a statute codifying the rights

of students and teachers in respect of freedom of speech; freedom of association (to form unions); the right to have a campus newspaper or journal; the right to invite speakers from outside; the right to speak to the media; the right of access to university authorities and, relatedly, the right of protest; the right to hold meetings on the campus; the right to exclude and, if need be, throw out unauthorised persons who intrude (i e, intelligence men) and the right to hold elections to student bodies or union of teachers. Like the fundamental rights in our Constitution all the rights will be subject to “reasonable restrictions” having due regard to the special circumstances of academia, discipline and decorum.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that even pupils at school do not “shed their constitutional rights…at the school house gate”. It upheld their right to wear black armbands in class to protest against the Vietnam war. Students at a university do not enjoy less rights. (Tinker vs Des Moines independent community school dist 303 US 503.) The court ruled that student expression can be suppressed only if officials reasonably conclude that it will affect “materially and substantially the work and discipline of the school”.

Section 43(1) of the British Education Act, 1986 provides an apt parallel. It deserves incorporation in our university Acts. It reads thus:

Every individual and body of persons concerned in the govern ment of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and visiting speakers. In Bethel School Dist No 403 vs Fraser

478 US 675 (1986) the court struck down lewd speech on the campus which it might have allowed outside. “The constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically co-extensive with the rights of adults in other settings”. The special characteristics of school environment must be respected. “The nature of this right is what is appropriate for children at school”. (Veronica school dist 47 J vs Acton 515 US 646.) University students are adults.

Law students from KU, JU and other universities should get together, study the cases and draw up a code. The latest case was decided by the US supreme court on June 25, 2007 (Deborah Morse vs Joseph Frederick 551 US 1 (2007)). The school’s action in suspending a student who unfurled a pro-drug banner was upheld. This judgment cites precious cases. Students’ rights are, of course, available to teachers also. The court has held that political speech is “at the core of what the first amendment is designed to protect” (Virginia vs Black 538 US 343 (2003)).

Donald Alexander Downs’ book (Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on the Campus, CUP, 2007) is of great relevance to our situation especially in the light of the ugly scenes at the Baroda University. It is sponsored by the Independent Institute based in Auckland, California. It is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation which sponsors research that transcends the prevailing influence of partisan interests. It is fiercely independent. We sorely need such institutions in India. Many a university campus is torn between extremes of the right and the left. The Aligarh Muslim University, for instance, saw clashes between the Jamaat-e-Islami and communist students. The US witnessed several phases of these clashes. The recent ones arose from censors of political correctness. In each case the demand is the same – conform.

The book focuses on the threats to free speech and civil liberty that have sprung up on America’s campuses following the wave of so-called progressive reforms instituted in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The most important reforms included speech codes, broad anti-harassment codes, orientation programmes dedicated to promoting an ideology of sensitivity, and new procedures and pressures in the adjudication of student and faculty misconduct:

Although these measures were laudably

designed to foster civility, tolerance, and

respect for racial and cultural diversity,

they too often had illiberal consequences.

Rather than improving the campus climate,

the new policies often provided tools for

moral bullies to enforce an ideological

orthodoxy that undermines the intel lectual

freedom and intellectual diversity that are

the hallmarks of great universities.

However,

freedom is also threatened by other

sources, especially in the post-September 11 world. The modern university has long been engaged in industrial and governmental research that coexists uneasily with the university’s erstwhile mission of open discourse. Such research benefits society and brings needed money into the university. But the benefits sometimes come at a price that includes limitations on speech and discourse. This trend has accelerated in recent years as state support has declined while the costs of higher education have escalated. Today, many universities engage in research with government agencies and corporations that require recipients to maintain silence about the nature of the research. Though understandable in certain contexts, the extension of such gag orders poses a challenge to the idea of an open uni versity. Resistance must come from students

and the faculty. Benno Schmidt, vice chair of the Board of Trustees of Columbia, stated that “the freedom to challenge and to speak one’s mind (is) the matrix, the indispensable condition of any university worth the name”. He gained a national reputation as probably the nation’s leading administrative champion of free speech in the face of the challenges posed by speech codes and similar policies. Benno Schmidt participated in a seminar in New Delhi organised by the Ford Foundation on the law and the media.

During most of the 20th century, threats to campus free speech and academic freedom came mostly from the right, and from outside institutions of higher learning. The new attacks on free thought that arose in the later 1980s turned this pattern on its head; they have arisen from leftist sources inside the ivory tower. The new battles over free speech have sometime taken on the characteristics of civil wars. The new type of censorship is progressive in aspiration, not reactionary:

What this and other books reveal, however, is that progressive censorship has a way of producing illiberal, repressive consequences that are just as detrimental to open universities and minds as traditional forms of censorship. With the return of the more traditional threats to free thought after September 11, it is possible that the advocates of progressive censorship will realise the errors of their ways for the simple reason that it is their ox that is now being gored once again. The book provides four case studies:

two of success at Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; two of failures at Columbia and Berkeley, the home of the free speech movement (FSM).

Students have a right to be politically involved. No one has a right to demand

Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2007 conformity. Politically charged persons prefer to promote their own causes to the pursuit of the truth, the prime concern of students, teachers and universities. As the author puts it “Truth has a way of being inconvenient to any cause”. Hannah Arendt wrote, “It may be in the nature of the political realm to be at war with truth in all its forms…a commitment even to factual truth is felt to be an anti-political attitude”.

Time there was when students were

expected to keep away from politics: But the post-World War II era unleashed forces that would tear down the wall of separation between truth and politics at Berkeley and elsewhere. New political and moral obligations cried out for attention, beckoning students to make the university more relevant to society. The civil rights and other progressive movements brought the problems of racism, poverty, and oppression to the fore, while economic and corporate expansion made American life appear more impersonal and less authentic in many students’ eyes. Forces swept through universities that rendered the separation of truth’s pursuit and politics seem quaint, if not hypocritical.

During the 1950s universities across the land succumbed to loyalty/oath controversies and other disputes thrust upon them by McCarthyism. The University of California was afflicted with one of the most intense loyalty oath conflicts, threatening the very viability of Berkeley as an institution. UC President Clark Kerr managed to avert disaster by painstakingly forging a compromise that included the firing of more than one hundred faculty members who were or had been members of the Communist Party, while retaining faculty members who refused to sign the oath simply out of principle. Universities came under yet another

threat, state funds to promote research palatable to the state. “Free speech itself began to suffer at the hands of political causes”. This book presents and analyses the three major reasons why this state of affairs has arisen: (1) key changes in the intellectual, pedagogical, political, and administrative culture,

(2) the lack of meaningful political mobilisation on the part of faculty and students to protect free speech and liberty interests. This problem represents a failure of commitment, (3) the lack of knowledge in the intellectual and public life of universities concerning the nature of basic constitutional rights and the reasons for taking constitutional liberty seriously. This problem is a failure of education.

The central thesis of this book is

simple: the preservation or restoration of free speech and basic civil liberty on campus depends upon political mobilisation and commitment that give these principles public presence on campus. Although freedom of inquiry and speech remain deeply entrenched beliefs in most major institutions, these principles will not flourish in the cauldron of modern university politics unless they are backed by the power or presence that only political commitment can bestow. Failure to act surrenders the public realm to movements with other agendas. Academic and intellectual freedom are not manna from heaven. In the final analysis free speech on the

campus is a responsibility of the students themselves. You cannot suppress an assertive people within or outside a campus. EPW

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Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2007

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