The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) General Body Meeting (GBM) held on May 28, 2016 issued an appeal ‘to all students to support our struggle’ against the University Grants Commission (UGC) Notification 2016. The resolution passed by the DUTA GBM of June 2, 2016 ‘extends thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) for its support’ and to many other students’ organisations ‘which have expressed support for the ongoing struggle’. The DUTA Executive, in keeping with the letter and spirit of the sentiments expressed by successive GBMs invited representatives of teachers and students’ unions and organisations, including the JNUSU, to extend solidarity with the ‘khaali thaali’ (empty plates) dharna (sit-in) organized by the DUTA on 6th June outside the UGC compound. A section of Delhi University (DU) teachers did their best to prevent Kanhaiya Kumar, elected President of the JNUSU, from speaking on this occasion.
‘A University’ wrote Nehru, ‘stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever-higher objectives.’ A couple of centuries earlier ‘dare to know’ had become an inspirational slogan, ‘everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection’, a motto, both together opening up hitherto unimagined possibilities for emancipation.
It might be a good idea for all those who tried to prevent Kanhaiya Kumar from speaking in solidarity with the struggle of DU teachers, to pay heed to the words and ideas quoted above. In trying to deny a student even a chance to speak, they have gone against everything that teaching should mean; in seeking to throttle words, speech and ideas instead of countering them with other words, speech and ideas they, as university teachers have struck a blow against the freedom of expression that is the lifeblood of universities. They have gone against the idea of universities as potentially life-altering sites for students, places that encourage them to ask questions and speak freely; to read, write and think critically, analytically and with academic rigour, together and independently, in the endless pursuit of understanding and truth; to debate, disagree with, and discuss everything of consequence without fear of any forms of authority or power, but with respect for universal rights, ‘in the hope of creating a future in which liberty and human freedoms might be grounded in citizenship based on substantive equality’.
They appear to have forgotten that words, speech and other forms of expression are among the distinctive qualities that define us as human beings. They seem to have forgotten that in times when existence has become severely atomized and fragmented, acts of solidarity are to be welcomed, not disgracefully shunned. ‘People are’, after all, ‘people through other people’ as the Xhosa believe, and it was not for nothing that Charlie Chaplin says towards the end of the ‘The Great Dictator’ ‘we all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery’. The absence of active solidarity today can only spell ruin for struggling people across the globe.
Finally, all those who tried to prevent Kanhaiya Kumar from speaking need to remember that there is no law in the land that has debarred him from speaking. This is his constitutionally guaranteed right as much as it is the democratic right of those who wish to hear him speak to be able to freely listen to what he has to say, and the right of those who might disagree, to freely express their disagreement. If he were to say something that is contrary to constitutional values, it is for him, if necessary, to face the legal music, not for us to prevent him from speaking without even hearing his single word.
Kanhaiya Kumar was simply exercising his constitutional right. He was not in the wrong. It was those who sought to prevent him from speaking who were squarely in the wrong. They were the ones trying to break through constitutional legality and a democratically taken DUTA Executive decision, by resorting to classic storm-trooper behaviour. This, in the name of avoiding ‘controversy’, ‘irritants’ and ‘hurt sentiments’ or defending religion, nation, race, culture and traditions, is in fact authoritarianism plain and simple, rooted in a deep-seated fear of democracy and freedom. It cannot become the basis of an organic unity among equals who do not see eye to eye with each other on issues concerning life and politics.
Let us be clear. Much as many of us might enjoy or not like listening to Kanhaiya speak, this is not just about Kanhaiya. Defending his right to speak at DUTA’s ‘khaali thali’ dharna is about upholding the true meaning of teaching and universities, the value of free expression and solidarity, and above all, of democracy, liberty and the Indian Constitution. A respect for these values, for universal inalienable rights, can indeed become the basis for a durable unity among people who otherwise hold widely divergent political views and understandings. This is the need of the hour for popular movements, including the teachers’ movement, in the country. It is a crying need for the teachers’ movement at DU today.
There is, fortunately, every reason to believe that given the agreement among all teachers of DU on the need to stay together in fighting major problems confronting us all, for instance the Gazette Notification 2016; and given our traditions of democratically resolving the inevitable tensions, problems and disagreements that are intrinsic to any vibrant political movement, the teachers of DU, will once again, in this moment of crisis confronting Higher Education in India, find a principled way, of not just retaining but deepening an organic unity amongst ourselves, emerging stronger rather than weaker as a consequence of the open acknowledgement of, and the intense debates around our differences today. Let no one imagine that this moment of contestation in our history will spell political doom for the DU teachers’ movement. It shall not. If anything, we are likely to come out of this with an even stronger resolve, holding up a brighter flame of hope to all teachers and posing a more invulnerable front to Capital and State than has been the case thus far.