The Place of Dissent in the Campus: Akshath Jitendranath

This is a guest post by AKSHATH JITENDRANATH, student at Symbiosis International University, Pune, where a screening of ‘Jahsn-e-Azadi’ by Sanjay Kak was cancelled under pressure from right-wing groups and the Pune Police.

The university campus is where nascent opinion moulds itself into ideological shape. Care must be taken to surround the student with ideologies of different shades. This is a prerequisite for any educational ideology that aspires to be holistic. Pursuant to this end the Symbiosis International University is guided by an ideology that reads, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning the whole world is one family. This is a high ideal to be guided by.

However, the events that transpired over the last few days have left this vision a little blinded. Following threats received from the Akhila Bharati Vidyarthi Parishad  (ABVP henceforth), the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce have postponed indefinitely, ‘Voices of Kashmir’, a national symposium on Kashmir which was to be held with the support of the University Grants Commission. The ABVP’s major bone of contention was the screening of well known film maker Sanjay Kak’s film, Jashn-e-Azadi (This Is How We Celebrate Freedom). The ABVP claim that the film and the film maker represent an ideology that is anti-India. Further, they threatened violence if the film were to be screened. The administration of the Symbiosis International University, instead of being guided by their ideological vision, gave in to the ABVP threats.

As a student of the University, I was saddened on many accounts. Before moving forward though, I want to test the claims made by the ABVP, and further, prove that the Symbiosis International University’s decision to postpone the symposium was antithetical to the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The ABVP positioned their threats on the central theme of Jashn-e-Azadi depicting the Indian army in bad light, and misrepresenting (or not representing) the case of the Kashmiri Pandits in the narration of the Kashmir conflict. Firstly, the ABVP idea of national interest is itself suspect. I will refrain from engaging in that debate for I’m not arguing a personal political opinion here. More importantly, representing the armed forces negatively is not tantamount to being anti-national. It is in the nation’s interest to represent the armed forces in their true light. If there have been violations of human rights in Kashmir, or for that matter Manipur, then turning a blind eye is not an act of patriotism. Facing the accusations, probing them further and holding the guilty accountable is acting in national interest. Institutions like the Army are proved credible by actions of honesty, integrity, service and honour. Not by designs of deceit and subterfuge. Also, if the ABVP felt that the case of the Kashmiri Pandits was not represented adequately, or was being misrepresented in Jashn-e-Azadi, they could have made a request to the University authorities to use the same forum to articulate their position. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee – whose politics the ABVP have inherited – who opined the answer to a book whose ideology you oppose is another book whose ideology you support. This is how debate is fashioned in a democracy.

Secondly, even if the content of the symposium was anti-national, or anti-religious, or anti-anything in its character, how does it justify threats of violence, and eventual cancelation, or postponement of a symposium. In a democracy, ideas and understanding is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, debate and dissent. Jashn-e-Azadi is a protest film; voicing dissent. Dissent is an act of faith. It is the highest form of patriotism. The courage of conviction needed to point out something that is wrong is of far higher importance than having disloyal subversions. This culture needs to be inculcated among students in a University. It was that eminent educator, K M Munshi who proposed the deletion of sedition from the exceptions to the right to freedom of expression. As an educator, he probably understood the pitfalls of conformity and the importance of dissent that a young democratic society needed better than his peers. Claims made against dissent include the role a dissenter plays as an agent of chaos, destabilizing societies. Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime. Hence, the field of inquiry should remain open, not intolerant. The right of free expression must be regarded as a sacred right, and equally, the duty of dissent must be regarded as a sacrosanct duty.

Besides, the world isn’t a collective of individuals who are ideologically homogeneous. Divergence in thought is what makes debate enlightening. In the background of people forcing opinion through the heckler, vandal and rioter, it is important to understand the message of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam represents the most important values that give life some meaning and hold the complex social web together: peace, goodwill and respect towards all men and women. Without this there cannot be social harmony. This goodwill is not sectarian; it is easy to have goodwill towards some men, friends or benefactors. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is the celebration of the Other. It is the embrace of the dissident, or even the enemy as being one of our own.

By postponing the symposium on Kashmir, the administration of the Symbiosis International University has appeased the sentiments of a particular ideology. It sided with the intolerant, and left another already vulnerable section, excluded, scared, isolated and voiceless. This action wasn’t in keeping with the all embracing spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

Now, coming to the disheartening loss a student faces on the postponement of the symposium. The symposium on Kashmir would have had participation from Kashmiri youth, children of the Indian Armed Forces, Indian students, Pakistani students and other international students with invited experts. With these varied opinions finding a soapbox at the symposium, a nuanced, holistic and all encompassing dialogue could have been initiated. The importance of this in a world where most debates are argued in 140 words can’t be highlighted enough. Further, this symposium would have aided a student’s endeavour towards understanding the Kashmir conflict. I have been personally stuck in various dilemmas as to where I stand on this issue. An opportunity to delve further into the conflict, and decipher an understanding was stolen from us by those who want to manufacture an opinion, and hijack the important function of thinking for ourselves.

However, keeping with our mandate as citizens and students, we cannot let the people who tell us what to read, what to write, and what to think, succeed. It is not the possession of knowledge, but the success which attends the seeking after it, that enriches the seeker. Now, the onus is on us, as students we have to endeavour towards moving away from the pell-mell, and listen to the different dimensions of the Kashmir story. It is important for us to shape our understanding of the conflict, and understanding of the social history of Kashmir. This can be achieved through legitimate, civil and democratic means. The success of our endeavour will determine the success of our attempt to rescue the spirit of education, and the larger cause of democracy.

To conclude, I would like to share a personal belief. The University is more than just a space where technical skills are acquired, and a workforce created. It is where the beacon of knowledge meets the idealism of youth. Together they articulate the vision of a society’s future. Sometimes, these articulations may be against parochial ideas, lampooning archaic practices, and questioning conventional wisdom. By challenging the status quo, these voices spread Enlightenment. And Enlightenment is the agenda of education. Was the act of postponing the symposium on Kashmir keeping with a University’s mandate of spreading Enlightenment?

Some related posts on censorship and freedom of speech and expression from Kafila archives:

5 thoughts on “The Place of Dissent in the Campus: Akshath Jitendranath”

  1. A very well written piece, strengthened by solid argument which the loony fringe can scarcely rebut. It, no doubt, is a sad commentary on the state of affairs obtaining in the country today where lumpens and hooligans are calling the shots.


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