Can we consider a person’s intellect well developed if that person is not aware of different national level political ideologies or does not have any opinion regarding what is happening around them? If they are aware and touched by political developments around them, and feel strongly about a cause, can we ask them to keep their mouths shut?
In the last few weeks, many of my learned and eminent colleagues from the scientific and academic community have discussed their viewpoints about the topic of politics in the academic arena. They have eloquently presented many pertinent points as to why freedom of speech and thought is absolutely necessary for the progress of science. Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate in chemistry, also expressed a similar opinion. At the same time, I also got vibes from different people about how much they are worried regarding violence happening in our academic campuses. These people are neither active members of any political party nor do they subscribe rigidly to any political ideology, left or right. They are “aam” people whose first and foremost concerns are “roti, kapda, aur makaan”, bread, butter, and shelter. They know that a sound academic base is the only survival tool for their children. As a result, they are disturbed when they see campus violence over politics. They get worried about the future of their children and out of that concern, they feel that academic spaces should be free from politics. In this article, I will try to understand and analyze their concerns.
The first question they ask is why we should do politics in universities. They argue that a student has gone there to study. So, the student should finish that, get their degree and leave. Universities are not the place for politics. Well, it is absolutely correct on the surface. But, let me ask you a different question. Academic spaces such as IITs have annual cultural festivals, sports meets, and many other events that have nothing to with their stated stream of study i.e. the purpose to “earn a degree”. These activities also demand quite a bit of engagement from the students, consuming significant person-hours. Then why don’t we object to them? Why don’t we say that you are here to get your engineering degree and not to participate in a dance club? We don’t, because we see those co-curricular activities as part of the overall holistic development of a student. If we don’t object in that instance but object only to student politics, then clearly our real objection is not about students doing other things than studies; our objection is specific to politics. Let us first admit that. We are not bothered that the students are doing “other” things; we are only bothered if they get involved in politics.
Why is this so? Either we don’t see socio-political awareness as part of a person’s overall development, or we are afraid of the potential danger associated with “dirty” politics. If your argument is the first, my question then is: what sort of a chemical engineer is one who is not aware of the politics surrounding environmental concerns or how can an electrical engineer not be aware of international energy politics? Can we consider a person’s intellect well developed if that person is not aware of different national level political ideologies or does not have any opinion regarding what is happening around them? If they are aware and touched by political developments around them, and feel strongly about a cause, can we ask them to keep their mouths shut? What sort of human is one who can’t feel or can’t express their feelings? If you want them to be aware, they will react as well. And the reaction will take the form of demonstrations, protests, writing, delivering lectures, etc. No restriction is powerful enough to suppress the voices of dissent for long.
If we come to the second argument that we are concerned about the volatility of political discourse, and hence we want to stop any political expression inside our campuses, are not we throwing out the baby with the bath water? Should we not, rather, make sure that politics inside campuses (and outside) remains civil and non-violent? Should not we replace the politics of power with politics of rights and responsibilities? Should not we teach our students how to discuss politics with rational arguments and not using brute force? If the purpose of an academic institution is to equip a person to deal with struggles in life, should not we also prepare them for civilized political discourse?
We often complain that we don’t have educated and good politicians. If we keep our institutes “apolitical”, from where will we get educated politicians? Or aware policymakers?
There are many examples in history where students and teachers led movements against war mongers, fascists and colonial oppressors. Many world-renowned academic institutions became boiling pots of anti-oppression movements. Even closer home, would we have obtained our freedom from colonial rule if students never took part in active politics?
Another argument given by the administrators (mostly driven by their own compulsions) is that as an academic body, we should remain apolitical and neutral. While I agree that the Institute as a body can (and most of the time should) remain neutral in a political debate, its members, faculty and students alike, must have the freedom to take a stand and express their views, inside or outside the campus. We should not forget that there exists a strong distinction between the institute and its members. We also should not forget that suppressing the voices of dissent is not apolitical but essentially being aligned with the axis of power.
I’ll end this article with two quotations and in my opinion no argument is stronger than these two quotes.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” ― Desmond Tutu
“Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
We must remember, remaining silent is also a political statement.
Abhijit Majumder is an Associate Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, IIT Bombay. The views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a Confluence series on Students and Political Protests. The remaining articles in this series can be found here.