The last five decades have seen an increasing awareness among students in university spaces with respect to exercising their constitutional rights and demanding that the university does not interfere with these rights. Peaceful demonstrations, protests, setting up information stalls to spread awareness, and signing petitions are some of the ways students are exploring their right to question the system. Across the world, students have mobilized and universities have also somewhat adjusted to the trend.
BHU Students Protesting (Source- PTI)
But there is a stark difference between how freedom of expression is addressed in universities abroad and universities in India. In international universities like Princeton, University of Montana, University of Michigan, etc, the student handbook and the college website contains an entire section on dissent and peaceful demonstrations inside university campus. This section reassures students that they have a right to freedom of speech and can hold demonstrations inside campuses. Students are also free to invite any external speakers irrespective of their political inclination. None of the renowned universities in India (mostly government universities) have any such section in their student handbook or on their website. Even during orientation week, student rights are left untouched.
According to an article published in The Conversation by Aftab Alam, growing intolerance in Indian universities is curbing the right to free speech. Alam says that universities are becoming a shrinking space for genuine intellectual freedom, and right-wing student organizations are instilling fear in students who may not agree with their ideologies by resorting to threats and violence. Because of this fear, students are now skeptical of expressing their liberal ideologies and publicly taking a stand on issues that may be important to them.
Legally speaking, the Indian Constitution ensures freedom of speech to all its citizens. Article 19 of the Constitution of India contains the right to freedom of speech and expression. It also says that the State can impose reasonable restrictions in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. But universities in India have a legal right to protect their students from outside intervention. University spaces are regarded as a safeguard for a right to dissent and to express conflicting views, and universities are supposed to protect their students from external forces.
Surprisingly, Indian universities do not exercise this right. When Kanhaiya Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University was arrested on the charges of sedition on 13th February 2016, the university made no effort to protect their student. Instead, the university asked Kumar and other students involved in the protest and those who were arrested to vacate the hostel premises. Rohith Vermula, an Indian PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, was a Dalit student and fought for Dalit rights. The university stopped paying him his monthly stipend because of his involvement in raising slogans under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association. He also held a demonstration against the death penalty for Yakub Memon. ABVP activists barged into Vermula’s room and roughed him up. He had to be taken to the hospital the next day. The university, instead of taking any action against the activists, suspended and barred Vermula from the hostel premises. He committed suicide on 17th January 2016.
Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India, famously said in his convocation address at Panjab University that there is much confusion about what a university should and should not be. “Except in case of illegal conduct or violence, a university should never seek to silence or influence faculty members or students to adopt or renounce any particular position. Indeed, universities should take all legal action necessary to defend their academic integrity and freedom”, said Ansari.
Free speech today is being constantly threatened in university campuses. Instead of being safe spaces, they have become an arena for inciting fear in anyone who “goes against the norms”. The Nationalist rhetoric is being used by critiques of free speech to tag students who practice it as being anti-national. Dissent is an important part of any university and everyone needs to be more sensitive towards it; it needs to be dealt with care, compassion, and discussions, not violence and arrests. Universities are spaces for students to learn and grow, and express their views without the fear of being judged or attacked. Universities should promote diverse voices and opinions, not suppress them. Students want to feel safe inside their campuses, not threatened. It’s high time we address this gross violation of fundamental rights that our constitution promises to every citizen. A country like India, which is unarguably the largest democracy in the world, needs to take responsibility for keeping students, who practice their freedom of expression, safe.