Since the Feb. 12 arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, on charges of sedition, thousands of professors, students, lawyers, scientists, activists and artists have signed statements to protest the arrest and the incursion of police onto the public university campus. When police entered the campus of one of India’s premier universities, raided dormitories, and rounded up individuals accused of dissent against the government, they invaded a site we value for its intellectual autonomy and plurality. The letters of solidarity and support for students and faculty at JNU, including the one below from students, faculty and scholars from across California, affirm the space of the university as one that not just protects free speech but that actively cultivates critical faculties of thinking, reading, writing and asking questions about the world in which we speak and live. This is the work of the university, here at UC Berkeley and abroad. Indeed, this is what Kanhaiya Kumar said in the speech for which he has been held in police custody for days now. “What is a university for? A university exists so that the common sense of society may be subjected to critical analysis. So critical debate may occur in the public realm. If a university fails in this mission, then there is no country at all.”
The full text of Kumar’s speech, translated and transcribed into English is available online, as is video footage of him giving it in Hindi. I strongly encourage you read it and to engage the critical faculties of analysis that the university fosters to determine for yourself what he says. We might argue that it is not a matter of what Kumar is accused of saying but his very right to say it that is at stake. That this is an issue of free speech and not of what constitutes the charge of sedition, a law originally established by the British regime in India to criminalize anticolonial agitation. But I want to suggest that the content of his speech matters enormously. Kumar’s speech recalls the suicide of Rohit Vemula, a Dalit student at Hyderabad Central University earlier this year. Vemula’s death, coming after he was accused by a local MP of being “antinational,” has galvanized a student movement across the country that demands equal rights and access to marginalized students, like Dalits and Adivasis. Kumar’s critique of societal and institutional inequality strikes at the heart of the relationship between the university and the state, and at the heart of why what is happening at the JNU campus thousands of miles away matters here in California. The suppression of dissent in India, under the guise of antinationalism, prevails across sectors, even as moments of crisis such as that facing JNU right now draw our attention. JNU, like UC Berkeley, is a public university that is subsidized by taxpayers and faces, like all the university campuses, increased pressures to monetize higher education in response to drastically slashed public funding. JNU, like the university, is a rare example of an institution committed to diversity, economic mobility and access.
The relationship between what is happening at JNU and California is not just that of resemblance. David Palumbo-Liu has recently pointed out the collusion between the crackdown on antinational speech in India, of which the arrest of Kumar is the most recent and visible example, and funding initiatives in the UC system. He writes, “The fusion of religion and nationalism provides a potent means by which the (Indian) government can argue for the hegemony of one state based on religion and oppress other religions and political movements at once, labeling them ‘anti-Hindu,’ ‘anti-India,’ and ‘anti-national,’ which are used as synonymous.” This week, UC Irvine returned two $1.5 million gifts from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization based in the United States with ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of which BJP party currently in power is the political arm, to establish endowed chairs in Vedic and Indian civilization studies. The decision follows from concerns expressed by students and faculty that the chairs were designed to promote a redefinition of Indianess in the singular terms of a Vedic or Hindu identity. Indeed, the DCF explicitly insists that “before entering into a relationship with a University, the Donor must ensure that the recipient institution is hospitable to the intent of the donor, and not just the donor’s money.” In returning the gift, amid a financial crisis that affects not just the UC system but public universities worldwide, faculty and administrators at UC Irvine chose to uphold the commitment of the university to academic freedom even in the face of extreme financial pressure.
What is the university for? It is for intellectual freedom, it is for critical thinking, it is for debate and it is for dissent. Here at UC Berkeley, 50 years after police entered the public university’s campus to round up students who refused to disaggregate the space of learning from the space of politics, the university is for the protection of free speech. What is happening at JNU matters to UC Berkeley not just because it may happen here but because it does.
Poulomi Saha is an assistant English professor at UC Berkeley.
We look forward to hearing your comments about this article. Please be respectful of the author and fellow readers.