Nothing to lose but your freedom

Today, there is only one condition for the survival of institutions: declaration of loyalty to the BJP government, writes Apoorvanand

Part of the Lovely University campus
Part of the Lovely University campus


"After almost two years… again I got blessed with the mercy (from whom, you guess). This is the third time in the last six years that I am leaving my job."

My morning began with this message from Mukesh Kumar, a friend and journalist. Kumar was also a teacher and dean in the media and communication department of Lovely University, Jalandhar, for about two years. On 23 March, he resigned from his job. Or rather, he was made to resign. The university felt that his presence on the campus was harmful and he should go.

This is the third job he has had to leave in the last six years. Earlier, he was asked to leave Shri Guru Gobind Singh Tricentenary University, Gurugram, and Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication, Bhopal. It is not very difficult to understand why. Kumar dislikes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and is not afraid to say so.

His face is well known to Hindi-speaking audiences. Everyone remembers his literary discussion ‘Subah Savere’ with Namvar Singh on Doordarshan. The talk shows and discussions he conducts on contemporary political and social issues on the YouTube channel Satya Hindi are very popular.

Kumar talks calmly. But he has firm secular and democratic values. It is natural for a person like him to be critical of the BJP and the RSS. He does not pretend to be impartial, which is what many journalists claim to be when they tolerate the majoritarian ideology of the BJP or the RSS.

They claim they do not take sides between secularism and communalism. Their duty is only to report the battle between these two ideologies. It is as if they are reporting a wrestling match where they are mere observers. Kumar does not belong to this league of journalists.

One can understand that a journalist should not be biased in favour of any political party in his journalism but he must be partisan towards the values of civility and refinement. Otherwise, why pursue journalism at all? And we know that the ideology of the BJP and the RSS is opposed to civility or refinement. The BJP considers journalists like Kumar its enemies.

When Lovely University invited him on board, it knew his history and was familiar with his views. It still chose to invite him as a faculty member. Why then did it ask him to leave? Will it insist that he left voluntarily? Before joining, Kumar had made it clear that he would not quit journalism. He would not stop his talk shows. The management had no objection to his conditions. Why then did it ask him to stop his shows if he wanted to stay on?

It is not difficult to understand why this happened now. Elections are at hand and the BJP wants to silence all its critics. Lovely University cannot afford enmity with the BJP at this stage. Its patron is a Rajya Sabha MP from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). It knows how heavy the cost of the BJP’s anger can be. What does it lose by sacrificing Kumar for its own safety? Nothing. After all, don’t we remember what Ashoka University did to Pratap Bhanu Mehta?

Today, there is only one condition for the survival of institutions: declaration of loyalty to the BJP government. If you do not declare it, at the very least, you should stay silent. Kumar’s outspokenness could have been dangerous for the administrators of Lovely University. He faced a choice: stop his shows and remain with the university, or continue speaking out and lose his job. Kumar chose the latter.

This choice is bound to cause him economic insecurity. But what should one do when asked to choose between freedom and security? Kumar has answered that question. He has stayed true to himself, while Lovely University has lost its right to be called a university.

The reason for which he had to leave tells us whether the university was able to fulfil its dharma or not. That dharma is to provide and create an open space for free thinking. A university that prevents you from expressing your views publicly is defeating its own purpose.

It is important to reiterate that one of the tasks of academics is to constantly communicate with society so that it can understand itself better and think about what is happening to it. Teachers provide society with facts and also make available conceptual tools, with the help of which events and situations can be analysed. This is the social responsibility of the teacher. Those who say that teachers should only be concerned with their classroom and limit themselves to the task of completing the syllabus, do not know anything about the role of teachers.

What happened to Kumar is happening quietly in other universities, especially the private universities, and we are often in the dark. Private universities hire teachers for subjects such as journalism or mass communication on short-term contracts. Contracts of temporary teachers who are considered inconvenient for the BJP are being terminated or simply not renewed.

It is difficult for such teachers to go public with this information for obvious reasons. It might affect their chances of employment elsewhere. No institution would like to hire a person disagreeable to the regime. So most of them keep quiet. It is easy for the government to crack down on private universities. Their patrons are usually industrialists and businessmen. The government can attack their business on any pretext from questioning their land use to disconnecting their water or electricity supply, withdrawing permission for new buildings, etc.

Can any institution afford so much trouble for the sake of one teacher’s freedom of public expression? Patrons with good intentions tell teachers that while they have complete freedom in their classes, they should keep their mouths shut outside. At least that will save the university.

This is why you will hardly see any articles on ‘sensitive topics’ by private university teachers in newspapers and other media. It is not that they have changed their views or are scared. They have gone silent in the interest of their organisation.

While this hasn’t happened yet in Delhi University, the government is trying to change the service conditions of teachers and place restrictions on their public writing and activity. Many Central institutions have done this. Society supports such actions because of the general understanding that those who receive government salaries do not have the right to criticise the government. This understanding is flawed.

Public resources should be used in public interest. There is always a tension between public interest and power. Often, those in power force the public to consider their own interest as public interest. It is the job of those working in the field of knowledge production to keep the public aware of this tension and conflict.

Their public speaking or writing is necessary, not for themselves, but for the interest of the public. How else will the facts provided by the government and the reasons given for its decisions be tested or judged? This is where academics have a role to play.

It is not surprising that the relationship between intellectuals and those in power is usually less than cordial. But a totalitarian ideology considers intellectuals as outright enemies. That is what we’re seeing in India right now. The government does not want to allow any other voice in the country except its own. Certainly not the calm, civilised and reasoned voice of a person like Kumar, who chose the freedom of his voice over his job.

What did Lovely University choose? And do his students realise what has been taken away from them?

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University. This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared in The Wire

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