Why Indians must heed the Conservative Chris Patten’s advice on academic freedom

Note his expression of gratitude to a Marxist historian for making him “better informed”

N Jayaram

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before it was handed over to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997, is a member of Britain’s Conservative Party and thus part of an establishment whose imperial past a lot of people especially in colonised countries have robust opinions about. But he has been one of those rare Tories whose stances have in fact been refreshingly sober compared to, say, former Labour Party prime minister Tony Blair, now widely derided for going along with the spurious reasons advanced by the George W Bush regime in the US for launching the horrendously expensive war on Iraq in terms of human lives and destruction of a great civilizational centre.

As the last governor of Hong Kong, to his credit, Patten tried expanding the few democratic rights the British had extended it and tried to negotiate with Beijing to allow those rights to continue after the territory’s handover to Chinese sovereignty. And he got called a “prostitute”, among other rich epithets, in the official Chinese press, for his pains.

It would be instructive for Hindutva conservatives in India to read a couple of paragraphs from Patten’s latest article in Project Syndicate.

“Universities should be bastions of freedom in any society. They should be free from government interference in their primary purposes of research and teaching; and they should control their own academic governance. I do not believe it is possible for a university to become or remain a world-class institution if these conditions do not exist.

“The role of a university is to promote the clash of ideas, to test the results of research with other scholars, and to impart new knowledge to students. Freedom of speech is thus fundamental to what universities are, enabling them to sustain a sense of common humanity and uphold the mutual tolerance and understanding that underpin any free society. That, of course, makes universities dangerous to authoritarian governments, which seek to stifle the ability to raise and attempt to answer difficult questions.”

So far so good. But the Conservative politician goes on to say something that quite a lot of people of the centre-right or liberal, and therefore non-left, people might agree with: “When I was a student 50 years ago, my principal teacher was a leading Marxist historian and former member of the Communist Party. The British security services were deeply suspicious of him. He was a great historian and teacher, but these days I might be encouraged to think that he had threatened my ‘safe space.’ In fact, he made me a great deal better informed, more open to discussion of ideas that challenged my own, more capable of distinguishing between an argument and a quarrel, and more prepared to think for myself.”

This is so apt in the current situation in India wherein many students and professors from Jawaharlal Nehru University, including from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (which is aligned to the Sangh Parivar) have acknowledged the positive academic atmosphere in the institution, giving the lie to the canard that it is some sort of a den of extreme left activism. Last year, renowned scholars far too many to name spoke out about the suffocation they were feeling since the advent of the second NDA regime, the first one led by AB Vajpayee having done much ground work by introducing questionable courses in universities.

Through its frontal attack on JNU now and through its demarches in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the abduction and jailing of Professor GN Saibaba from Delhi University, the dismissal of Professor Sandeep Pandey from from IIT-BHU and other measures, the current NDA regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dangerously queered the pitch. This is not to say the UPA government’s education policy was any more enlightened. Miserably small outlays for education and health are not something the NDA came up with but merely copied from the UPA example.

“Do you want universities where the government decides what it is allegedly safe for you to learn and discuss? Or do you want universities that regard the idea of a ‘safe space’ – in terms of closing down debate in case it offends someone – as an oxymoron in an academic setting?” Chris Patten asks and points to the current onslaught against academic freedom in Hong Kong under Beijing’s direction and to what little there is of it in mainland China.

India is at a crossroads: does it want to fix the current democratic deficit and foster a culture “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…” of the Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s conception, or go the way of dictatorships of the left and right, setting the police on students and turning campuses into zombie factories?