Dissent key to democracy

img1 Jaswant Kaur
29 Mar 2021

Picture this. A student sitting under a street light, reading a borrowed book. In the absence of a teacher, he is trying to make sense out of what, initially, seems Greek to him. A day after, he flaunts what he read in front of his friends. His friends think very high of him and label him a “scholar”. Motivated, he continues his education and is able to clear the most coveted exam in India – the civil services examination.
 
We have heard many such success stories. Almost every year, the print and the electronic media present such stories. The famous film ‘Super-30’ shows how 26 out of 30 students from the vulnerable sections of society cleared the IIT exams. This happened because the instructor helped them in mastering a few techniques for solving questions quickly.
 
For sure, the boy’s story is a source of inspiration for many. Many career counsellors would use such stories to inspire the young IAS aspirants. However, was clearing the civil services exam the end outcome? What kind of a civil service officer the boy will be? Will he be able to use his knowledge for the betterment of society? Or, will he be simply obeying orders issued by his higher authorities?
 
Similarly, what happened to the Super 30 after they passed the IIT entrance? Were they good students? Were they able to complete the course? If yes, did they become good IITians? True, few ask such intriguing questions. The more pertinent question is, “why do we not ask questions”?
 
The fact is that we have been conditioned in a way that we accept things the way they are. Be it in a family, or a school or a college or a university, we generally want people, who just agree to what we say. It requires a lot of courage and grit to ask an uncomfortable question. And we certainly don’t want ourselves to be labelled as rebels.
 
Small wonder that we have a curriculum for inculcating this basic skill of “critical thinking” amongst students! Many renowned organisations, including the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), has developed it. It is generally laced with several activities. But will that be good enough for students, especially when other teachers do not encourage students to ask questions?
 
Yet, there are a few institutions, which always provided some space for the so-called rebels, be they among students or academicians. One such institution is “Ashoka University”. 

This writer has been privileged enough to listen to many speakers from this university. They have one thing in common – ability to speak what they felt and call a spade a spade albeit politely but subtly. So, have been the write-ups of Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Dr. Arvind Subramanian. Yet, both had to resign from the university.
 
For an institution losing such renowned academicians is certainly a setback. However, what certainly is a bigger loss is the reason for their resignation. “After a meeting with the university’s founders, it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the university may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university. In the interests of the university, I resign,” he wrote to University Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar in his resignation letter.
 
“In light of the prevailing atmosphere, the founders and the administration will require renewed commitment to the values of Ashoka, and new courage to secure Ashoka’s freedom,” he wrote.
 
The resignation has certainly raised questions on the values that the university has been so passionate about. What is more disturbing is a report published in the university paper “The Edict”, claiming that Prof. Mehta was forced to resign on “an understanding that the university’s efforts to acquire a new plot of land to expand the campus would get much smoother. Additionally, formal recognition for the fourth-year PG diploma, Ashoka Scholars’ Programme, was also hinted at being part of the deal.”
 
Of course, the Vice-Chancellor refuted these allegations on the ground that the land was acquired much earlier and the permission for the four-year course is underway. However, these developments in an internationally renowned university are shocking, to say the least. More so, this happened days after the result of a global survey, the Freedom in the World, 2020 were published by a US-based think tank “Freedom House”. 

The report ranked India at the 83rd position, making it one of the least “free” democracies in the world. It has quoted various instances of “alarming setbacks” to the freedom of speech and expression of journalists, academicians etc.
 
The Ashoka university incident has given enough steam to the report. The fact that the founders, instead of following their own path of promoting “liberal thoughts,” chose to bend down to the powers that be is certainly disturbing. If this can happen in a private university which has no dependence on government grants, one can imagine the kind of affairs in a government-funded university.  
 
All this happened at a time when the government itself speaks a lot about autonomy in the new education policy. Clearly, there is a need to walk the talk. The government has to increase its appetite for constructive criticism.
 
Our prime minister has been very vocal about innovation, technology and start-ups. But the fact is that innovative ideas germinate when a suitable environment is provided for critical thinking. Our colleges and universities can become innovation centres provided our students and academicians are given enough freedom to explore, to question and critique a system. 

Dissent is good if it leads to greater good. Just like Daag ache hain in the popular Surf Excel advertisement because of the freedom children get to explore the world around.   
 
No wonder that 80 per cent of the engineering graduates in India are unemployable. A survey titled “National employability report engineers annual report 2019” had revealed this two years ago. It says, “close to 90.92 per cent engineers lack the required programming and algorithm skills”. This is not because they are not taught such skills in their colleges. They are not encouraged to question and explore. Do we actually want innovators in our country or just machine operators?
 
As far as Ashoka University is concerned, it might be elitist in view of the fee it charges. However, the way students are groomed is visible in the peaceful protests that students organised in the wake of these resignations. Of course, they wanted their favourite professors to be back at the university. Prof. Mehta rightly called them “super heroes” in his recent letter. It is certainly not easy to disagree and raise your voice in an environment where voices are scuttled strategically and those who dissent are labelled as anti-national.
 
The controversy garnered attention from international academia too. The trustees had to accept that there were some “lapses in the institutional process”. They promised to form an Ombudsman for resolving such issues. However, this question is not about Ashoka University alone. It is about the entire higher education system as well. It is about the increasing intolerance for constructive criticism in the world's largest democracy. 

Do we really want intellectuals or good-for-nothing students who score marks by cramming books? It is time to reflect and introspect.

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