Three hundred and seventy-nine Indian scientists and academics belonging top Indian and foreign institutes have written a letter to the Vice Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Prof M Jagadesh Kumar, expressing their dismay at the recent events there. In the letter, they have expressed “deep disappointment” with his actions, asking him to take “urgent corrective steps to ensure that the police releases the arrested students, and also to ensure that it drops the unsubstantiated charges against them.” Text of the letter:
We are writing, as a group of academics, to express our deep disappointment with your actions in the events leading up to the arrest and detention of several students last week.
We understand that last Tuesday, a student group organized a rally to commemorate the death anniversary of Afzal Guru. The police alleges that some of the students voiced controversial opinions. The police then proceeded to arrest the president of the JNU Students Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, and charged him with sedition. This has been followed by a number of further detentions. What is most disturbing is that the JNU administration appears to have defended and aided these repressive actions by the police, rather than defending the students who were involved in a non-violent activity.
The arrest of the president of the JNUSU is especially troublesome since he was not even an organizer of the rally but merely present to express his solidarity. However, even as far the organizers and the speakers at the event are concerned, we hope that you recognize that expressing controversial views in a peaceful forum cannot be equated with sedition. For example, many people believe that Afzal Guru was let down by a lack of appropriate legal representation in his trial, and that his execution was therefore a grave miscarriage of justice.
One may agree or disagree with this viewpoint — and, indeed, signatories to this letter hold different positions — but we are unanimous that students should have the right to freely discuss this issue. This is such a basic pillar of academic ethics that we were dismayed by the statement made by the registrar of JNU, Mr. Bupinder Zutshi, who reportedly said “The government of India hanged him [Afzal Guru] after declaring him a terrorist. How could we allow them to organise an anti-Indian programme?” This indicates a complete lack of appreciation of the concept of academic freedom.
India is a vast country, and no one group can define what it means to be “nationalist” or “anti-national” is, in specific terms of positions to hold and causes to support. The country’s fabric is strong enough to accommodate a plurality of views. It is the attempt to suppress differing viewpoints that is genuinely damaging for the country’s democratic ethos. Further, we believe that creativity in all branches of knowledge — surely in the interest of our nation — finds highest expression in a milieu that does not put constraints on the freedom of thought.
It is ironic that this attempt to suppress dissent occurred at one of the country’s leading Universities. A University is a site where contesting ideas are explored and where students should be able to freely debate and discuss various views, including controversial ones, without the threat of state action.
Senior members of the government have aggressively targeted your students. The JNU administration should have protected its students against these attacks and charges that have also vitiated the police investigation. We are deeply disappointed that you have failed to carry out this responsibility.
*The signatories consist of mainly faculty and researchers of different branches of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institute of Management; Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad; Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; Azim Premji University, Hyderabad; Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research; Wildlife Institute of India; University of Calcutta; Jadavpur University, Kolkata; Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai; National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore; University of Hyderabad; Indian Institute of Space Science & Technology, Trivandrum; Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; Wildlife Institute of India; International Center for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy; Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan; Yale University, US; Leiden University, the Netherlands; Central Michigan University, USA, among others