Independent thinking and free expression are now under threat in India’s universities, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Friday, as he took a veiled dig at the BJP-led Union government’s policies without naming the party.
“Regrettably, independent thinking and free expression in Indian universities are now under threat. Political interference in university curriculum and academic appointments is highly short sighted,” Manmohan Singh said in his 20-minute speech at the Presidency University’s bicentenary celebrations.
“Recent attempts to interfere with free expression of the student community in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University are of particular concern. Attempts to suppress peaceful dissent are not only inimical to learning but they are also undemocratic,” he said.
Starting from the demand for justice for Hyderabad University dalit scholar Rohith Vemula to the sedition case against JNU students including Kanhaiya Kumar, central universities grabbed headlines in 2016 for reasons not related to academics.
“We are witnessing around the world a rise in new nationalist tendencies responding to populism and directing hatred against backward classes and minorities. These tendencies could be extremely dangerous. We must protect India from this trend. And universities have a vital role to play,” said the former Prime Minister.
Frequently described as a reluctant Prime Minister, Singh, who headed the government from 2004 to 2014, said that he always wanted to become a teacher but accidentally stepped into politics.
A brilliant student, he studied economics at Panjab University and then at University of Cambridge.
Singh said that universities must give their students the freedom to pursue knowledge, even when that knowledge is at odds with established social and intellectual traditions.
“We must guard this freedom very zealously. We must make every effort to protect the autonomy of our universities and to foster the right of our students to express ideas that powerful interests may not always agree with,” he added.
The Prime Minister was one of the main speakers at the bicentenary celebrations during the day.
In his address, Manmohan Singh also recalled his interaction with former chief ministers of Bengal, Buddahdeb Bhattacharjee, Jyoti Basu, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, finance ministers Amit Mitra and Asim Dasgupta. Significantly, he did not mention current chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who was the railway minister in his cabinet between May 2009 and May 2011.
2017 marks the 200th year of the setting up of Hindoo College that eventually blossomed into Presidency College and subsequently Presidency University. On January 20, 1817, six persons of both the liberal and orthodox communities of then Calcutta had got together to set up Hindoo College.