There should be no room in India for an intolerant Indian, President Pranab Mukherjee said on Thursday, remarks that came at a time when a raging debate on nationalism and free speech has gripped the prestigious Delhi University following on-campus clashes.
“India has been, since ancient times, a bastion of free thought, speech and expression,” the President said at the 6th KS Rajamony Memorial Lecture in Kerala’s Kochi, adding premier higher education institutes must not “propagate a culture of unrest”.
On February 22, clashes broke out between right-wing students’ group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Left-leaning All India Students Association outside Ramjas College.
The institute had sent an invite to Jawaharlal Nehru University students Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid to address a seminar that was called off following ABVP protests. Khalid allegedly shouted anti-India slogans supporting the secession of militancy-hit Kashmir at an event on JNU campus last February, and was arrested on sedition charges.
The Ramjas College fracas reignited a debate on nationalism. The ABVP, the students’ wing of ruling BJP’s ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said its aim was to save the Delhi University from “anti-national elements”. But DU students and teachers took out rallies against the ABVP, accusing the group of muzzling free speech.
“There must be space for legitimate criticism and dissent,” Mukherjee said in his Thursday speech. “The time has come for collective efforts to re-discover the sense of national purpose and patriotism.”
“These temples of learning must resound with creativity and free thinking. Those in universities must engage in reasoned discussion and debate rather than propagate a culture of unrest. It is tragic to see them caught in the vortex of violence and disquiet,” he said.
“The nation and the people must always come first. Let us strive to arrest the moral decline in our society and ensure that our core civilisational values find firm root. Let us exert ourselves to strengthen India’s pluralism and diversity. Let us be uncompromising in rooting out violence, prejudice and hatred,” he added.