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21 Jan 2017

Singh flags rise of twin spectres

Manmohan at Presidency. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Devadeep Purohit, TT, Calcutta, Jan. 20: Hours before the world zoomed in on the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, from Presidency University rose a barely audible voice that connected seemingly disparate events unfolding faraway and closer home.
"We are witnessing around the world a rise in new nationalism tendencies, responding to populism and directing hatred against backward classes and minorities....
"Regrettably, independent thinking and free expression at Indian universities are now under threat."
Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister and keynote speaker at the founder's day celebration of Presidency University, made no mention of the rise of Donald Trump and others. Neither did he mention his successor by name.
Yet, it was hard to miss the contemporary ring as Singh underscored the importance of dissent, free expression, reason and rationality and warned against "privileging raw emotion".
The former Prime Minister then put his remarks in context: "We must protect India from this trend, and the universities have a vital role to play in this regard."
Manmohan did make a direct reference to two particular incidents that had roiled Indian campuses.
"Recent attempts to interfere with free expression of the student community in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University are of particular concern," Singh said, drawing applause from the packed auditorium of mostly students and academics.
"Attempts to suppress peaceful dissent are not only inimical to learning, they are also undemocratic. 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 Hyderabad university has been on the boil since January 2016 when research scholar Rohit Vemula committed suicide. JNU has been at the centre of a controversy after a section of students was accused of being anti-national.
"True nationalism is for all. Where our students, our citizens are encouraged to think freely and speak freely, where dissent is encouraged and not suppressed," Singh said.
He quoted extensively from Jawaharlal Nehru's speech in December 1947 at Allahabad University to stress the need to build a "united but composite nation" that would secure both individual and national freedoms.
"All this business of Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Sikh must cease in so far as our political life is concerned," he said, quoting India's first Prime Minister and stressing that "Panditji's words are just as true today as they were in 1947".

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