Defend the right to disagree

Lalit Mohan

For the moment Kanhaiya Kumar is off the hook. JNU will have to start ‘disciplinary’ proceedings against him afresh, if at all. And over two years after the ruckus there, the Delhi Police has not found enough actionable evidence to frame charges against him and his cohorts on the grounds of ‘sedition’. As expected, no action has been taken against those who morphed his speech either.

This pause in the proceedings gives us another chance to ask this question: How should a mature democracy — assuming we are one — deal with transgressions of this nature by some of its junior citizens? We can take a cue from the debate organised by the Oxford University Union on February 9, 1933, the motion for which was ‘This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. Eminent speakers weighed in on both sides of the argument. The motion was actually carried, 275 votes to 153 — 64 per cent in favour.

As expected, conservative Brits were shocked and outraged. The Daily Express wrote: ‘There is no question but that the woozy-minded Communists, the practical jokers, and the sexual indeterminates of Oxford have scored a great victory…. Even the plea of immaturity, or the irresistible passion of the undergraduate for posing, cannot excuse such a contemptible and indecent action as the passing of that resolution’. Among those who agreed with this view was Winston Churchill.

On the liberal side, the Manchester Guardian responded differently: ‘The obvious meaning of this resolution (is) youth’s deep disgust with the way in which past wars for ‘King and Country’ have been made, and in which, they suspect, future wars may be made; disgust at the national hypocrisy which can fling over the timidities and follies of politicians, over base greeds and communal jealousies and jobbery, the cloak of an emotional symbol they did not deserve’.

As the debate over the debate raged, some opponents proposed that the union expunge the ‘King and Country’ motion from its records. This proposition too was put to vote, but it lost 750 to 138. An even higher ratio of people (84 per cent) voted for the right to debate and voice contrary opinions. The freedom to express a divergent view was defended even more vigorously.

Hubert Digby, proposer of the original motion, said, ‘I am certain if war broke out tomorrow the students of the university would flock to the recruiting office as their fathers and uncles did.’ When in 1939 World War II started, 2,632, out of a potential 3,000 students in Oxford, lined up to join the military. Many of them would have laid down their lives subsequently in the war.

People, especially youth, often act or speak contrary to what the State expects of them. US university students of the 1960s and ’70s, who opposed the Vietnam War, were branded as anti-national, but are today given credit for having more sense than the government of the day.

May be, 50 years hence, Kanhaiya and his fellow students will be judged differently.

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