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The telling display of intolerance in Jadavpur, writes Swapan Dasgupta

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: Hindustan Times
Date: September 25, 2019
URL:      https://m.hindustantimes.com/analysis/the-telling-display-of-intolerance-in-jadavpur/story-DW4Hl90kxBf2z5VwvgHkNL_amp.html

The Babul Supriyo incident shows the Left’s warped inheritance and hypocrisy on free speech and democracy

Union minister Babul Supriyo is not your typical politician. An accomplished singer who accidentally strayed into politics, and won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket from West Bengal, he is often dismissed by fellow politicians — particularly in the over-politicised atmosphere of his home state — as “non-political”.

This derision stems from two factors. First, his unique, and somewhat unorthodox style of connecting with people. He is the type of person who would rather stop his car in the middle of an election campaign to play football with children or substitute a sombre speech with a Bollywood song. Supriyo is not a neta with a sense of self-importance; he is naturally likeable. At the same time — and this again adds to the political class’ wariness — he is one of the most effective political communicators. Having shared platforms with him in the run-up to the 2019 general election, I can vouch for his amazing ability to deliver a profoundly political message in a non-political way, using everyday experiences people can easily relate to. To those accustomed to painting the BJP as the archetypal “nasty party”, Supriyo just doesn’t fit into the stereotype of the jackbooted fascist.

Yet, last week, as part of their endeavour to fight “fascist” forces aggressively, Left-inclined students sought to prevent Supriyo’s entry into the Jadavpur University (JU) campus. The minister had gone there to speak on the Kashmir issue at an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad-run event. What should, ideally, have been a standard black flag demonstration with some good humoured heckling, instead turned into an ugly fracas that was televised live. With the JU vice-chancellor refusing to ask the police to help remove the human blockade and escort the minister to safety after the meeting, the governor had to rush to the campus and escort the minister to safety. The incident has, predictably, escalated into a heated political controversy, with the ruling Trinamool Congress also jumping into the fray. There have been accusations and counter-accusations. Most of these are likely to be forgotten in the coming days as Kolkata readies for the week-long Durga Puja celebrations. However, some issues need to be addressed.

The first is the issue of free speech. The problem in Jadavpur arose as a consequence of Left-affiliated bodies arriving at the decision that “fascists” should not be given a platform in the campus. The definition of fascist is extended to ministers in the Narendra Modi government and, presumably, all prominent members of the BJP.

Consequently, Supriyo was consciously targeted, as was the BJP’s stand on Article 370 and Kashmir. For the ultra-Left, there could be no question of any dialogue with fascism; it had to be confronted minus all niceties. Whether Supriyo responded to the protestors intemperately, and whether or not the protestors manhandled him, were consequences of the wilful denial of any democratic space to those deemed fascist by certifying authorities of the Left.

While the Left doesn’t have a monopoly over recklessness and pretensions of intellectual infallibility, it is worth recalling that its gratuitous concern for robust democracy is a tactical ploy. In December 1970, Naxalite students actually murdered JU vice-chancellor Gopal Sen when he was taking his morning walk inside the campus. The venerable professor was eliminated because he was deemed a “class enemy”. Picking on Supriyo for being the personification of fascism is part of a warped inheritance.

What is strikingly unfortunate is that a section of the academic community and many of Bengal’s public intellectuals tacitly endorsed the actions of the ultra-Left. Creating an anti-BJP mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) for the assembly elections of 2021 is a legitimate political aspiration, but when this involves blocking the entry of a Union minister to an approved campus event, the casualty is democracy. As boisterous displays of intellectual intolerance become more marked, there is a growing case for enlightened guidelines on free speech to be compulsorily imposed on all educational institutions receiving public funds.

This, in turn, raises the question of the entry of the police into campuses. Ideally, the police should have no reason to be in any campus. However, to convert this into a non-negotiable article of faith — as the JU vice-chancellor did last Thursday — is likely to be a licence for lawlessness and even criminality. The campus may well a learning zone but, like other gated communities, it cannot be detached from the law. If the situation warrants, law enforcement bodies must have the right to uphold the peace, regardless of what over-politicised vice-chancellors think.

Conventions are based on good sense and voluntary compliance. When those norms are wilfully disregarded, exceptional measures are warranted.

- Swapan Dasgupta is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha

- The views expressed are personal
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