Kolkata: Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday said independent thinking and free expression at Indian varsities were under "threat" in the wake of unrest at the University of Hyderabad (HCU) and Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
He stressed that attempts to suppress peaceful dissent were undemocratic. "I believe every university must give the freedom to pursue knowledge even where the knowledge may be at odds with established intellectual and social traditions. We must guard this freedom zealously," he said at the Presidency University here on the occasion of its bicentennial celebrations.
"Regrettably, independent thinking and free expression at Indian universities are now under threat," he said. Political interference in university curriculum and academic appointments is highly short-sighted, he said.
"Recent attempts to interfere with free expression of student community at the HCU and JNU are of particular concern," he said.
"Attempts to suppress peaceful dissent are not only inimical to learning but 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.
Protests marred HCU on Tuesday on the first death anniversary of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. Noting the "rise in new nationalist tendency", Singh cautioned against these "destructive" trends.
"We are witnessing around the world the rise in the new nationalist tendency responding to populism and directing hatred against backward classes and minorities, in disregarding reason and rationality. These tendencies can be extremely destructive," he said.
Elaborating, Singh emphasised: "We must protect India from this trend and universities have a vital role to play in this regard, for it is our universities that prepare Indian citizens to distinguish fact from fiction, to disregard propaganda and to be unafraid to speak their minds."
Quoting from Jawaharlal Nehru's 1947 December speech recognising that "our national objective was a strong, free and democratic India where every citizen has an equal place and full opportunity of growth", Singh reiterated the importance of free thinking among students.
The former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor underscored the importance of dissent.
"True nationalism is found wherever our students are encouraged to think freely and to speak freely, where dissent is encouraged and not suppressed. It is only by constructive engagement with dissent that we can truly build a stronger, more constructive and self-sustaining democracy in our country," he explained.
He highlighted India "must do this". "India can and must do this. We are a mature, vital democracy. We are not afraid to look at ourselves and think about how we can do better. Our willingness and ability to engage with dissent is a sign of our inherent strength," he said.
"India is a country with a vast potential. Among her countless assets are our young people who depend upon universities like Presidency to prepare them in critical thinking, to become contributing members of Indian society but notwithstanding 70 years of progress made since Independence, we obviously have to do much more," he said.
Further, Singh called for solving internal tensions in a non-violent manner.
"India must grow and grow rapidly, to find pragmatic solutions to the problems of poverty and inequalities and to create a climate in which internal tensions can be resolved without recourse to violence. We have to find effective means to address the systematic disadvantages suffered by individuals on account of their caste, tribe, religion or gender," Singh added.