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Are we liberal? A student from Ashoka University writes an open letter

Speed News Desk | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:45 IST

Over the last few days, there has been much discussion and debate over Ashoka University. Sadly, most of the theories being floated around are speculations based on half-baked knowledge. Commentators on the issue are much like the blind men in Saxe's poem, touching only a part of the elephant and thus perceiving an inaccurate account of the shape of the creature. Being a second year undergrauate student currently studying at Ashoka University, I feel the need to put some facts on the table and provide at least a glimpse of clarity to the matter.

Is Ashoka University really as liberal as it claims to be, or is it all a facade?

This interrogation of the University 's liberal orientation is born out of a basic confusion -what does it mean to be liberal?

Sure, 'liberal' has dynamic connotations, ones that are constantly being shaped by the prevailing political milieu. But liberalism in the academic, educational paradigm, is distinct from that in the political sphere. Liberalism in academia and universities is about the way one is taught, encouraged to question, and to probe various ideas challenging them with one's own. One of the most important things I have imbibed from my education so far at the university is that for every opinion of mine that I deem 'correct' - a million others exist, and many of those will be worth considering. As Aristotle said, "It is mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

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So what is the problem? The problem is projecting political opinion of some persons as the stance of the entire university. After asking the strength of the institution if they would like to sign a petition, receiving about 80 odd signatories is far from a unanimous opinion of the over 800-strong university. This was what happened when an alumnus of the University released a petition on Kashmir in the public domain, flashing titles all over, that claimed the support of the entire university. When the University realised what was going on, it responded that these opinions did not have its endorsement - as they were being circulated under the umbrella of Ashoka University. The irony is, those not subscribing to these views - which is their right - are being labelled as opponents of free speech and 'illiberal', with a national newspaper taking sarcastic potshots.

My question then is: doesn't 'freedom of speech' also negate the force-feeding of opinions? As I said, we are taught to understand, research, introspect and put forth various points of view - with the drive to think critically and strive for better-informed opinions. What we are not taught, is to impose opinions on others. Liberal arts education is about informed discussion, critique and repeatedly revisiting your opinions. I cannot stress this enough when I say that implicit in all this, is respecting the opinions of others even if one does not agree - and consequently, refraining from imposing these on others. The projection of this opinion depicted by a handful of people as the opinion of the entire university, is the very antithesis of respect for facts, fairness, democracy and more importantly, the liberal ethos. It is so very ironic that to resist being misrepresented is being labelled 'illiberal'.

Ashoka University, as a liberal university, is just that, reflecting diverse opinion. It is not a banner to be hijacked by the some, in the name of all. By being liberal in the academic sense, the university is in no way obliged to take a political stance on any and every issue. There is nothing wrong with an academic institution maintaining a liberal academic ethos and yet as a collective entity not subscribing to any fixed political stance. The students are encouraged to debate freely, to maintain and express their political opinions; it is just that the opinion of some should not be projected as the opinion of all.

Be it semantics or ideologies, we can be accused of being liberal almost to a fault. When I arrived here in 2015, I joined peers from 37 different cities five different countries and about 13 different school boards. More than 50% of my batch, including myself, are on merit-based scholarship. We are a diverse range of ideological, financial and social backgrounds. We cannot possibly be liberal without welcoming these various views and engaging with them. Each faculty member determines their own course structure with a basic rubric, and we as students are free to discuss anything with our professors, to dissent on any matter and argue any stance.

Pursuing a Philosophy major, I am encouraged to use my own mind as a filter - striving constantly to think better, argue better and write better. Never expected to take any philosopher's work as authority on the subject but to critique, sift through and decide for myself what is logically sound - and to maintain an open mind to new ways of thinking and arguing. Despite being a Philosophy major, I also selected a critical thinking course in Film Studies. I have a friend who is majoring in Math and also studying Sufi Poetry. In this way, we engage with interdisciplinary ideas, and are encouraged to experiment with the fluidity of subjects - the common thread being to question and think critically. This combined with our diverse backgrounds is what makes this university liberal, creating an entire spectrum of opinions and ideas - and that is where the magic lies.

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An argument has been put forth about the University curbing free speech by the email regulation policy that the University proposed. As students, we are more active on other, more personal social media platforms to have a network and discuss ideas than the official Ashoka email. What the University 'proposed' and wanted to discuss, was using the official mail for official communique and not for personal purposes. Is that 'stifling free speech'? During the discussion of the Kashmir petition via email, replies were sent back and forth discussing the issues and those who were in agreement with the petition, signed it. At no point were we stopped from speaking our minds. The only request that we received from the Vice Chancellor, post the petition going public, was: the political views of a group of individuals should not be represented as the view of "Ashoka University".

We have been slotted on social media into all sorts of defined political categories - leftist, liberals and anti nationals. As students, we may or may not fit into these categories; as students are evolving. We are taught that in order to grow, you must accept that your own opinion is not the be all and end all. What we strive for is intellectual debate, understanding, and reasoning. I want to disengage from committing to political ideologies because I am still growing and still fallible - something I suspect I will always be. But I am being denied this decision by being dragged into the conversation by my university's name being misused under political views. The right to hold and express your views cannot possibly translate into the right to falsely project your views as those of others too; and, the right to make it known that you don't subscribe to these views cannot possibly translate into 'illiberal'.


Amrita Nanda

Second year Undergraduate Student

Ashoka University

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First published: 17 October 2016, 4:58 IST