Sunday, October 12, 2008


Recently I attended a three-day seminar at the university of Pondicherry organized by their department of Philosophy on “Noam Chomsky and the Contemporary World”, but this is not a piece on the proceedings. It is about a demonstration that demanded cancellation of the seminar.

In the evening on the second day, we were told that that morning the local BJP activists had organized a demonstration at the university demanding the cancellation of the seminar. Reasons: Chomsky is a foreigner and he is anti-India. He has called India “a terrorist state”, and the university must not honour him by organizing a national seminar on his work. The organizers looked visibly worried, probably apprehending the situation to worsen on the third day. It was averted apparently by a press release by the university which seems to have mentioned that the seminar was not eulogizing Chomsky but was sharply critical of him too. There was indeed some eminently avoidable Chomsky bashing by one or two persons, and this was what really seemed to have helped the university, and of course the seminar! It seems that the seminar in the process received a good deal of publicity in the media, but let it not be said that things were stage managed for this.

Quite a few didn’t know what Chomsky had actually said, and in what context. If “all states are terrorist states”, India is a terrorist state, but such an observation certainly does not amount to any special censor of any one particular state on this account. In any case, most at the seminar didn’t seem particularly interested to find out. They were not hostile to Chomsky, on the contrary, many of them supported or were at least sympathetic to his political views. Almost none of them were sympathetic towards the demonstrators, but they were of the opinion that if Chomsky indeed said such a thing, it was understandable that a nationalist party had taken offence. And no one seemed interested in explaining the context of the “offensive” statement to the activists; the feeling was that it would be a futile exercise. No one would be willing to listen because they had made up their mind.

Therefore the university did not strongly construct its response around the right to speak, academic freedom, and its right to freely discuss ideas on any issue in an academic manner; what it did by way of justification of this academic event was project the fact that the seminar criticized Chomsky too! But who can fault the university for this – which university today wants additional problems, as though it does not already have plenty? That way the seminar was saved, and there was no demonstration and no unpleasant incident in the campus.

Many obvious and disturbing questions arise in this connection. Are we becoming increasingly more intolerant ? Do we lack in self-confidence? We call ourselves a self-confident country; then why are we so upset about an opinion? Is it because it comes from an outsider? That is, we might say whatever negative things we wish to about ourselves but will not tolerate a thing from an outsider. If this is true, then it’s a mindset out of sync with the liberal outlook that we must necessarily have, for the collective well being of our plural society, if for nothing else!

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