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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2016 > November 2016 > Nurture Artistic & Academic Freedom

Nurture Artistic & Academic Freedom

Tuesday 1 November 2016, by Pritam Singh

Let the sons and daughters of Haryana develop as a hundred flowers bloom. Universities must support creative endeavour to enable cultural renaissance and human development.

I have had a soft corner since my student days in India for Haryana’s economic, political and cultural development. My first piece of research, my MA dissertation, was on Haryana agriculture with a focus on the so-called inverse relationship between farm size and productivity. Unlike some Punjabis who bemoaned, in an imperialistic sort of way, the separation of Haryana from Punjab in 1966, I tracked Haryana’s progress with interest and admiration. I interpreted Haryana’s speedy progress as a flowering of the creativity and autonomy of the people of Haryana. It was an honour to accept an invitation some years back from a university in Haryana to be a visiting professor there.

Haryana has had an uneven record since 1966 in its development pattern. The state has had very impressive economic development in agriculture but especially in industry which provided the much-needed ammunition to political and economic theorists who argue in favour of smaller states and against the dysfunctional nature of larger states. It acquired, slowly and steadily, its own political rhythm with many pitfalls on the way as it became free from the erstwhile dominance of the Punjab region and its political leadership in united Punjab. Haryana did not do as well in the cultural, artistic and intellectual domains, as it did in the economic sphere.

Intellectuals and artists of any nation are its soul and voice. The British economist Keynes had once said that philosophers and economists of any nation leave deep imprints on the frames of thinking of the nation. In all advanced societies, their intellectuals and artists are highly valued, respected and honoured. When Sartre, the celebrated French philosopher who refused to accept the Nobel Prize in literature in 1964 because he did not want to be “institutionalised”, died; there was a national mourning in France and more than 50,000 people joined his funeral procession. When Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian died in 2012, it was a lead story in the British media — with many top political leaders admitting that they had politically grown up on Hobsbawm’s writings on British history and politics. Any new nation, nationality or cultural identity needs intellectual and cultural vanguard who can articulate the problems, aspirations and visions of the emerging identity. There is no linear path to progress and that is where artists and cultural workers come in expressing the multi-dimensional nature of anxieties, contradictions and zigzags through literary works and artistic creations. In one sense, one could say that Haryana could have benefitted from the so-called advantage of late development.

Theorists of advantages of backwardness argue that the late developers can skip stages by learning very quickly what the earlier developers had already done, thus leapfrogging to a higher stage of development. In order to do that, Haryana needed to have first-class universities without the baggage of any previous unwanted practices; it needed to have its active state and society-funded organisations in the fields of music, theatre, cinema, paintings, sculpture, folk dance, folk crafts and the diverse Haryanvi languages and dialectics. It needed to have museums to record Haryanvi history and culture to propel the articulation of distinctive Haryanvi creativity. With this background in mind, when I read recently that a university in Haryana had chosen to discipline rather than celebrate the creative impulses of some of its faculty members and students, I felt sad and disappointed. The harassment to which a group of staff and students of Central University of Haryana (CHU), who were involved in putting together a performance based on award-winning writer Mahasweta Devi’s acclaimed short story Draupadi are being subjected to is a retrogressive development in a state which needs the talent of its younger generations to flower. The story Draupadi was written in 1971 and represents Mahasweta’s creative expression of the exploitation of India’s tribals. It is regularly taught in a course in the syllabi all over India and the world. The adaptation of the story into a play by the CHU staff and students was a creative endeavour to commemorate the literary achievements of Mahasweta, the recipient of some of the most prestigious Indian and international awards. The critical references in the play to the Army’s role in treating the tribal population is now being twisted by the right-wing Hindu nationalist student groups and organisations as being anti-national and anti-Army. An attempt is being made to pit the soldiers of the area against the academics of the university.

This is extremely harmful both from the viewpoint of creating an anti-artistic atmosphere as well as projecting a damaging image of Haryana nationally and internationally. There can be a difference of opinion on a particular stance of the play but that is no basis to bow down to coercive pressure from any quarter on artistic expression and academic freedom. It is this unsavoury aspect of the whole episode which has attracted the attention of academics and scholars in the UK and Europe who work on South Asia. They have expressed solidarity with their academic colleagues in CHU, who have come under attack from narrow-minded right-wing groups.

At such critical moments, it is the moral duty of heads of the university to protect the staff and the right to free expression of creative impulses. In its immediate context, it may seem like a pure, and perhaps difficult, administrative task but from a long-term historical point of view, it is a responsibility of immense significance. Given the transition Haryana is going through, it needs this cultural renaissance perhaps more than its agricultural and industrial development in which it has already made impressive strides.

The writer is a Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, UK.