Push Collective Freedom to Secure Individual Liberties: Partha Chatterjee on Azadi

20160321_124454_LLS21 March 2016│9:42 PM: The lecture titled “Rights & Wrongs of Freedom”, held at Azadi Chowk began with Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya introducing the speaker: Professor Partha Chatterjee is a philosopher, political scientist, scholar and also a playwright, a relatively less-known facet of his multidimensional aura, said Prof Bhattacharya. He is associated with Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata and the University of Columbia, New York. Some of his publications are— The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power, etc.

In his opening lines, Professor Chatterjee praised the students of JNU for “restoring a perfectly good Hindustani word to its full meaning”. Contemporary discourse has often tainted azadi with a pejorative connotation by marking out its association with the Azad-Kashmir Movement. For Chatterjee, it is important to understand that these movements are part of a much larger set of claims, demands, and negotiations within a much larger framework of the idea of freedom.

Starting with the ‘lack of absolute freedom’, he went on to discuss the more expansive meanings of individual and collective freedom. He began his lecture with a brief discussion on the natural limits to individual freedom as a result of the endowments and laws of the nature. “I cannot be in two places at one time, or I cannot be 25 again”, Chatterjee exemplified. However, he said, the range of freedom can be creatively expanded by acting upon the natural resources.

Professor Chatterjee mulled upon individual and collective freedom by discussing social and political constraints. These constraints assumed centre-stage for the rest of the discussion. Individual and collective freedoms are two aspects that spring with the social and political conditioning of freedom. Chatterjee discussed the need to think of these two aspects of freedom as distinct. The constitution has defined freedom through Art.19 of Part 3 of the constitution. There are various provisions within the constitution which limit these freedoms; there are also laws passed by the legislature which impose a restriction, he maintained.

“Specific conventions and practices define what acceptable speech is. These conventions undergo a change over time. In these, the state isn’t the agency that regulates what can/cannot be said in a private gathering/club/family/public meeting. However, in a constitutional democracy where one is concerned with the questions of freedom; the default position of the state is to ensure freedom of the individual. If it does not it becomes tyrannical. That is the definition of tyranny— where the state fails to protect individual freedom.”— Professor Chatterjee argued.

20160321_124438_LLSIn the context of collective freedom, he asserted that there is a connection between individual and collective freedom. What appears to be individual freedom turns out to be the pursuit of freedom in a collective. According to Chatterjee, a narrow conception of constitutional freedoms cannot explain the massive tapestry of notions of freedoms pertaining to collectives. Chatterjee went on to argue:

“…but there are some kinds of collective rights that have been historically recognised even by liberal constitutions….Azadi in the collective sense needs to be thought on differently as it depends on a relationship between an oppressor and an oppressed [sic]….Today there are claims for separate federal units because there is an oppressed side along with an outside oppressor. There is no permanent claim, and no permanent settlement. What I am suggesting is that there is nothing supremely dangerous in these claims for autonomy. These are specific claims, and their resolution is based on the politics”.

Partha Chatterjee introduced his audience to the idea of ‘parliamentary privilege’ whereby bodies of elected representatives have the privilege of self-regulation of what can and cannot be said within the house. According to him, universities should have the same privilege. For this, he presented three motivations.

First, universities collect and collate, in an organised and systematic fashion, knowledge of how people live and what they want/claim. Government departments cannot fulfil this task. Second, to foster a space where critical engagement with different points of view flourishes. Universities are important as these debates may not be possible in the political field or a ‘television talk-show’. The third reason is specific to JNU whereby students and teachers from different backgrounds come together and articulate themselves in a common language of their discipline, on an equal footing leading to a particularly creative environment for the pursuit of knowledge.

“If freedom of thought and expression is the foundation of critical thinking in a society, it is the job of the teachers and the students to promote critical thinking. The foundational implication of freedom of thought and expression is that the university be completely self-regulatory. Teachers and students together decide what is acceptable and what is not…. Danger to such spaces should be resisted with all our might”— Professor Partha Chatterjee ended his lecture on a strong note of resistance against governmental clampdown on universities.

Aakanksha D’Cruz is an MA student at CPS and works for The Informer.