Among Reducing Liberal Spaces, How Some College Societies Stand Apart

Debates, discussions, difference of opinions and discourses are the very cornerstones of a democratic structure and it is heart-wrenching to see when they are not welcome in a country which takes pride in calling itself the largest democracy in the world. Stifling dissent is the worst form of oppression because it takes away a person’s ability to think and question the status quo. Such oppression, where people are conditioned to stop questioning things and are conditioned to comply with authority in our educational culture as well, has been so normalised, that people have stopped realising that it even exists.

During the period from 2015-2017, India has witnessed an increasing number of cases of intolerance, including the mob lynching in Dadri, the bomb attack on the office of Tamil TV channel Puthiya Thalaimurai, beef ban in various states, arrest of JNU student leaders, and recently, the incident that took place at Ramjas College on February 21 and 22. Numerous students like me, who are in a habit of questioning things like the definition of nationality, the role of the state, the concept of morality, the effectiveness of a policy and finer nuances of gender and feminism, often tend to feel suffocated in an intolerant environment like this. However, it is in such a state that college societies, like literary societies or those dedicated to a social cause, provide us with a breathing room.

They are those very few liberal spaces where people can discuss and debate the most divergent and radical things without the fear of offending anyone or being beaten up. The importance of debate and discussion cannot be emphasised enough. It is crucial to discuss even those things which some privileged sections of society consider beyond the ambit of debate. Things like whether we should respect women or not, whether we should stand up when the National Anthem is being played, etc. Yes, you read that right! Campus Watch spoke to a few students and union members from some societies in different colleges which make active use of the tools of discussion and deliberation and act as a free space.

Tanisha Ranjit, general secretary (2016-17) of the English debating society in LSR, says – “You form the best of bonds with people you meet in societies, despite having strikingly different opinions on the same issues. Societies expose an individual to a variety of new thoughts, ideas and notions about life – including ideas that they might not have ever bothered questioning.” The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that a problem exists. This isn’t the hard part. It becomes tough when a person begins to realise that the problem might lie within us and not outside us.

For the realisation to kick in, self-awareness, introspection and a deep understanding of how opinions get formed in our minds are needed. To change the society for the better, we need to let go of our own biases and challenge our beliefs. Often, the strongest of our beliefs have no basis in rationality and are simply a byproduct of the society we live in. Shubhi Chhabra, while articulating her experience as a core team member at Parivartan – the gender forum of Kirori Mal College, said, “societies like Parivartan lets you look at yourself in different perspectives, judge and gauge yourself in different ways and see how much of you is really you and how much of it is socially defined. Parivartan has been a place for me to be introduced to so many ideas that I would never have been introduced to otherwise.”

From my personal experience too, I can say that societies in my college have been my go-to place whenever I wanted to explore new ideas. As a former Kirori Mal College (KMC) debating society member, I can truly say that the experience of being a part of the society was truly extraordinary. The debating society has taught me to embrace diversity. I have learnt not just to accept people who are different from me, but to respect and admire them. Moreover, I often spend a lot of my college hours in the most popular hangout spot in KMC called ‘Sare-e-Aam‘ (an Urdu word meaning ‘in public’). What makes this place so special is that you can engage in debate and discussions there. It is a place where no one will stop you, judge you, or question your rationality and judgment. Students love that place, because, in a lot of ways, it liberates us and sets us free.

However, this is not to say that the journey to achieve freedom is an easy one. It is full of struggles and challenges. While societies are free and liberal spaces in this increasing time of intolerance, there is a certain kind of censorship still at play. Anuja, editor-in-chief (2016-17) of the LSR College Magazine, while talking about these challenges, says, “sometimes, we have been asked to stop working on something all of a sudden; but I am truly glad to be a part of something that helps people to think and bring important issues to the table for discussion. My co-chief eds and I, aim to create a platform where people can voice their opinions and reach a large audience.”

Yet, there is hope because people like her are in the leadership positions in certain college societies and are expected to contribute largely to the discourse in the near future. What is also important for the society to realise today is that when an opinion is suppressed, it doesn’t cease to exist. In fact, suppression of an opinion often leads to further radicalisation of opinions. A case in point will be the fight for freedom of academic institutes, which has recently gained momentum after the Ramjas incident.

To be free is a natural right which each and every human being has. However, we often tend to take our freedom for granted and forget its importance – until it is taken away from us. History is testimony to the fact that whenever there has been an attack on the liberty of individuals, the fight has been fierce. In this fight of reclaiming the freedom of our academic spaces, our right to dissent and of course, the freedom of speech and expression, some college societies are playing an active and integral role. They continue to uphold values of a liberal democracy and will continue to do so in the future.

Image used for representative purposes only.


Image source: Sushil Kumar/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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