Free Speech and Populism

Exclusionary in its founding principles, populism is a philosophy that identifies and targets a small “elite” that is disadvantaging the legitimate “majority.” In its manifestation in modern politics, populism has become the ally of ethnic nationalists targeting minorities across the world. What does this rise in populism mean for freedom of speech as a societal value? Free speech doesn’t favor a subjective right or wrong—it protects all schools of thought. Freedom of expression simultaneously facilitates racist rhetoric that undermines democracy and protects those who speak out against such oppression. Populism is not a result of a broken system—rather, its rise has been legitimately enabled by democratic processes and freedom of expression. Ironically, when  nationalist populist groups acquire power, they tend to secure their controversial regimes by dismantling the same ladder that aided their ascent: they suppress freedom of speech in order to muffle dissent.

This is precisely what has taken place with the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism in the world’s largest functioning democracy: India. In recent years, the state has made use of dated sedition laws in a masked attempt to silence opposition. In India and elsewhere, the battle for freedom of expression can be observed on a smaller, concentrated scale in the realm of academia. College campuses have long been a bastion of uncensored dialogue; however, this norm is now at risk across academic communities. There has been a marked shift in academic culture, in line with the shift in political culture, towards nationalist authoritarianism. In the uncertainty following the outcome of the US election, it is worth looking to recent events in India where the victory of a populist party has had serious implications for freedom of speech.

Modi, the BJP and Sedition Laws in India 

During the election of May 2014, India was eager to have a strong leader to address the pressing issues facing the Republic, including extensive poverty and threats to border security. Riding this wave of frustration, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) displaced the weak Congress Party to win the election on the backs of a record-setting 540 million voters. What allowed the BJP to garner victory on such an unprecedented scale? Populism. Modi himself did not engage in divisive politics during his campaign, but he was publicly endorsed by Hindu nationalist political factions. In a country of diverse faiths, religious divisiveness has had fatal consequences in the past. In 2002, communal riots in Modi’s home state of Gujarat resulted in the slaughter of more than 700 Muslims and 200 Hindus. Modi, who was governor at the time, was subject to intense scrutiny for his handling of the riots, which resulted in an atmosphere of Islamophobia and fear. In his next election cycle, Modi won by harnessingthis fear by creating a campaign centered around Hindutva rhetoric, or Hindu solidarity.

 Since Modi’s election the BJP regime has reinforced its exclusionary speech by wielding archaic sedition laws to silence dissent, especially amongst educated and academic circles. While some censorship has gone relatively unnoticed, the censorship of peaceful student protests in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on February 9, 2016 did not pass quietly. The protest, which was organized by the Student Union, openly criticized the government’s use of capital punishment against Kashmir separatist Maqbool Khan and convict Afzal Guru. Both the university and Hindu nationalist student groups opposed the demonstrations. Four days after the protest, the president of the Student Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested on the grounds of sedition. Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code states: "Words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government" are punishable by law. Kumar’s arrest set the academic community in India on fire. Debates broke out across the country over the validity of the sedition law and the threat it poses to the open academic discourse that often holds the government accountable for its actions. The year the BJP took power 47 sedition cases were reported and 58 people were arrested, of which only one was actually convicted. In conjunction with the glacially slow Indian legal process, sedition cases have become a tool for harassment rather than oppression. As the JNU case proved, however, the Indian academic community is not an insulated, liberal bubble, and critical discourse that it produces can provoke punishment by the populist government.

 Campus Free Speech and the Rise of Populism in the US

At academic communities across the United States, students and faculty alike vehemently protest incidences of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Many find it  intuitive that a college-educated population would be less prone to divisive populist rhetoric. What is interesting is that the issue at hand on American campuses is not that of excessive government control—instead it is a call for “safe spaces” and containment of sensitive content to create an environment free of discrimination and antagonism. In the US, many claim that freedom of speech is under threat from the response to a divisive sentiment, rather than as a result of the divisive sentiment itself. “Political correctness,” or “PC culture,” has become a sore point with faculty across the nation. At the University of Chicago, the administration made a controversial move when it stated the following in an admissions letter: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Student groups spoke against the statement, claiming that the university had misunderstood the function of trigger warnings. But according to the National Coalition Against Censorship, 62 percent of surveyed college educators believe trigger warnings would have an adverse effect on academic freedom.

Donald Trump’s rise to power on a platform of divisive populist rhetoric raises many questions regarding free speech. Trump’s election normalizes a culture of intolerance, so it is understandable that American students would call for more safe spaces to foster inclusion. On the other hand, the conduct of the BJP in India shows us that it is critical to uphold the academic community as a pillar of open dialogue following a populist victory. The United States has long allowed for critique of the state in a way that would never be legally permissible in India, regardless of the party in power. At the same time, the victory of the BJP in India bears some striking resemblances to the election of Donald Trump. In both cases, the leaders built their support base through divisive populist rhetoric that would resonate with the majority and exclude the minority populations. Additionally, like Modi with the Indian Parliament, Trump will have the support of a Republican House and Senate and thus much leeway to shape policies, so long as they don’t directly violate the Constitution.

The American academic community and liberal press were shocked following the Republican victory. Perhaps this shock will push academics to recognize the power of the frustrations of the majority. Perhaps the victory of populism in the United States will usher in the suppression of dissent against white supremacist politics, not via legal codes like sedition, but by the undeniable power of fear politics. It remains to be seen what the right to free speech, both on campus and across the country, will look like under a Trump presidency. In any case, the time has come for those of us who are afforded the privilege of voicing our dissent to step out of the liberal cushioning of academia—to understand the reality of what America is today and where it may be headed.