A few days ago the distinguished mathematician Professor David Mumford wrote a letter to the Director of IIT Madras regarding the decision to ban the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle and emphasizing the importance of freedom of speech, especially in a university campus.
Professor Mumford’s letter has been met with widespread jubilation from Dalit and other progressive groups. However there have been a few who have expressed consternation, strangely many of them people in Indian academia who should have been the first to support every freedom on their campuses!
In this brief post, I would like to locate Mumford’s letter in a larger historical context by drawing a parallel with the famous letter that Einstein wrote to President Truman about the anti lynching law (which was delivered by Paul Robeson, the African-American poet).
Both Einstein and Mumford’s letters were written in response to a specific incident (the Tennessee lynchings and the ban on APSC respectively) but addressed the larger issue of human rights (of African-Americans and Dalits). Neither wrote their letters in ignorance of the history of discrimination that spawned these incidents. Einstein had, while still in Germany, lent his name to a letter in defense of the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ (along with Thomas Mann and others) and was well-informed of the violence of slavery in America. Similarly, Mumford, who has been a visitor to India for 50 years, is very knowledgeable of Dalit struggles for liberty and of the life and work of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
Both Einstein and Mumford argue that the action they propose is for the greater good of all; while Einstein writes that ‘lynching cannot be permitted to continue unchecked in a nation founded upon justice and equality’, Mumford writes ‘of the deep social struggles that quite possibly are coming to a head as India takes a central role in the world’.
Both letters are examples of taut tight writing that bring to bear enormous insight into the issue at hand. Both Einstein and Mumford had obviously thought deeply about the pre-eminent issue of our times – universal human rights.
Then, as now, were some people who ridiculed and who suggested that scientists confine themselves to their science and not meddle with issues that are not their concern. Human rights not their concern?! How uncouth and puerile seem Einstein’s detractors today! And may I suggest that the same fate awaits Mumford’s prejudiced detractors?
When people of the stature of Einstein and Mumford write on an issue, the rest of us should pause to listen closely and to think. Otherwise the loss will only be ours.
– Written by Shiva Shankar