Indian campus is on fire again

By Shemin Joy and Sagar Kulkarni

An eternal rebel always hides in a student’s mind. They believe, as French philosopher Albert Camus wrote 66 years ago in ‘The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt’, ‘to remain silent is to give the impression that one has no opinions, that one wants nothing, and in certain cases it really amounts to wanting nothing’. And Indian students do not want to remain bullied, scared or imprisoned to silence any more. What do they face? An insensitive police, an unimaginative political leadership of post-truth era, a restrictive society that wants to decide what will they wear and whom will they fall in love. The rebel in the students is not willing to take it lying down and campuses are on fire again. Delhi University is the latest to be added to the list, as Sangh-backed ABVP is at loggerheads with their opponents.

If a Rohith Vemula stood up and later silenced into a suicide last year, a Kanhaiya Kumar or Omar Khalid or Shehla Rashid rose to fill the gap. Now, a 20-year-old Gurmeher Kaur has become a rallying point after she used just 25 words to oppose ABVP whom several have accused of indulging in violence. The trigger — an invitation to Khalid, who was in the eye of a storm over a function on Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, to a seminar ‘Culture of Protests’ in Ramjas College. Some say, the fight is for control of the university campuses where the rightwing has not had much hold. They cite protests and resistance that have been triggered in Hyderabad Central University (HCU), IIT-Madras, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and elsewhere since the Narendra Modi government came into power in 2014. The campus has turned into a laboratory to test whether a student is patriotic enough and not whether she has evolved a critical thinking.

The university campus had been out of headlines for some months but the lull was broken on February 21 in Ramjas College located in DU’s North Campus where the seminar was organised by its English Department. Violence broke out in campus and a hand-tied police added fuel to the fire through its inaction. Invitation to Khalid was the contentious point which ABVP picked up. After ABVP-controlled DU Students Union (DUSU) raised objections about Khalid’s presence and police said they cannot assure protection, the invitation extended to him was recalled. The seminar continued without Khalid but all was not over. ABVP activists continued the protest which later turned violent as they pelted stones and bottles at students and teachers who took out a silent march to protest against the Sangh outfit. ABVP’s point was that they would not allow “anti-nationals” to propagate their views. The two-day seminar was called off. Police, students claim, was a mute spectator. Had the violence been nipped then and there, it would not have spiralled into a wider protest.

The next day in DU North Campus was tense and police were deployed. Students, including those belonging to the Left-affiliated AISA, wanted to take out a march from Ramjas but ABVP activists had some other ideas. They blocked the exit and entry points and targeted students. Clashes broke out between both groups of students. An Assistant Professor had to be taken out in an ambulance. Later, students went out to protest as police formed a human chain. Still, they were attacked. Students later faced lathi-charge after police decided to clear off the area. Journalists too were attacked but by policemen. Some of them who removed their nameplates, and launched punches and kicks on protesting students and media persons covering the protest. An Inspector was heard lamenting to a media person later that his juniors did not listen to him and targeted protesting students.

Police was accused of partisan behaviour. An FIR was filed on the basis of ABVP complaint of raising “anti-national” slogans, which included demands for “azadi” for Kashmir and naxal-affected Bastar. But complaints by the other side were not turned into cases, students allege. Police did not take pro-active steps to defuse the tension or ensure security of students. Rather, they indulged in beating up students. Girls were physically targeted by police and some section of students. Police van stationed outside Ramjas became a platform for ABVP activists to pelt stones at their opponents. Police is supposed to uphold Constitution and not just law and order. It is their duty to ensure that freedom of expression, a vital right ensured by the Constitution, is protected. An imagined fear should not be the reason for restricting someone from speaking his mind and when police told, as college authorities claimed, them that they cannot ensure protection, they failed in their duty.

One of the highlights of the protest was on February 24 when Kaur, BA English Honours student at Lady Sri Ram College and the daughter of a martyred soldier, tweeted her photo with a poster, which read,  “I am a student of Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP.” It touched a chord for many. But Kaur had to face much more. Somebody dug up an anti-war video by her in which she went on say that “Pakistan did not kill her father but war did”. Some chose to twist the message or refuse to understand what she meant by it. The troll machinery was on a roll and rape threats were issued online. Not just students or BJP supporters but Union ministers and senior BJP leaders, sportspersons jumped on to troll her and give her unsolicited advice on nationalism and how she was influenced by “leftists”.

Whether it was junior minister Kiren Rijiju or senior ministers like M Venkaiah Naidu, all waded into the controversy abandoning nuance. Campuses were once again pictured as den of criminals and anti-nationals while issuing warnings that no subversive action would be allowed. Curiously, all these comments came even as not a word was said against the country as they believe. Khalid had a point when he said ABVP indulged in violence despite he did not participate and their problem is with dissent in democracy.

If a country fears a student with an independent mind, the problem is not with the student. An unfearing and free-thinking student is what any country should need. As President Pranab Mukherjee said in Kochi recently, these temples of learning must “resound with creativity and free thinking” and those in universities must “engage in reasoned discussion and debate rather than propagate a culture of unrest”. He believes it is “tragic to see them caught in the vortex of violence and disquiet”. And, it is essential that our campuses do not fall into that tragedy.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spotlight on Mar 5, 2017)

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