Mar, 5: 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 with. The rebel in the student 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 the Sangh-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishat (ABVP) is at loggerheads with their opponents.
If Rohith Vemula stood up and was later silenced into suicide last year, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid rose to fill the gap. Now, 20-year-old Gurmeher Kaur has become the rallying point after she used just 25 words to oppose the ABVP whom several have accused of indulging in violence. The trigger was 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 Delhi’s Ramjas College.
Some say the fight is for controlling university campuses where the Right-wing 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 to power in 2014. The campus has turned into a laboratory to test whether students are patriotic enough and not whether they have assimilated critical thinking ability.
The university campuses have not made headlines for some months now, but the lull was broken on February 21 in Ramjas College where the seminar was organised by the English Department. Violence broke out in the campus and the hands-tied police added fuel to the fire through its inaction. The ABVP made the invitation to Khalid a contentious issue. After ABVP-controlled DU Students Union (DUSU) raised objections about Khalid’s presence and the police said they cannot assure protection, the invitation was recalled.
The seminar was held without Khalid but all was not over. The 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. The ABVP’s point was that they would not allow “anti-nationals” to propagate their views. The two-day seminar was called off. Had the violence been nipped in the bud, it would not have spiralled into a wider protest.
The next day, Delhi University’s North Campus was tense and police were deployed. Students, including those belonging to the Left-affiliated All India Students Association (AISA), wanted to take out a march from Ramjas, but ABVP activists had other ideas. They blocked the entry and exit 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, and the police suddenly decided to clear the area and resorted to caning the students. Journalists, too, had to bear the police fury. Some of them removed their nameplates, punched and kicked protesting students and mediapersons who were covering the incident. An inspector was heard lamenting to a journalist later that his juniors did not listen and targeted students.
The police were accused of partisan behaviour. An FIR was filed on the basis of the ABVP complaint of raising “anti-national” slogans, which included demands for “azadi” for Kashmir and naxal-affected Bastar. But complaints from the other side were not turned into cases, students allege. The police did not take proactive steps to defuse the tension or ensure security of students, rather they beat them up. Girls were physically targeted by the police and some section of the students.
The police van stationed outside Ramjas became a platform for ABVP activists to pelt stones at their opponents. The police are supposed to uphold Constitution and not just law and order. It is their duty to ensure that freedom of expression, a vital right ensured in the Constitution, is protected. An imagined fear should not be the reason for restricting someone from speaking his mind.
One of the highlights of the protests came on February 24 when Gurmeher, a BA English Honours student at Lady Shri 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 struck a chord with many students.
But Gurmeher had to face more. Someone dug out an anti-war video made by her a year ago in which she says “Pakistan did not kill her father, but war did”. Some chose to twist the message or refused to understand what she meant. 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 and sportspersons jumped on to troll her and give her unsolicited advice on nationalism and how she was influenced by the “Leftists”.
Whether it was Minister of State for Home 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 were made while not a word was said against the country as they believe. Khalid had a point when he said ABVP indulged in violence though 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. 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”. It is important that our campuses do not slide into such an abyss.