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Where the Mind Is Without Fear: The Ramjas Attack
We the undersigned express deep anguish and concern at the riot fomented by the ABVP cadres on a peaceful protest march on February 22 that began at Ramjas College and Delhi University North Campus. The ostensible trigger for this calculated assault was the invitation extended to Umar Khalid a day earlier to speak at a Seminar on “Cultures of Protest” on his Ph. D topic on the condition of Adivasis, something that should be of concern to all right thinking Indians no matter what their views on nationalism. The ABVP, having branded Khalid as “anti-national” for his views on Kashmir, openly threatened mayhem should this seminar be held. Given this level of intimidation and the threats of violence the seminar was cancelled. But the next day, even though Khalid was not present in North Campus, the ABVP nevertheless went on a rampage against the peaceful march protesting the cancellation. They carried out an attack on the organizers of the Seminar; on speakers at the Seminar; on ordinary students; on teachers; as well as on student activists. One teacher was nearly strangled with his own muffler, another hospitalized, and several students suffered injuries of various levels of seriousness.
It would be a grave mistake to interpret what happened at Delhi University on February 21 and 22 as a “clash” between rival student groups. Over the last two and half years there has been a veritable chain of attacks up and down the country on institutions of higher learning carried out by student and other organizations affiliated to the RSS and BJP. In the past, the ABVP has violently stalled public meetings to be addressed by feminist activists, journalists and so on in Lucknow University and Allahabad University. Their attempts to prevent the screening of a film on Muzaffarnagar communal violence at Hyderabad Central University began the train of harassment and victimization that led to the institutional killing of Rohith Vemula. The ABVP and Sangh affiliates have filed cases against teachers and intellectuals in Universities at Udaipur, Jodhpur (Rajasthan) and Mahendragarh (Haryana). After Ramjas College, they threatened violence if a theatre festival was held as planned in Khalsa College – again, warning that no “anti-national” content will be tolerated in any play. That event has been cancelled. The ABVP’s definition of “anti-national” includes everyone critical of the idea of a Hindu India. Its former JNUSU Office bearer, Saurabh Sharma, made this quite clear when he tweeted to the effect that ‘India would long ago have become a Hindu Rashtra were it not for places like JNU.’
The partisan role of the Delhi Police is also ominous. The Police forces that were present did little to stop what was happening and some even engaged in unwarranted assaults of those marching peacefully, raising concerns as to whether they were obeying orders from the Central authorities to allow the ABVP a free hand. The suspension of three constables for the violence they displayed towards journalists and women students only begs the question – whose orders were they following? We note with concern that the DCP North who presided over the riot on the North Campus is the same DCP who faces a case in the Supreme Court for allowing thugs to thrash lawyers, journalists, teachers and the JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar last year inside the Patiala Court complex. We demand the immediate suspension pending an independent investigation of Jatin Narwal, DCP North.
Any democratic society must cherish its Universities and colleges as spaces for debate and discussion, reason and argument. When an organization which is backed by the ruling party at the Centre is allowed to use brute force, stones, bricks and sticks to act as a censor board for seminars and other activities on campuses, it spells doom for higher education and for a country’s intellectual and political culture.
It cannot be countenanced that intellectuals and artists (both students and teachers) should have to take ‘permission’ from the ABVP to speak, write, enact plays, or organize protests. Creative energies require the free flow of ideas. Policing ideas through the threat or use of brutal violence can only create dishonest discourses of ‘prejudiced pride’ inimical to the search for greater truth, social tolerance and decency.
We end by reminding ourselves of the words of Rabindranath Tagore –
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…
Where knowledge is free…
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
This violence displayed by the ABVP has been explicitly and implicitly supported or endorsed by Cabinet ministers no less! This raises the spectre of a country where the mind is made fearful, the head bowed, and reason shackled by brute violence. We appeal for a collective assertion of the right to free speech, and of robust, peaceful disagreement and debate.
Achin Vanaik (Former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi)
Pamela Philipose (Senior Journalist)