Ramjas incident: erosion of healthy debates in India is worrisome

Maitreyee Shukla

One thing has dominated my social media feed this week: The Ramjas Incident. If one wants to, this incident can be simply seen through the lens of a Left- Right binary; however that, in my opinion, would be a reductive way to see it.

Reason being, the Left v/s Right debate has been on for decades in India. Both sides have seen their days in power, both have dominated the political atmosphere of our Universities. But never has the contrast between Left and Right ever resulted into a conflict of such a scale. Never has the polarization been so strong.
Let’s recount what has happened in our universities in the past two years.

Hyderabad Central University witnessed a conflict between ASA, which is an Ambedkarite organization, and ABVP over ASA’s stand on ‘Capital Punishment’. What followed was caste based discrimination, labeling as Anti-National, and hounding of a student until he committed suicide.

JNU endured the arrest of their President and two other students, media trials, public apathy, beatings and sedition charges following ABVP’s “objections” to a cultural event organized to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru.

BHU saw the most ridiculous conflict I have ever seen. Administration, with the support of ABVP cracked down on common students demanding a 24×7 library. These students too, were dubbed Anti-National.

Haryana University witnessed their share of this hooliganism when their English Department staged a play based on a story by Mahashweta Devi, the beloved author of PM, Mrs. Sushma Swaraj and Mr. Amit Shah. Reason? ABVP thought the play was Anti -National.

CUJ admin suspended a Professor for inviting a JNU Professor to a seminar, because JNU Professors are the mentors of Anti-National students.

Jodhpur University too felt its share of heat when Prof. Nivedita Menon, an ABVP certified Anti-National, was invited for a seminar, which got ABVP rising in rage. The Professor who extended the invitation got suspended.
And now, DU’s Ramjas College organized a seminar on ‘Cultures of Protest’, with an ensemble panel for the discussions. Since the panel included JNU students Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, controversy erupted. ABVP exercising their right, protested against the event. The organizers, exercising their right, decided not to make any changes to the panel. What followed was stone pelting, beating and rape threats to the students assembled consisting of Left wing activists and common students of DU. This event too, was labeled Anti- National by ABVP.

Now, I am not trying to say that Left is the innocent, righteous victim everywhere; it’s far from that. What I am trying to say is, this has moved beyond Left v/s Right. The professors responsible for the play in HU were not affiliated to any political party. A language department has every right to stage a play based on such an important piece of literature as that of Mahashweta Devi. A 24×7 library is not a Left utopian dream; it is the dream of every common student. Academicians belonging to varied shades of the political spectrum coming together and having discussions are the very lifeline of the academic world. This tolerant exchange of radical and conservative views is what keeps the society from becoming stagnant. We need to keep that wheel moving, and debate is what pushes it.

The point I am trying to make is: It is no longer two diametrically opposing ideologies clashing. That binary is false. This is abuse of power, and Left too, has not shied away from abusing it. This is now an attack on something essential for a country’s progress; academic freedom.

Nehru rightly said that a University stands for the adventure of ideas, in search for the truth. A bureaucracy doesn’t have a space for radical ideas, a family doesn’t, common social circles don’t, media doesn’t, and even mainstream politics has no space for radical thoughts. In this situation, we desperately need a space where we can go beyond the binaries of right and wrong, of decent and vulgar, of normal and abnormal, of patriotic and Anti- National; and discuss. Debate. Dissent. Search for our own truths.

When ABVP goes crying foul to their overlords and gets administrative and legal machineries involved, it strangles that space. Interesting part is, that they use sentimentality in spaces carved for rationality and get away with it. They use the labels like nationalist, anti-national, terrorist, and much worse in situations where there is no ground for it. How on earth can a protest demonstration demanding a 24×7 library, or non-discriminatory hostel rules can have anything to do with patriotism? How is any academic discussion even open for that sort of scrutiny and labeling?

Student politics is very different from mainstream politics; it is more idealistic. That is why we have left parties with no Dalit members in their polit- bureau and have their student wings fighting tooth and nail for depravation points, Rohith Vemula and reservation. That is why Kanhaiya Kumar had the sense to condemn a statement by his parent party about Sunny Leone on a public forum.

This idealism is probably why we had not seen such clashes earlier. ABVP has dropped all pretense of being intellectually capable. Has denounced Vajapyee apparently (through their actions, at least), and is now out and out a party of money and muscle.

Integral Humanism, who?

Having said that; name calling, condemnations and rage cannot help with this situation. We have been doing that for past few years, and since it is not working, maybe we need a change of strategy. Of course we have to show our solidarity, and protest this attack vehemently.

But simultaneously, let’s make sure the space for engaging in debates is not shrunk. If they won’t let us have our assigned spaces- the universities; we shall take over other spaces. Let go of the moral high ground the left has put itself on-and then- Debate.

Debate with your family which supports them, make yourself heard on social media, if possible on mainstream media, and expose this nexus of government, police and ABVP. Engage with your friends in ABVP over a cup of tea, ask questions that will make one think. For example, I asked my ABVP sympathizer brother to explain Integral Humanism to me. Now he is reading about it. Next I will ask what exactly it is about Marxism that he dislikes. 😉

This is a moment of introspection. For Left, Right and the ‘Neutrals’.




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