What is (differently) at stake in Delhi University?

If the silence and the calmness is a donation of the people who can resort to violence any time, it really isn’t a state we have achieved. It is a tired, convenient and weak interval.

Written by NP Ashley | Updated: February 27, 2017 4:44 pm
Police detain ABVP activists after their clash with AISA students at Delhi University in Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo Police detain ABVP activists after their clash with AISA students at Delhi University in Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo

There is an irresistible tendency from all corners to draw a straight-line from JNU-February 2016 to Delhi University-February 2017: the right wing sees only Umar Khalid, hears only “azaadi” and only talks of anti-national in the whole development; the left wing sees a lot of things that rhyme with the JNU developments: assault on academic freedom, threats to the University space and the complacency of the Police force in the vandalism of the ruling party’s student wing. Neutral observers see yet another wave of student protests with a newer acronym, in the line of FTII, HCU and JNU.

Despite the charms of equating and recognising patterns, I would argue that the DU episode is nothing like what has been seen earlier and elsewhere. The basic character, the nature of response through demands and the remnants point to something quite new and deserves to be engaged differently.

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Umar Khalid was invited to talk at a seminar in Ramjas College on February 21 about his research topic Bastar. But the invite was cancelled due to the opposition from the ABVP. Such “victories”, gained by creating an atmosphere of fear and giving out an impression that the college authorities will have no control over their space if the session took place, aren’t unheard of. But after this, when the session started without Umar Khalid, the anti-seminar side started pelting stones into the conference room and out of fear, the seminar had to be cancelled.

This act is quite new: you don’t agree with a particular speaker and you shout slogans or hold placards outside the conference hall is a perfectly legitimate way of protesting. You have issues with a speaker and you physically block and attack the person is a crude, brutal and illegal way of marking protest, but it has happened and one can understand such misuses of physical power when some people have no legal action to fear. But pelting stones into a room where people they don’t even know were sitting is quite a different, far more dangerous thing altogether.
The mindlessness and callousness of letting stones breakthrough window panes requires a fundamental change in mind: it thinks of the space as enemy territory. Once you think of a space as enemy territory, all the inhabitants become your enemies and hitting any and every one in that hall becomes an achievement. This is the attitude particular to a terrorist. If stone pelting is allowed to let go as just another item in the disruptive activities, it would amount to being indifferent to this dangerous organizing principle of the event.

Police personnel deployed at Delhi University on Thursday. Express photo by Oinam Anand Police personnel deployed at Delhi University on Thursday. Express Photo by Oinam Anand

After that, the next day, when physically attacked students and teachers took out a dharna, they were attacked again — both physically and verbally: Individuals were targeted, a Professor of the English department was strangled to the point of causing internal injuries, some of the female students were threatened with rape and were thrown money at, some of them were chased out and the fear of being singled and attacked was instilled in them through intimidation and so on. Aggrieved students demanded that an FIR be launched against the attackers and sat in on a dharna outside the police station. The police, instead of filing their FIR, picked up these protesting students rather violently (violence of the evening includes male police personnel beating up female students) and dropped them off at Hauz Kauz Metro station, which is an hour away. Let whatever be the reason, how come when there is so much of street violence, students had to do a dharna to ask the police what they should have done without any prompting? But the students gained some ground the next day when they managed to get the police to file an FIR, get three constables suspended and the Delhi Women’s Commission to give strict orders on policemen dealing with women.

But the issue is far from over as Delhi University is not a campus university – it intersects with the public spaces at many points without offering the possibility of creating “safe havens”. The attacked and threatened students have a different relationship with the roads they have been using, neighbourhoods that they thought were theirs. The madness of that evening has become invisible but not disappeared. Faceless, angry and attacking men (and a handful of women) surfaced from the gullies and went hiding later. But they can come back any time when they want. If the silence and the calmness is a donation of the people who can resort to violence any time, it really isn’t a state we have achieved. It is a tired, convenient and weak interval.

The condition reminds me of that macabre memory of male, majoritarian street violence: 1984 Sikh Genocide (True, it was many steps short of that, but the grammar of it was the same). The accounts speak of men with bloodshot eyes and cycle chains going around in groups, murdering Sikhs, raping their women and torching their houses, and was then heard no more. It is possible to improvise such a situation in the Delhi University area all over again is one thing we know after February 22. Whether you are Congress, BJP or AAP, it should worry you. It is not just the academic human rights of some tiny minority in some critical habitat; but, in addition, human rights of people in terms of right to life, right to free movement, right to safety, right to recourse to legal action and right to justice that is at stake. All university movements are socially relevant in that a society needs this space and its work in becoming itself and in getting ahead; but the DU situation demonstrates that connection quite immediately.

FTII was a remarkable move of student opposition to favouritism imposed with arrogant callousness on an institution, Rohith Vemula of HCU brought out the socio-ethical issues in the university system of a hierarchical society foregrounding its discontents and JNU showed how there is a new political content that students have in offer, both in language and action, in defending the spaces of knowledge production and dissemination. Delhi University punctuates itself differently. Its issues only begin academic: they went on to be issues of rule of law, rights of women and citizenship rights. Its nearest ally from protest movements could be the Nirbhaya case, which was not primarily a university movement.

Whether you are right wing or left wing, student or parent, whether you teach or drive an auto, whether you are a hyper nationalist or an anti-nationalist, by virtue of being the citizen of a republic, as a social being, as a human being with ethical concerns and historical memory, you would agree that the estrangement and helplessness of people through fear is a deadly turn.

It is in knowing this that you become a stakeholder in the Delhi University movement.

(NP Ashley is Assistant Professor of English at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi)
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