AT A critical juncture in the late Mahasweta Devi’s short story, Draupadi, the protagonist realises that she has no option but to face her oppressors alone.
Two teachers, Snehsata and Manoj Kumar, from the English department of the Central University of Haryana in Mahendragarh, who helped put together a play based on the story, find themselves in a similar situation today.
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For a week, the university’s gates have been the site of protests by residents from the nearby villages of Jant and Pali and some students, mostly members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), against the teachers and administration for allowing the play to be staged. The protesters have claimed that a scene, where the protagonist is raped by uniformed armymen, is “anti-national” and shows the Army in poor light.
The university, which apologised in writing for giving permission to stage the play, has since issued notices to the two teachers and asked why they organised the programme. Two committees — internal and external — have also been set up to look into the matter. A complaint against the two teachers was earlier filed at the Mahendragarh police station, demanding that they be booked for sedition. Local police have not filed an FIR yet and said they would conduct investigations before taking any action.
The two teachers, whose role is being investigated, said that the issue is not just them being questioned and isolated but “a culture of silence” being perpetuated in the university.
“The university wants a docile, unquestioning populace that is easy to manage and control. The university has blocked Facebook on campus. There is no avenue for us to talk to our students. Most of the teachers are not supporting us. The university asked us about the programme and we have given our reply,” said Snehsata.
In her response, accessed by The Indian Express, Snehsata wrote: “I am a university teacher and universities are made for academics and research. These are the platforms where we can discuss and debate every kind of issue. If we academicians will not talk of the issues of the marginalised, who will?”
“The university has promoted a culture of crushing debate. When the programme was approved by the university, why must we be asked to give explanations?” said the other teacher, Manoj Kumar.
The teachers said they have been offered support by the Delhi University Teachers’ Association, Ambedkar University Teachers Union and the Federation of Central University Teachers’ Association, but their own colleagues have chosen to remain silent.
Students on the campus, meanwhile, said that the issue was being unnecessarily politicised. “This matter could have been resolved inside the university. Everyone has the right to say what they feel. Some people are, however, using it for their political benefit,” said Naseeb Singh, a research scholar.
The ABVP members, however, denied taking the matter to outsiders but said that someone should be punished. “How can you show the Army in such a light? They sacrifice their life for our safety. People are very angry,” said Jitendra Yadav, a university student from the ABVP.
“We have no idea who shared the video but it is certain that there were some things in the play that were hurtful. When students wanted to organise a candle march for Uri martyrs, it was refused but permission was given to this play,” alleged Naresh Yadav, former student union president and an ABVP member.
Vice Chancellor R C Kuhad, who approved the programme, has been hospitalised for the past few weeks. “The university had given approval for the event. After the protests, an internal committee was also set up to look into the allegations. The committee will decide the further course of action,” said A J Varma, acting Vice Chancellor. The committee will meet on Tuesday to deliberate on how to stop such incidents in the future.
Devi’s Draupadi, the story of a tribal woman in West Bengal, and the caste and gender violence inflicted on her by the state, is part of the MA English course at the university.
On September 21, the English and Foreign Languages department organised a programme, of which the play was a part, as a mark of respect for the author after her death in July. The play was followed by an epilogue where Snehsata spoke about alleged Army excesses in some parts of the country.
The programme was over by 1 pm, following which the narrative got murky. Some said that a few students in the audience found a part of the play offensive and complained to the villagers. Others claimed that some politically motivated students circulated a video clip of play’s contentious portion on WhatsApp.
Most residents in the villages of Jant and Pali said that they have seen the video but no one seems to know who got it first. Both villages have a sizeable population of ex-servicemen, many of whose sons are also serving in the Army.
University officials said that a few villagers came to the university hours after the play was staged, asking why it was allowed. The next afternoon, close to 200 villagers, some students and members of the ABVP, carrying national flags and sticks, gathered outside the gates, and shouted slogans against university officials, they said.
“We saw the video on our phones. The contents and timing of the play were appalling. The nation was mourning 18 soldiers killed in the Uri terror attack three days before the programme. Many men are from this village in the Army. The law should ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” said Rao Sanjay Singh, one of the complainants and a member of the Sainik Samman Sangharsh Samiti, which was formed after the incident.