The withdrawal of Dr Hari Singh Gour University in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, from an international seminar on “Cultural and Linguistic Hurdles in the Achievement of Scientific Temper” due to bullying by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the local police must not be treated lightly.
The university had approved the topic, the collaboration and the speakers, but started wavering after the ABVP threatened it with disruption and legal action since there were names in the list of speakers it did not like. According to the student wing of the RSS, these speakers were “anti nationals” it could not tolerate.
The university succumbed finally after the local police shot off a letter to it at the behest of the ABVP stating that it had “references to the past history, anti-national mentality and caste-related statements of the speakers attending the webinar”. It warned the university that it might face action under Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code if something went wrong as the webinar was being “perceived as targeting a particular caste or community”. The pressure was apparently too much for the university and it buckled at the last moment. A victory for the ABVP.
It is yet another one and only the latest in the list of disruptions of academic programmes by the ABVP, the fraternal organisation of the BJP. Only two months ago, Gilbert Sebastian, an assistant professor of the Central University of Kerala, was suspended by the university because the ABVP reportedly took offence to his class on fascism. From Kerala to Haryana, there are numerous stories of disrupted and aborted seminars, film screenings and classrooms and censoring of syllabi, either directly by the ABVP or at their behest by the authorities.
The ABVP routinely takes offence to the content of the programme or the people involved in it. Either the subject matter of the academic programme is “anti Hindu”, “anti Indian” or “anti national” or the speakers or participants are. In the case of the Sagar University incident, the speakers, Gauhar Raza and Apoorvanand, were declared to be anti-national. How can they be hosted by a government-funded university?
One needs to point out, though, that the organisers at the Anthropology Department of Sagar University refused to be browbeaten. They refused to disinvite us and resolved to continue with the preparation for the seminar. At this stage, the desperate ABVP went to a willing police for help. The university authorities have so many more things to look after. One seminar cannot be allowed to jeopardise the material interests of the authorities and the university, especially when the threat comes from the superintendent of police. So, they asked the department to back off.
Defame, delegitimise and disrupt. This is how the ABVP and its fraternal organisations work in destroying the academic culture in India. A very effective method. Because once you make some names controversial, people would like to keep away from them. We have numerous stories of invitations rescinded, seminars and talks cancelled, as the names involved had been made controversial.
People are not the only targets. Institutions like the JNU have been systematically defamed. So much so that any affiliation with JNU has become a disqualification for admission, appointment and invitation in several places. Such defamation can have other consequences as well. After having been defamed as “anti-national”, people like Umar Khalid became vulnerable to physical attacks. There are genuine nationalist fanatics in this country who can threaten your life since they have been told that you are an “anti-national”. So, when the ABVP and the organisations of its cohort do it, it goes beyond a particular event, a particular person. It sends a signal to all the institutions and its affiliates as well. It turns into a national malady. Looking for books and persons to defame becomes a national sport.
Similarly, issues, concerns or topics are turned illegitimate for teaching or research. We have seen books, chapters removed, dropped from the reading list, because either their authors were “illegitimate” or the subject matter they dealt with was “not right”.
If one scans the list of the topics approved for grants or fellowships by the ICSSR and ICHR, and those discarded, one will get a sense of the direction in which things are being pushed. Without an attack on scientific temper, how can the IITs and IIM be forced to do pseudo science?
Disruption comes after or with defamation and delegitimisation. Seminars, film screenings, theatre performances are vandalised and disrupted. The ABVP seldom engages in arguments. The easy way out is to invoke pseudo-nationalism, religious insecurity or questions of caste, and pretend that feelings are hurt. They make a noise, physically attack and disrupt. Very economical!
A national spokesperson of the organisation, when asked that if they find a book problematic why cannot they respond by an essay if not a book, replied: “It takes time”. It does not take time to put a matchstick to a book, it takes only five shouting people to go on a rampage in a classroom or seminar. They know very well that academicians are not trained in shouting, abusing, accusing or fist fighting.
Even a small disruption and abusive slogan-shouting is very effective. Because no department or centre wants its chairs, glass panes broken. What they do after one such incident is to disallow future events. This is how most colleges in Delhi University stopped having drama events or seminars after the ABVP attacked an event in Ramjas College or selected only convenient and “right” themes and people.
All you have to do is to give a wink and the message reaches where it should. Three years back, an editor and an MP reached the conference hall of the University of Delhi to release the journal published by the Students’ Union (DUSU), a first of its kind, only to find the hall locked. We were told that the ABVP did not want it to happen and the authorities had obliged.
Readers might feel that we are writing this article as we were targeted. We do not deny that. One must not accept abuse and humiliation. It should not become a norm. We should not think that since we were not physically harmed nor arrested, we should ignore this. That would be normalising a bully culture in universities.
We need to tell the Sagar police that it not only failed in its constitutional duty, it violated it by working at the behest of a bully who was clearly in the wrong. Should we only pity the Sagar University administration and not tell them that safeguarding the freedom of a department was its duty and that it miserably failed? It went back on its word. That is not leadership.
The Sagar University episode makes it clear that doublespeak has become the habit of the Indian government. While its policy document speaks for institutional autonomy, the ruling party’s student body and other affiliates and its law and order apparatus see to it that the institutions toe their ideological and organisational line and punish them if they deviate. It is for us to record all such violations and keep speaking as long as we still have our tongues intact.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 6, 2021 under the title ‘A for Agressive, B for Bully’. Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University and Raza is an Urdu poet.