Campus protests

'This is worse than the Emergency': Lucknow professor targeted for sharing article on Umar Khalid

Rajesh Misra, a professor of sociology, believes that democratic expression is in critical danger in India.

If you’ve ever absent-mindedly shared or liked something on social media, Dr Rajesh Misra’s tale should be a cautionary one. Misra, a professor of sociology at the University of Lucknow, shared a link on his Facebook wall on Tuesday. It was an impassioned op-ed by Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University which argued that by rebelling and dissenting, “Umar Khalid is the son every parent should desire and be proud of”.

This is, however, not a very good time to rebel and dissent. While Khalid has been arrested, charged with sedition against the government, Misra faced violent protests over his decision to simply share Apoorvanand’s article. Students associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, disrupted Misra’s classes and even burnt his effigy. Later, Lucknow University even sought an explanation from Misra for his habits of social media sharing.

Speaking to Scroll.in, however, Misra was mostly undaunted by this reaction, even as he expresses fears for democracy and free speech in India.

What happened when you shared Apoorvanand’s article on Facebook?
Let me begin from day 1. On February 23, I shared an article written by Professor Apoorvanand of Delhi University published in the Indian Express that day. It was titled “Umar, my son”.

I found the article very touching and also very interesting. The message of the piece was that we, as teachers of parents, shouldn’t disown our children, our students even if they rebel and question the system. We should listen to them even if we totally disagree with them. Throughout my career as a teacher I have invited questions of any sort. Inquisitiveness is a basic requirement for any type of academics to be conducted.

I therefore shared the article on my Facebook wall since I wanted my friends to read it too.

What happened the next day [February 24] was that the ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party's student wing] started violent protests against me, pulling students out of class. Snapshots of my Facebook page had been circulated on campus through social media. I was warned by well-wishers at the university about the situation and fearing violence, I did not go. Later on, the ABVP burnt an effigy of me, calling it my arthi, corpse. Highly abusive slogans were raised against me as well as my family.

I find this reaction surreal given that I only shared an article on Facebook.

How did the administration of Lucknow University respond to this?
The Procter and Vice-Chancellor assured the protesting students that they would pursue the matter with me. Later on, some students even submitted an unsigned memorandum to the Vice-Chancellor. The next day I received a letter from the university asking me to explain what happened. It also asked me to respond within a day. So I did so, clearly laying out exactly what my position was.

Right now I don’t know the purpose of this action by the university but the protesting students want me to be dismissed for sharing the Indian Express article.

Do you feel unsafe given the violent nature of protests? Have you gone to the university after that?
I have gone but I only go at a time when the university is relatively empty, say, in the mornings. So of course, there is a sense of fear for my physical safety. I know these people can do anything to me. When in court, under police protection, in the capital of the country, there is jungle raj then of course Lucknow University is not secure.

Even then, I am prepared to listen to them. Like I said, I like the quality of dissent. If they don’t hurt me physically, I am ready to debate with them about this.

I am a senior teacher, I have been the national secretary of the Indian Sociological Association, I am known in the field of sociology. To threaten me with violence, to call me “anti-national”, that is the limit.

If this is the situation in a state not governed by the ruling party in Delhi, you can very well imagine what sort of future lies ahead for us.

The situation now reminds me of the Emergency. But even during the Emergency some parts of the media such as the Indian Express and the Economic and Political Weekly dissented, running blank editorials in protest. Today the private media is even worse than what Doordarshan was during the Emergency, toeing the government line fully. This is a complete mobocracy which has cowed even the media down.

What is happening now is even worse than the Emergency. Emergency was only confined to politics but today mobocracy has been added to the mix. Any dissenter will now be attacked viciously and today the police will look away or they might even support them. Even academics don’t have freedom of speech anymore.

What is the reaction of the larger students’ body at Lucknow University?
My classes are not being held at all now so like I said, this is very much like a mobocracy. A few students have said that they will not come for classes until I am dismissed.

Some people – mostly professors – have taken out a rally in my support. So there is some, public opinion in my favour. So even now, there is dissent against the protesters.

Are you thinking of backing down? Will you apologise for your Facebook share?
The future of the youth is dark now. Right now nothing has been proven against Umar, Anirban and Kanhaiya and yet no one knows how long they’ll be in prison. And given this injustice, I will surely take a stand on this matter – I will not budge. I know I am right.

Right now they’ve come for JNU students and me. Eventually they’ll come after everyone. Now is the time to buckle down in favour of free expression. They may hurt me, they may hit me, that’s fine – but I won’t back down. Because as a social scientist, as a teacher, as an academic and as a citizen of this country, it is my duty to fight for what’s right.

What are the implications of the protests against you? Will it have a chilling effect on free speech?
Yes. People are scared now. Particularly amongst middle classes, who anyway conform with the establishment in the normal course of things. But I feel the situation amongst the youth has hope. Even if they are scared, they do want to react. I’ll bring up a comparison with the Emergency again. While it was on, the people were silent. Dalits, minorities, the youth, kept their head down. Yet, remember, Indira Gandhi lost even in her citadel in 1977. So even now, I have hope that things will change.

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