Last Friday, my friend Naseeruddin Haider Khan from Lucknow sent a video with a message: “These people are in the police station.” I opened the video. I immediately knew where it had been shot. It was the plaza near the gate of the Arts Faculty of Delhi University, where I teach.
A woman was speaking. I later realised she was Richa Singh of the Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, a farm workers’ collective in Uttar Pradesh. Instantly recognisable was the lean economist Jean Dreze, standing by shyly. They had come to participate in a dharna at Jantar Mantar against the dilution of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. As part of their campaign to make more people aware of the issue, they had come to speak to people at Delhi University.
There were only 15-20 people in the crowd. Some were standing, some sitting. I watched the video with apprehension. As Richa Singh spoke, the camera panned to show policemen standing nearby. They outnumbered the participants at the meeting.
They were listening silently – and carefully. There were both male and female police personnel. It seemed as if they were also part of the meeting. Singh was speaking without a mic. How far could her voice go in the din and bustle of the Chhatra Marg, I wondered.
After a few minutes, a policeman suddenly entered the frame. “What is this going on?” he asked. A young man walked towards him. The policeman grabbed him and said, “Get him on the bus. Stop it.” The youth resisted. If we cannot talk in the university, where else can we? In the chaos, the camera shook. The video paused.
Afterwards, I learned that all the detained people, including Dreze, had been released from the police station. Did the police know that he is a respected economist? He never mentions it. His status is only that of an ordinary Indian. He shares their fate.
It turned out that one of the young people detained was not Indian. He was interrogated for several hours. “He will be sent back to his country,” said an anxious Kavita Srivastava, who also works with the Right to Food and Right to Work campaigns. He could be accused of flouting visa conditions.
Just as I finish watching this video, I find that someone has sent another video from the university. The location was different: it had been shot on the faculty premises. It was inside the gate. Policemen were not visible here. In the video, I saw scores of university security guards dragging away three or four students – five or ten personnel attacking each student.
I learned that the students had gathered to protest against the university’s decision to punish some students for showing a BBC documentary on and near the campus. A female student was fighting with the security guards, trying to free herself.
The jurisdiction of Delhi Police begins outside the gate of the Arts Faculty. The campus is patrolled by the university security. Students and teachers are supposed to confine themselves to the classrooms.
Use of the various seminar halls now depends on the pleasure of the university authorities. The spaces are usually given only for events with “nationalistic” themes. For members of the university community and organisations already marked for their scepticism towards India’s new brand of hyper-nationalism, there is no question of finding a place to discuss their ideas.
Despite this, students find their way. But after that, they have to be punished so that other students do not follow their example.
The university argued that the screening of the BBC documentary could have resulted in a breach of peace on the campus. It is beyond comprehension how the film could have caused violence. What the officials feared and are not saying is that the film had actually disturbed the peace of mind of the government.
Secondly, they know that there is a Sangh-affiliated student organisation that shuts down activities involving free thought and free thinking. Over the years, this student organisation has several times assaulted students and teachers for holding seminars and film screenings. But the administration has never taken any disciplinary action against them. Is it the case if the university authorities that their violence should be accepted and honoured in the national interest?
In Delhi University itself, I have come across students who have said that they have been threatened with violence for even meeting informally. But they have no avenue to complain about this.
While writing this, I remember that on the occasion of Bhagat Singh Martyrdom Day on March 23, the Tata Institute of Social Studies in Mumbai did not allow activist Harsh Mander to talk on the campus. Before that, the National Law University in Lucknow also canceled his lecture. Was there a danger of breach of peace on the campus due to Mander’s presence?
The administrators of the universities should have the moral courage to state clearly that the issue here is not of a breach of peace but of the danger of a single dissenting pebble disturbing the calm waters of nationalist unanimity. They know that a single cry of conscience is enough to break this superficial agreement that now prevails in India.
I felt this myself a few days ago, when a research student came up to me at an event organised at the Arts Faculty plaza by the All India Students Association. He said that he had earlier been a supporter of Narendra Modi and his government but he now found the words of “these people” (AISA, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India [Marxist-Leninst]) to be correct.
If this has happened to one student, it can happen to many as well. That is why the government does not want any different notes to be struck anywhere. Students’ minds are thinking minds. But the government wants them to be conditioned by hyper-nationalism and believe that different voices can create a disturbance.
The government does not want this disturbance. University administrators are acting as representatives of the government. They are determined to make the university campus thought-free, with no pretension of impartiality. But for how long can they do so?
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.