In the last two weeks, two teachers of humanities in leading institutes of higher education in the country have been denounced by Hindutva ideologues and advocates as “Hamas sympathisers”.
One of the teachers had organised a talk and film screening on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The second had defended inviting a scholar on international relations to speak about the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
More importantly, it is videos shot by students of the institutes and leaked on social media that have been used to drive the campaigns against Sameena Dalwai, a professor at the OP Jindal Global University, a private liberal arts university in Haryana, and Sharmishta Saha, an assistant professor of humanities at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.
Scroll spoke to students and professors at both institutions to understand how talks, lectures and disagreements between teachers and students led to accusations of “Hinduphobia”, a visit from the Haryana women’s commission and even a police complaint.
A film screening
On November 6, a documentary film, Arna’s Children, was screened at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. The film by Juliano Mer Khamis is about the efforts of his mother, Arna, an activist against Israeli occupation of Palestine, to involve the children of Jenin in theatre.
Publisher, theatre director and actor Sudhanva Deshpande was invited by Sharmistha Saha to give a talk about the film before it was screened.
Deshpande had met one of the characters of the film, Zakaria Zubeidi, who, as a child, had been a member of the theatre troupe.
“While Deshpande was speaking, a student in the audience started filming him,” said a research scholar of the institute who attended the screening. “The organisers objected and there was a verbal exchange for a minute or two. They were trying to stop him from filming it but he did not stop.”
The research scholar said that the student stopped filming when the screening started. “There was no discussion after the screening as the organisers said it was not possible to talk in such an atmosphere.”
After the screening, a pro-Hindutva student group, IIT Bharat Bombay, filed a complaint at the Powai police station, alleging that Deshpande had “glorified a Palestinian terrorist Zakaria Zubeidi”. Saha was also named in the complaint.
The complaint said that “Zubeidi is a known figure associated with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an organisation designated as a terrorist entity by various governments and international organisations, including the United States, the European Union, and Israel”.
According to a statement by the IIT Bombay faculty forum, “The recording [which was made despite Saha’s explicit denial] was put up on social media posts and was also shown on some TV channels.”
On November 9, three days after the screening, Deshpande issued a public statement against the “malicious disinformation campaign” against him and Saha by Times Now channel.
The channel had referred to Zubeidi as a Hamas terrorist and called Deshpande a “Hamas apologist” in a series of bulletins on November 8.
One such bulletin was titled, Hamas Terror Whitewashed? Row Over IIT Bombay Event; Ecosystem Agenda Shocks.
In a statement that he shared with Scroll, Deshpande denied allegations of glorifying Hamas. He said he did not even mention Hamas. According to Deshpande, Zubeidi was never a member of Hamas but a former military commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah, one of the constituent parties of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
Deshpande said that when he met Zubeidi in 2015, he had given up arms and was advocating cultural resistance.
The police said they are investigating the matter but no FIR has been registered yet, said Jitendra Sitaram Sonawane, inspector at Powai police station.
A day after the screening, the IIT department cancelled a talk by political scientist Achin Vanaik on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
On November 11, students associated with Hindutva groups held a demonstration on campus, demanding that Saha be sacked.
A lecture on dating
On September 23 – two weeks before the Hamas attack on Israel – Sameena Dalwai, a professor at the OP Jindal Global University, a private liberal arts university in Sonepat, Haryana, took a class with third-year undergraduate law students.
As a part of a module on sexuality and desire, she had planned to analyse the language of dating profiles on dating apps.
“That day, she opened the Bumble app in our class,” said a third-year law student, who asked not to be identified.
For the class, Dalwai made two fake profiles – using the image of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for a male profile and a shadow of a woman for the female profile.
Bumble asks users to set a radius from which prospective matches must be found. The radius, in this case, was set as 1 km, said the student.
“She used her own phone number to set up the profile,” the student said.
As Dalwai launched the app and projected it onto a screen, the profiles of students of the university started popping up on the screen. “Some of those profiles were friends and acquaintances of the students in the class,” the student said. “As the lecture carried on, she said she wanted to analyse how people respond to profiles. She picked some key words and wrote them on the board to show how students expressed interest or rejected a profile on the dating app.”
The exercise left some students uncomfortable. “We felt she was objectifying the profiles,” the student said.
Some of the students also made video clips of Dalwai teaching.
“Students started talking about it in the class WhatsApp group,” the student said. “The class representatives then asked the professor to wind up the activity. They asked her twice or thrice and eventually she shut down the app.”
The class representatives also approached the university’s students’ council to appraise it about the concerns of the students over the lecture, a second law department student told Scroll. The students’ council then raised the matter with the university administration, according to the student.
A third student, however, pointed out that “not one person objected to the dating lecture when the whole thing was happening”. “Everyone was having fun and making their own remarks and Dalwai did not say anything herself.”
“She is an upright and straightforward professor but she has been misunderstood,” the third student said. “She wanted to make us understand how the intersectionality of caste and gender applies in our lives.”
The matter rested there – till videos of the lecture were leaked and circulated on Twitter, after a talk organised in the university on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Dalwai’s email defending the talk was also leaked on social media.
A talk on Palestine
On November 1, Achin Vanaik, a former professor of political science at Delhi University, delivered a lecture on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict at the OP Jindal Global University.
The talk was organised by 50 faculty members from various departments.
Video clips of Vanaik’s talk were leaked online, in which he drew parallels between Zionism and Hindutva nationalism and questioned why one act of violence is labelled terrorism and others are not.
Around the same time, an email from Sameena Dalwai to other faculty members was also leaked.
In the email written before Vanaik delivered the lecture, Dalwai was responding to another faculty member, said a teacher at the university. The faculty member had warned that the talk might “conflate Hamas and Palestinians” since it asks listeners to “keep in mind histories”. The faculty member described Hamas as a “terror group”, citing the attacks carried out by its members on October 7.
The faculty member also defended Israeli officials’ use of the words “human animals”, claiming that it was used for Hamas and not Palestinians. Scroll has seen a copy of this email.
In her reply, Dalwai urged the faculty member to attend the lecture and explained Vanaik’s position on the conflict. In the email, which was leaked on Twitter, she expressed her disappointment at India’s response to the conflict in Gaza and blamed “Indian troll armies” for creating “fake news of Hamas atrocity”.
What drew the ire of Hindutva supporters on social media is her reference to “Jai Shri Ram” slogans being chanted on campus and “right wing” students and faculty organising their “own events”.
Since then, pro-Hindutva outlets and Hindutva supporters on social media have accused her of spreading hatred against Hindus and supporting terrorism. They also demanded that the university terminate her services.
Many of them also used the videos of her lecture on dating to claim that she had violated the privacy of her students.
A student of the law department said that the linking of two episodes is what made the matter reach the media and “was blown out of proportion”.
An invasion of privacy?
The campaign against Dalwai did not remain online.
On November 7, the head of the Haryana women’s commission Renu Bhatia waded into the controversy as she visited the campus to meet “affected students” and the administration.
Bhatia told Scroll that “many girls had tagged me about this teacher on November 1 or November 2 seeking help and intervention”. She added: “I also read about it in the news. The people whose privacy was leaked during the lecture on dating connected to us.”
Bhatia said she visited the campus and met the vice-chancellor and students. Though no one had complained to her about the Vanaik lecture, she said that she also raised it with the vice-chancellor. “I asked him how can someone shame the Indian army and talk about suicide bombs inside the campus.”
The Israeli ambassador to India Naor Gilon also wrote a letter to the vice chancellor, expressing his “concern and extreme disappointment” at Vanaik’s lecture, an event which he alleged delegitimised the state of Israel. He also said he found it “hard to accept” that Dalwai sent out an email that “had named the barbaric atrocities carried out by the Hamas” as fake news.
The controversy has left the class divided, the first law department student said. “Most of us were unhappy about activity around the dating app. However, when [Dalwai] got trolled and attacked over the Palestine lecture, she found support among the students,” they noted.
Around 40 students from different classes have submitted testimonies to the Haryana Women’s commission in support of Dalwai.
Both incidents have left the academic community worried about disagreements with students being weaponised against them in media trials.
“Whatever happened at the event is absolutely unacceptable,” said a professor from IIT Bombay.
Filming lectures without the consent of teachers or organisers and putting them out in public is “unacceptable”, they said.
“Students have every right to protest and contest ideas but there has to be some method and decorum,” the professor said. “You cannot keep on shouting slogans or intimidating everyone in the class.”
The professor said that the episode needs to be seen in the larger picture of how academic freedoms are being curbed in higher education institutions.
On November 9, a group of students from the department of humanities and social sciences at IIT Bombay described the objection to the film screening and cancellation of the talk as a “curtailment of academic freedom”.
They alleged that two weeks ago, a student film collective was forced to cancel the screening of a film, Little Palestine, after the department refused to give permission.
“It is evident from looking at this chain of cancellations over the last two weeks that the word ‘Palestine’ has become a forbidden, stigmatised, and censored word,” the statement said. “Why is an institute, where students are supposed to learn about the world, treating an issue of a humanitarian crisis as if it were untouchable? Why are students being prevented from even engaging with this issue in any capacity whatsoever?”
The students also sent a letter to the head of the department of humanities and social sciences, demanding a ban on “illegal recording of classroom discussions” which they said are used to “expose the faculties and the students to media trials”.
In a statement in Saha’s support, the Faculty Forum of IIT Bombay said it “strongly condemns the calls to violence against our colleague, use of her photograph and name in hoardings, tarnishing her reputation in print, TV and social media through biased information and false claims that she supports Hamas and terrorism”.
The OP Jindal Global University authorities, IIT Bombay authorities and Dalwai did not respond to Scroll’s queries on the matter.