When news emerged this week that RG Pardeshi, principal of Fergusson College in Pune had written to the police asking them to arrest students on charges of sedition, it seemed as if the college was set to tumble down the same rabbit holes other educational institutions have had to confront in the last year.
Yet within 16 hours, Pardeshi claimed that he had made a typo in his letter and only wanted the police to investigate whether there had been anti-national activities and then withdrew his letter altogether.
Fergusson College is no hotbed of anarchist Leftist thought as postgraduate institutes like Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Hyderabad are perceived to be. The mostly undergraduate college is run by the Deccan Education Society, several of whose board members are affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Narendra Modi set off his campaign trail from the college in 2014. The strongest student group on campus is the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
On Tuesday, a group of Ambedkarite students challenged the ABVP for having invited Alok Singh from their JNU wing to speak without having taken formal permission from the college. After sloganeering and police intervention, the event was called off.
“This is the first time in the history of Fergusson College that ABVP was challenged on campus,” said Sujat Ambedkar, a student involved in the protest and named in the initial FIR. “Other parties have offered us their support, but we are staying aloof of them.”
Yet various political outfits, from the Nationalist Congress Party and their closely linked Maratha group, the Sambhaji Brigade, to minor Hindutva outfits such as the Patit Pavan Sanghatna, have now inserted themselves into the protest and transformed a student scuffle into a wider political debate.
The controversy at Fergusson College can be said to have begun with the strike called by students at the Film and Television Institute of India last year to protest against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute.
Six months ago, Punekars, with the help of a few Fergusson College students, invited protestors from FTII to speak at the institute informally. The venue advertised on the posters was the Kimaya amphitheatre, an open space where students of the college meet. The ABVP prevented that programme from happening, saying that the administration had not taken permission for it.
When students asked the principal RG Pardeshi for permission to hold that talk just among those enrolled in the college, the principal is alleged to have denied it, saying the college was not a space for politics.
That incident evidently rankled.
On Tuesday, when the ABVP invited Alok Singh, president of their wing in Jawaharlal Nehru University to speak at the same Kimaya amphitheatre on the “Truth of JNU” and what they say has been a smear campaign against them, students opposing them had come prepared with questions.
“A couple of friends and I had decided we would talk about Hyderabad University,” said Ambedkar. “But then we found they had no permission to hold a talk on such a political topic. Kanhaiya Kumar was charged with sedition and that is no light thing.”
Some slogan-calling followed, said a faculty member present at the event who asked not to be identified.
“The ABVP students started demanding that those opposing them should chant ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ and got confused when the Ambedkarites immediately did so,” the faculty member said. “But the matter seemed to be getting out of hand, so I called the department.”
The department in turn informed the principal who called the local police station. The police arrived at 12.15, detained the Ambedkarite students, including Ambedkar, and instructed the ABVP to call off their programme.
The matter could have ended there, if politicians had not chosen to enter the fray. At five that evening, members of the Patit Pavan Sangathana, a Pune-based Hindutva organisation, came to the principal’s office and demanded that he file a case against the students for allegedly chanting anti-national slogans and to rusticate them.
Late on Tuesday night, the principal wrote a letter to the Deccan police station, saying that these students should be arrested for sedition. He later withdrew this letter.
On Wednesday, matters intensified as Jitendra Awhad of the Nationalist Congress Party thundered against the crackdown on students in the morning session of the Vidhan Sabha in Mumbai, then left for Fergusson College soon after.
“We said that we don’t support the NCP and don’t want political parties to come between an internal matter of students,” Ambedkar said. “But Awhad said that he was coming to talk to us as a leader who had emerged from the progressive students movement, not from the NCP.”
At the same time as Awhad, representatives of the Dalit Panthers, the Republican Party of India (headed by Ambedkar’s father and Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash), the Sambhaji Brigade and Bharatiya Janata Party Yuva Morcha had all also gathered in and around the college.
When he arrived at around 4.30 pm, Awhad had only around ten people with him – which made him a soft target for the BJP Yuva Morcha, also comprised of people not from Fergusson College, who began to pelt his car with stones. The police lathi charged them, fired into the air and dispersed them.
“There were six different organisations, three police vans and six media groups all present there,” said the faculty member. “But the media immediately focussed on Awhad. That was when it went out of proportion.”
The police has filed an FIR against 200 unnamed people for disturbing the peace. These cases are mostly against political workers.
“None of the people fighting in the videos after that initial incident were our students,” the professor said. “They were all 30 to 35 years old. The age group at this college is 20-23.”
Added to the confusion was the Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha group that stands in stiff opposition to the Brahminical RSS. The brigade’s college wing went to the college to support the Ambedkarite students.
“The Constitution of India says that any dispute must be resolved through discussion,” said Vikas Pasalkar, a senior member of the Brigade. “ABVP should understand that there are two sides to every story.”
The Sambhaji Brigade shot into the limelight in 2004 for its attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for having allowed author James Laine to use its facilities while researching for the now banned book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.
“This is all politics by the BJP and RSS,” Pasalkar said. “They had a majority in the Vidhan Sabha and still they did not suspend Waris Pathan for not saying Bharat Mata ki jai for three years. They just want to polarise and split Muslims away from the Congress and get more votes for themselves. It is the same thing here.”