Free speech battles come in all shapes and sizes on Indian college campuses these days. At Delhi's Ambedkar University this past week, the fight played itself out on campus walls.

The college administration's alleged decision to take down graffiti about Kashmir and Bastar prompted students to respond with reams of other messages on the walls.

On August 19, stencil graffiti – one picturing a man and a woman along with the words “Kashmir Ki Azadi” while another with the words “Stop war on adivasis, Stand with Bastar” – appeared on some of the buildings on campus.

The next day, they were gone.

Instead, the administration put up a board listing out the text of the Delhi Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, 2007, the students said.

There was already a buzz among students that the administration had decided to selectively paint over those bits of graffiti because of their overtly political messages.

Then, an email started circulating around campus in which a student said she had been prevented from painting, as guards pointed to the board with the Act on it. The board had "never existed" until August 19, the email claimed.

“What about the graffiti and the paintings already done on its walls for years?” the email added. "That's not defacement because they do not go against the Indian State's propaganda."

Political environment

Students were incensed at what they believed was censorship by the administration, and the university's recently formed student council – comprising 28 members, representing each branch and year of the courses – attempted to have an open conversation.

The students were divided between those calling for an immediate response and those who suggested holding a meeting with the administration to get clarity on the issue.

“They are afraid that a political environment will emerge here," said Anup Bali, a PhD student at the university. "But it has happened already. They have always tried to remove [graffiti] and this time in protest many students painted in different [ways]. It means you can’t suppress freedom of expression.”

Others had different opinions. “In Ambedkar University no one – whether faculty, students, union members, student council – supports violence," said Hamd Irfan, a BA History student at the university and a member of the student’s council, referring to the Bastar graffiti. "What was written about Kashmir too got a lot of media attention. So the university, in a good way, thought of removing" the graffiti.

That said, Irfan acknowledged that there wasn't a clear response on why those pieces of graffiti were scraped off. “I asked them how they can do this when we have a tradition [of making graffiti] and people have always been making it. I didn’t get an answer," he said.

Right to speech

Following multiple discussions students met with officials of the administration. A member of the student council, who asked not to be named, said that some students had gone to the Estate department to talk about the removal. The administration said "that the graffiti was removed because outsiders had come and painted it. They also said graffiti is made so that tomorrow it can be removed and new graffiti can be made.”

On its part the administration refuted that the removal was a deliberate attempt to muzzle freedom of expression on campus. "There is graffiti all the time and there was more graffiti over the weekend," said Professor Sanjay Sharma, Dean Students Service. “Some were not liked by many other students. But its still going on. Off and on we do remove graffiti. Sometimes somebody writes something abusive or deeply offensive, but generally students have full freedom of expression.”

As for the board that suddenly turned up, Sharma claimed it had to do with the heritage buildings on campus, which includes a Dara Shikoh Library. “Someone at the lower level felt that too much defacement was happening, of public property...That is why we advise students that there are some pretty old structures from the 19th century. So [the board] was put up but some students felt it was done deliberately to stop them from doing graffiti. We promptly removed it on Monday.”

Once the board was down, students began painting on campus walls again, with some seeing it as an opportunity to assert their free speech rights.

Sections of walls are now covered with slogans, sketches, and the names of Kashmiri civilians who died after sustaining injuries during violent protests or were killed in firing by security forces. The writing on the walls include questions about Kashmir’s azadi, undemocratic laws, and cultural statements.

The students found support from the university faculty. Students said that the faculty members were not approached by students to mediate but could sense the brewing resentment among the students.

Associate Professor Rukmini Sen, in the School of Liberal Studies was supportive of the students right to free speech and expression. “As a faculty member, I definitely believe in continuous dialogue with students and all sections of the University on any political or socially contested issue where disagreement and dissent among individuals can responsibly co-exist," she said. "That is what the University space encourages – critical thinking and self-reflexivity.”

She added that the university's faculty association, in an extended Executive Council meeting, was critical of the unilateral administrative measures that were taken to handle the graffiti incident since it went against the university's "democratic culture".

“Universities are one place in all of the world that have fought against the powers that be, but in India university space has continuously been limited," Bali said. "During the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) issue the organisations had even said what slogans should be raised and what shouldn’t be. Our goal is that freedom of expression should be absolute."