Ramjas College in Delhi University has a long history of violence. I know – I studied there, and witnessed at least three incidents in as many years.

Incident one: it was the summer of 1985 and I had gone to Ramjas College seeking admission to the Bachelor of Arts in History (Honours). The first list was out and I was missing the cutoff by .5%. Disappointed, I wondered if I should enrol myself elsewhere. But an elderly looking teacher, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, dissuaded me. “You want to do history, right?,” he asked. “Then don’t go anywhere else. You’ll get in in the second list. Don’t worry. I’m the teacher in charge. Come and meet me on the day the second list comes out.”

So, when the second list came out, I turned up before him. “Ah, you’re here!,” he said. ‘Come, fill up this form.” As I was going through the form, there was a commotion outside. A tall, well-built man – maybe six foot two – clad in a tracksuit, was abusing the teacher who had been so helpful to me. And that same diminutive, mild-mannered teacher was standing up to him, unafraid. I figured the man was asking the teacher to bend the rules in someone’s favour, but the teacher would have none of it.

Suddenly, the goon, fist covered with a handkerchief, smashed a window, pulled out a shard of glass, and lunged at the teacher, who tried to block him and was stabbed in the forearm. Blood gushed out of his arm. In the ensuing pandemonium, the goon fled. I was petrified. Is this where I want to spend three years? I asked myself.

The teacher came back, holding a blood-soaked cloth to his arm. “Beta,” he said. “Daro mat. Mein abhi aata hoon.” Don’t be afraid, son. I’ll be back.

That is when I said to myself: this is exactly where I want to be.

Culture of learning

The teacher was Dr Upreti and he taught as about ancient India in the first year. In his first class, he wrote that magical question on the board, “What is history?”, and introduced us to historian EH Carr. I was mesmerised. On his suggestion, I read DD Kosambi, then Romila Thapar and RS Sharma. Door after door opened in my mind. I became hungry for more.

And I got much more than I could have imagined. History at Ramjas was, in many ways, the star subject, and we had a star cast of teachers.

Sudhakar Singh taught us the history of the Far East, and I was fascinated by his telling of Japan’s Meiji Restoration and China’s Boxer Rebellion. In our second year, the aristocratic and elegant Saleem Kidwai taught us the Early Medieval India subject, bringing to life sultans, slaves and sufis.

Dilip Simeon, fire and brimstone, took us into Soviet history, and I could picture the tumult of the debates in the Petrograd Soviet, as much as the Kornstadt Rebellion. Mukul Mangalik, young and dashing, introduced the Renaissance to us in class and the Spanish Civil War outside. We were crestfallen when he left on a scholarship to Austria, to be replaced by Sanjay Sharma, who brought his earthy Allahabad charm to our study of rise of the Modern West. In our final year, Saleem again charmed us with Mughal India, introducing us to Irfan Habib. Hari Sen, crisp of voice and expression, dove headlong into the debates of Modern India; and they all divided up Social Formations and Modern Europe among themselves, French Revolution and all.

Curiously, most of my history teachers were not Marxists. They represented a healthy intellectual Catholicism. I often found myself in disagreement with them. Dilip tilted towards Trotsky, I towards Stalin. Nor did I take to the Subaltern School, which many of my teachers were enthusiastic about. But because we were encouraged to argue and debate, I ended up reading everything I could from the “other side.”

My teachers taught us to think for ourselves, to be fearless and ever curious in our intellectual quests. They taught us academic discipline, they taught us rigour and hard work, and they taught us intellectual and personal honesty and integrity. They taught us to stand up for what is just.

They represented the very best that an academic institution can offer to young, impressionable minds.

Most of them did not take attendance, but their classes were overflowing. Students from other, fancier, colleges would attend classes at Ramjas.

It was a heady few years. I was reading voraciously – going through everything that came my way. I was watching world cinema thanks to Celluloid, the film society of Delhi University’s North Campus. I was acting in plays. I was taking part in all kinds of demonstrations, morchas and demonstrations.

It was the late 1980s. Punjab was burning. Delhi had recently been through a horrific pogrom of the Sikhs, led and orchestrated by the Congress. The Bharatiya Janata Party, with help from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its front organisations, was gathering support on their claim that Ayodhya was home to Ram Janmabhoomi. Soon, the Mandal Commission came, recommending reservation for Other Backward Classes, and the university was under siege from upper caste groups. Then, in 1992, the Babri Masjid was felled and the country exploded with communal bloodletting. In less than a decade, India’s politics had transformed irrevocably. In the middle of this boiling cauldron of a time, my mentor and theatre activist Safdar Hashmi was murdered while we were performing a play for workers on the outskirts of Delhi.

Taken to task

My second year brought the second violent incident. One day, we heard shouting outside our classroom I could make out Dilip Simeon’s distinctive voice. We rushed out, thinking Dilip, who taught at Ramjas then, may be in danger. After all, in the early 1980s, a year or two before I joined college, Dilip had been the target of a near-fatal attack, instigated, it was said, by the then principal. The historian, attacked while riding to college, escaped with his life only because he had clutched on to his helmet, which protected his head. All this was part of college lore and Dilip was something of a hero for us.

This time though, it was the goon – again a hulk in a tracksuit – who was getting it from Dilip and was being dragged by the ear through the college corridor. Turned out he had tried to disrupt a BA Pass class that Dilip taught with as much passion, perhaps more, as the Honours class he took, which was quite unheard of in those days.

In the years after the attack on Dilip, Ramjas had seen the rise of an amazing Goodagardi Virodhi Abhiyaan, or anti-hooliganism campaign, in which teachers and students had come together to restore an academic ambiance in the college. There was an incredibly democratic culture, especially in history, where we had regular student-faculty meetings to discuss academic and other issues. Most teachers encouraged us to address them by their first names and were happy to spend time outside classes with us. It was thrilling and liberating.

Setting straight

Incident three: I was in final year. Consumed by my main subjects, I had not appeared for my subsidiary papers, which was not very smart of me. So here I was, one summer afternoon, writing a subsidiary exam, closeted in a room with commerce students, when I saw a massive man – again in a tracksuit – in the row next to mine, with an open book in his lap, brazenly copying from it.

The invigilator was a young teacher, probably an ad hoc appointee. That year, one of our history teachers, Mr Sachdeva, was the chief invigilator. The hapless ad hoc appointee somehow sent a message to him. In waddled Sachdeva, who was short and of substantial girth. He marched up to the cheater and nonchalantly flung his book out of the window. The goon retaliated by getting up, slowly and deliberately, fishing a knife out of his pocket and plunging it into the desk.

There was pin-drop silence. I was terrified. Sachdeva looked down at the knife, then up at the goon, phlegmatic as ever. Ever so calmly, he handed the knife back to the goon with a line that could’ve been from a Salim-Javed movie: “Bete, yeh chaku hai. Haat kat sakta hai. Dhyan se.” This is a knife, son. You can cut yourself. Be careful.

The goon was stunned.

Before he could react, Sachdeva planted a tight slap on his face. The goon was aghast. Another slap. And then Sachdeva turned to the history students and said: “Dekh kya rahe ho? Meri madad karo!” (What are you staring at? Help me.)

A group of us descended on the goon and wrestled him to the ground. Crying and apologising, he was led out of the class by Sachdeva and straight to the principal’s office.

The struggle goes on

During my time at Ramjas, women were scared of joining the college because of its reputation of being rowdy. Today, Ramjas has some of the brightest women students in the University. It even has a girls’ hostel, which would have been unimaginable in my time. This was made possible in no small measure by of the role played by women teachers, especially in the English Department.

One of them is Vinita Chandra. I was not taught by her, but have followed her work for over more than two decades. Vinita, along with other colleagues in her department brings to the class the same values of intellectual curiosity and fearlessness that I learnt in history.

It is hardly surprising, then, that it was the students and teachers of the English Department that had organised the two-day seminar on the culture of protest, which was attacked by goons from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad after they cancelled a talk by Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid.

I was one of the speakers listed for the second day of the event, on Wednesday. That session never took place, because the ABVP hooligans ensured the seminar was called off and the campus placed under siege.

It is also of a piece that Mukul and Vinita, two of the most inspirational teachers on campus, are today the target of a vicious campaign of slander, lies and abuse by online and offline thugs. While one fears for their physical and professional wellbeing and that of their colleagues, there is also great admiration for the students who gathered in large numbers, and entirely peacefully, to send a message that they will not allow the democratic and progressive traditions of the campus to be subverted.

Young people know what is at stake. Because they’ve gained the most from it. Ramjas has defeated fear once. And these young people, will fight, peacefully, for freedom – azadi – from fear and intimidation, yet again.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, and an editor with LeftWord Books.