“Birthday wishes Hany Sir. It pains me to write a birthday wish this way. I hope you are safe there. I hope you come out of this, back to your family and friends, back to the University, soon,” a student of Delhi University wrote in a letter to professor MT Hany Babu on his birthday on August 16.

Babu, 54, a professor of language and linguistics at the Department of English at the university, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on July 28 in the Bhima Koregaon case. As he spent his birthday in police custody, over 250 students sent him heartfelt letters of support.

“Sir, I was in M.A. English, 2013-15 batch in South Campus and back then you were the first person I encountered at the receipt submission process. I remember how nervous I was, in talking to you because I could not speak fluent English,” wrote a former student Neha. She recounted how his lectures on linguistics helped her overcome her embarrassment.

Another former student, now a guest lecturer herself, recalled how Babu’s “mere presence humanised the technomediated process” that students were subjected to at the time of admissions. “To this day, I prize some of your anecdotes, one of them being the commonality between Hindi and Urdu,” she wrote. “I make it a point to weave this in my own lectures on language.”

The letters were written for the jailed professor after a call was put out by a collective called “Students in Solidarity with Hany Babu”. The collective was formed after Babu’s house was raided by the National Investigation Agency in September 2019 in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case.

The case started an investigation into caste violence that took place in a village near Pune in January 2018 but soon gave way to sweeping allegations of a Maoist conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister. The police have arrested 11 academics, activists and lawyers in the case under the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. This includes civil rights lawyers Sudha Bharadwaj and Surendra Gadling, academics Shoma Sen and Anand Teltumbde, writers and activists Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut.

Babu’s arrest is the latest in this series.

Students, academics and activists say it is part of a larger trend of the government misuing the law to criminalise and silence intellectuals in India. An anti-caste activist, Babu is also a member of the committee formed to defend GN Saibaba, a former Delhi University professor who is currently serving a life term in Nagpur for allegations of links to the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

On August 16, students from Delhi University staged a demonstration against Babu’s arrest, but six of them were detained for defying prohibitory orders.

An approachable professor

While street protests are easy to shut down, the authorities might find it harder to stop the outpouring of support for Babu, who, by all accounts, appears to be much loved and respected by students.

In over 250 letters collected, both former and current students have recounted instances of how Babu made the university a more welcoming space for them, especially if they came from other parts of the country.

“It is intimidating for students from various linguistic groups to come to a place like DU,” said a final-year MA student, who came to Delhi from Kerala. “DU is an elite university and we do not know how to interact with most professors at ease,” he said.

But that was not the case when it came to interacting with Babu. “Hany sir is very approachable,” the student said. “The university will become an unwelcoming space if it does not have someone like him.”

A final-year MA student at Delhi University said Babu was so committed to his work as a teacher, “he came to class the next day after his house was raided [in 2019].” The student is one of the organisers of the letter campaign and did not want to be identified since he feared retribution by the authorities.

The aim of the campaign was to raise awareness about Babu’s work as well as gather solidarity.

“We are going to run this campaign for as long as it takes,” he said.

Credit: Students in Solidarity with Hany Babu

Language and identity

But it wasn’t only his warmth and generosity that attracted students. Many said the professor’s work helped them shape their understanding of linguistic plurality in India.

“He was the perfect mentor,” said Jyotirmoy Talukdar, a former student, who is currently a senior writing fellow at Ashoka University. Talukdar, 29, came to the university from Assam to pursue a masters in literature in English.

His mother tongue is Kamrupi, a regional dialect that is a variant of Assamese, spoken in the western region of the state. “Society looks at it as an inferior language [compared to standard Assamese],” Talukdar said. “It is like being mocked for speaking a different dialect of Hindi.”

But Babu’s lectures on socio-linguistics helped Talukdar understand the politics of language. He completed his MPhil in 2016 under the supervision of Babu where he explored the standardisation of Assamese. In linguistics, standardisation is a process when one form of a language is maintained as the standard, as opposed to multiple dialects.

“I felt empowered to write about my own identity when he introduced us to various terms and vocabularies,” said Takuldar.

Another student said that Babu’s teachings made her question the position of caste and religion in language. “His classes demanded you to engage with them,” said Adarsh, a final-year MA student at the university. The classes made Adarsh interested in looking at languages such as Jaipuri, Marwari and Ahiri that are spoken in parts of Rajasthan, the state from which her parents hail, she said.

These students also engaged with Babu’s writings. In June 2017, the Economic and Political Weekly published an article by the professor titled “Breaking the chaturvarna system of languages: The need to overhaul the language policy”, in which he wrote about how the Constitution failed to uphold linguistic plurality, and that Sanskrit, Hindi, scheduled and non-scheduled languages occupied the chaturvarna, or the four-tiered hierarchy, whereas a language like English, brought into the country through colonisation, had “emancipatory potential”.

A student said that his work made them confront realities they were unaware of. “He made us confront the truth of language in a very warm way,” said a 23-year-old MA student who did not wish to be identified.

Credit: Students in Solidarity with Hany Babu

‘Taking away debate’

Babu was one of the few professors who would actively take part in larger social movements, said Ibrahim Badshah, a Phd student under the professor’s supervision at Delhi University.

“During the anti-CAA protests, not a single professor was active, but he was present,” said Badshah, 26, referring to the protests against the amended citizenship law that introduced a religious test for the first time which critics said was discriminatory towards Muslims.

“Even if we organised a protest with 50 people, Hany sir would be there,” he said.

For Badshah, the professor’s participation in protests reminded him of a photograph clicked in 2000 showing American-Palestinian professor and writer Edward Said poised to throw a stone at an Israeli guardhouse at the end of Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Said called it a “symbolic gesture of joy”.

“I see Hany sir whenever I see that picture,” Badshah said. “You are not supposed to sit in your ivory tower and write. You have to have commitments and this is the kind of academician we want.”

The arrest of Babu came as a shock to these students who said that his absence would be felt in the classroom.

“It feels personal, sad, unsettling and destabilising,” said Talukdar. “Taking away such teachers means you are taking away debate from the classroom. These classrooms were multilingual and that was celebrated. These things are extremely important to make students more aware.”

Some said that Babu’s arrest was a threat to the space needed by students to freely express themselves. “When you are an academic, you need the space to question,” Adarsh said. “That space is shrinking.”