Being a final year graduation student changes a lot of things. Everything happens for the last few times. Some students represent the college for various events and competitions for the last time; others help in organising them for the last time. As for me, the seminar titled ‘Cultures of Protest’, that was organised by the English Department and Wordcraft, the college’s literary society was going to be my last one. Just as I had hoped, this one turned out to be a memorable one as well.
The only difference was that there was utter chaos, disruption, mindless interference and violence caused by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) supporters on the first day of the seminar itself. What started as a refusal to have Umar Khalid as a panel member by college authorities a week before the seminar, ended with students and professors getting injured, stones being pelted at those who were a part of it and destruction of college property.
The day started off smoothly, with the first event being an engaging discussion on ‘Bodies in Protest: At the interstices of Gender/Sexuality’. What ensued soon after, began with an ABVP sympathiser ripping off seminar posters. On confronting him, we got ABVP’s usual rhetoric- who gave you the right to invite so-and-so to your event (in this case, the person in question being Umar Khalid).
So, what does the ABVP have against Khalid? What makes them so queasy regarding one single individual, that they tear up posters, threaten professors, challenge the Principal and think they can get away with it? Khalid was invited to discuss his paper on ‘War in Adivasi Areas’ in the session titled ‘Unveiling the State: Regions in Conflict’.
There is a clear-cut distinction between campus politics that he had been a part of last year in JNU and the topic in question. There was no possibility of a speaker inciting a violent reaction or ‘unethical’ discussion from the audience through ‘unacceptable’ and ‘anti-national’ statements.
Even if there would have been some ‘unwarranted’ comments, shouldn’t we, as thinking beings, be allowed space to peacefully talk about issues that are affecting students and academics throughout the country? How is this student-led political crackdown different from the one we all witnessed at the Jawaharlal Nehru University last year? Do we keep moving ten step backwards, with no room left for moving forward?
While taking this issue to social media, I was advised against posting something too explicit. While it is understandable to not do something that would bring the wrong people under scrutiny, it has become essential to talk about those who did not think twice before throwing stones through windows, breaking glasses, and putting a hundred lives in danger.
The ABVP’s response to what was entirely an academic meet began with them sloganeering inside the college campus. A confrontation with those who were active participants in the seminar resulted in a stream of slurs, threats and accusations. In retaliation to an unnecessary blockage of a well-organised schedule, many of us finally took to the college grounds as well, with an attempt to emphasise on why students now have to fight for having diverse opinions, freedom of space and speech and the freedom to directly oppose the state machinery. However, this only worsened the clash with people I can only define as uncouth and violent.
However, their ‘protest’ did not end with us attempting to resume the seminar – without Khalid as a participant. Some got locked inside the conference room by police officers, on the pretext of it being done to ensure ‘our safety’. With hundreds of ABVP supporters threatening to physically harm those who were locked outside, we did not feel safe at all. After all, for us, concerns about safety did not end at our toes, quite unlike the other party, which clearly did not care about their own safety or that of their friends’.
Funnily enough, the police were attempting to stop us from harming anybody (even though we weren’t the ones getting physically violent) instead of ensuring that our unwanted guests left the venue at the earliest.
Two professors, both part of the English Department, while expressing their shock at the intensity of hostility, mentioned that a violent clash such as this had never taken place before in the entire span of their teaching experience in college. What hits the hardest, therefore, is the lack of support we got from within the college fraternity itself. We overheard some professors talk about how we all deserved the political backlash we received. How we should have seen this coming.
Yes, we saw this coming, but what they fail to understand is that if we bow down to threats and violence as well, they too will face challenges they won’t be able to ignore. We will all be left with authoritarian diktats governing our behaviour because once this disease of intolerance spreads, it will spare no one. Not even those who support what ABVP did today.
Eventually, it all ended with only a tiny section of people who had shown interest in the seminar, coming in to attend what was left of it. This too had to be stopped midway as people from the ABVP couldn’t stop themselves from throwing bricks at the conference room. False claims were being made that we were the ones who started the brick-throwing, even though we were more concerned about listening to the panellists speak than looking for new weapons to attack them.
Ultimately we had to be evacuated under police guidance, while the other group was being ‘contained’ to let us exit without getting hurt. Personally, the image of having to walk out with our lips shut tightly, while abuses, slogans, and threats were being hurled in our direction by others, will remain etched in my memory forever.
I will never forget our professors being manhandled. Even though this is a common occurrence in any academic-political clash, it is not something one can ever come to terms with. Mindlessly attacking academics, who fight for us, fight with us and invest so much energy and passion into ensuring every student rises above falsehood is a new low people like ABVP supporters seem to have achieved.
Needless to say, ABVP goons are not the type to pick up a pen and argue their thoughts and problems out. They are not the type to engage in serious discussions. They know only the language of violence, disruption and disharmony.
We, as part of the community who form opinions after understanding all perspectives of a situation; who attempt to carefully formulate perceptions after researching on a subject properly – why must we be locked up, beaten up, threatened and ultimately, silenced? When will we, the ones who form a more thoughtful, compassionate, understanding and intellectually sound community, become a majority? When?
Nonetheless, in the midst of mayhem, we got to celebrate bravery, companionship, and academia together. We built an environment where we did not surrender to violence. As said by a final year literature student, “To the woman who looked me in the eye and said, ‘Yeh ladkiyan aaj yahan se kapdo mein nahi jayengi’, you can pull my clothes, tear them apart, and hit me with whatever you find, but if you think that would quieten us down, then think again.”
Even as the event got disrupted beyond repair, I got the opportunity to build better memories with like-minded people. I got an opportunity to work more closely with my professors and peers. It is with a lot of pride that I say that a portion of Ramjas made me happy yesterday.