The idea behind organising almost every event in college is to generate awareness, raise questions and broaden one’s knowledge base. Most of the times, this idea comes out as a street play, a poetry competition, a creative writing workshop, or as seminars and conferences. One of the main aims of such events is for students to interact with like-minded individuals and develop further on their ideas and opinions. A bigger aim is to interact with people who may hold beliefs diametrically opposite to their own and learn to coexist with them while peacefully attempting to reduce existing differences. Evidently, the second half of that sentence is being blatantly ignored at the minute.
In the month of February this year, in an event organised by Ramjas College’s English Department, Umar Khalid was invited to speak. Since the members of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) had branded him a “deshdrohi” (anti-national), they ‘tackled’ the ‘problem’ by inciting violence and unrest for two days in North Campus. Vandalising college property, giving rape and death threats, and using violence to intimidate organisers and other participants were some of the ways by which the ABVP considered their political duty to be fulfilled. To a majority, it would look like things turned back to normal after a week of tension. However, if one looks closely, the ABVP has succeeded in instilling fear in not just Delhi University, but in campuses across India.
I say this because days after this incident, citing “objectionable and anti-national elements” as reasons for wanting to call off SGBT Khalsa College’s annual street play event, ABVP-led Delhi University Students’ Union successfully silenced the students of the University. The event was postponed for a month. Venkateshwara College, too, banned all seminars for the month of March. Delhi School of Economics restricted student gatherings within its campus. Delhi College of Arts and Commerce (DCAC) pulled out support for the publication of its student newspaper.
This fear isn’t exclusive to Delhi University; it has reached other Universities as well. Ambedkar University postponed their event that was to observe the anniversary of the alleged mass sexual violence unleashed by the army against the villagers of Kunan and Poshpora in Kashmir. Panjab University refused Students For Society (SFS) to organise their seminar on ‘Rising Head of Fascism’ where journalist-turned-activist, Seema Azad, was scheduled to speak. The conditions of hosting the event were similar to what had taken place in Ramjas earlier – exclusion of the ‘controversial’ speaker. Students for Society President Damanpreet Singh was taken into preventive custody to ‘maintain law and order’ on the campus.
All these incidents not only expose unchecked violence and power but also shows the growing need to fight against sources of power that have been threatening students’ right to question and dissent. Silencing through intimidation can only go so far – sooner or later, people will always find ways to express their thoughts. As in the case of Panjab University – students not only managed to conduct the event but also sneaked in Seema Azad in the University and she spoke to the students peacefully.
However, it’s both shocking and infuriating to see that the authorities cannot ensure the physical safety of students not involved in hooliganism. In February too, students in Ramjas were not protected by the police, even though the police’s strength was sufficient to ensure the former’s safety. In a nation that claims to be inclusive, repression of certain kinds of opinion operates against the doctrines that it preaches. While politically active students have found opportunities to give voice to their thoughts, it is those who might not be associated with any party but are politically conscious nonetheless that suffered the most. Unable to have their voices heard without getting categorised into supporters of right-wing or left-wing politics, these students have been barred from engaging in academic debates and discussions.
By preventing ‘controversial’ events from taking place, institutions seem to be opting for a convenient escape from controversy. Instead of encouraging a healthy exchange of ideas and opinions, colleges and universities are stripping away the opportunities through which students get to voice their concerns, reservations, and doubts. Educational institutions are spaces that should ideally be free from restrictions and not dictate terms of “politically acceptable” behaviour. Regulating actions and thoughts in such a manner will only impede students’ progress as it will harbour fear in their minds since their university’s stance itself stems from fear.
In TISS Mumbai, the University’s Director appealed to students to not involve themselves in the ongoing Ramjas confrontation as he believed that, “TISS cannot afford to get dragged into problems. DU and JNU are very powerful institutions, and they can afford to engage in matters of the kind that are happening there. TISS is a simple institution that is working very hard to stay afloat – do not get it trapped into difficulties.” Institutions must allow students an unbridled space to speak and condemn hooliganism and violence instead.
One thing that becomes obvious from the chain of events that followed the Ramjas unrest is that it is never too late to collaborate with like-minded people and work towards creating a better version of the present time. Students have refused to bow down and continue to protest against such acts in one way or the other. People have taken to writing articles, poetry, and making videos to express their solidarity, shock, and anger; to defiantly demand a space that allows all voices to be heard.